Much of the negative criticism that Rudyard Kipling's fiction has received is precisely the same kind of criticism that has often been lodged against the short story form in general--for example, that it focuses only on episodes, that it is too concerned with technique, that it is too dependent on tricks, and that it often lacks a moral force.
Henry James noted that the young Kipling realized very early the uniqueness of the short story, seeing what chances the form offered for "touching life in a thousand different places, taking it up in innumerable pieces, each a specimen and an illustration. In a word, he appreciates the episode" (l8). However, it is just this appreciation for the episode, according to Edmund Wilson, that prevented Kipling from becoming a great novelist: "You can make an effective short story, as Kipling so often does, about somebody's scoring off somebody else; but this is not enough for a great novelist, who must show us large social forces, or uncontrollable lines of destiny, or antagonistic impulses of the human spirit, struggling with one another."
Moreover, it is not simply because Kipling could not "graduate," as it were, to the novel that critics have found fault with him. Frank O'Connor confesses his embarrassment in discussing Kipling's stories in comparison with storytellers like Chekhov and Maupassant, for he feels that Kipling has too much consciousness of the individual reader as an audience who must be affected. C. S. Lewis also recoiled from Kipling for similar reasons. Complaining about what he calls the excess of Kipling's art, he cites how constantly shortened and honed his stories by blotting out passages with Indian ink. Ultimately, says Lewis, the story is often shortened too much and as a result "the style tends to be too continuously and obtrusively brilliant" with no "leisureliness."
This criticism is similar to Edmund Wilson's, for it suggests displeasure with Kipling's stories because they do not follow the same assumptions as the novel. Lionel Trilling notes that the words "craft" and "craftily" are Kipling's favorites, and Wilson says that it is the paradox of his career that he "should have extended the conquests of his craftsmanship in proportion to the shrinking of the range of his dramatic imagination. As his responses to human beings became duller, his sensitivity to his medium increased."
Such remarks indicate a failure to make generic distinctions between the nature of the novel and the nature of the short story; they either ignore or fail to take seriously Stevenson's realization that the tale form does not focus on character, but rather on fable, on the meaning of an episode in an ideal form. Bonamy Dobree has noted this fabular aspect of Kipling's stories, suggesting that as Kipling's mastery of the short story form increased, he became more and more inclined to introduce an element of fable. "Great realist as he was, it is impossible to see what he was really saying unless the fabular element is at least glimpsed." However, the fabular element, so common to the short story form, often is criticized as being limiting in Kipling, as indeed over the years it has been a central cause of criticism of short fiction generally. For example, W. W. Robson has suggested that Kipling's desire to have complete possible control of his form and medium, while it can lead to impressive achievements in fantasy and fable, "can also lead to a simplification and distortion of human character" (260).
Such a judgment assumes that human character in fiction is constituted solely of conduct, that character is created and revealed by the actions of man in time and space, in the real world. And indeed, such an assumption is typical of the expectations we have about character in the novel form. However, such need not be an assumption of character in the short story. As Isak Dinesen has suggested in "The First Cardinal's Tale," the tale or short story form is one that focuses on an idealization-- not man and woman seen as they are in the everyday world, but rather transformed by the role they play in the story itself. In the short story, it is the fable that is the focus; the characters exist for the sake of the story rather than the story existing for the sake of the characters.
I do not claim that Kipling's stories are not highly crafted, that they do not involve unrealistic character, that they do not depend on tricks. For in many ways, they must stand guilty of such charges. What I do wish to suggest is that such charges are not necessarily damaging, for they indicate that Kipling was perhaps the first English writer to embrace the characteristics of the short story form whole-heartedly, and that thus his stories are perfect representations of the transition point between the old-fashioned tale of the nineteenth century and the modern short story--a transition, however, which Joseph Conrad, because of the profundity of his vision, perhaps was better able to make than Kipling
.Kipling's most famous story, "The Gardener," depends on concealment of an inner life for its effect, and a split between external reality and a tenuous inner reality. Both Edmund Wilson and Frank O'Connor call "The Gardner" Kipling's best story, even a masterpiece, but, as so often the case with Kipling criticism, they do so with reservations. Edmund Wilson believes that the story is not of the highest quality because of the fairy tale properties of the ending. O'Connor also has serious reservations about the conclusion of the story when Helen goes to the cemetery to visit the grave of her illegitimate son and meets a man she supposes to be the gardener, thus echoing the mistake of Mary Magdalene when she goes to the tomb and meets Jesus.
The impact of the conclusion of the tale depends, of course, on the fact that Kipling has concealed the truth about the boy being Helen's son throughout the story. O'Connor accepts the argument that such a concealment might be justified by the fact that Helen herself has concealed this knowledge from the village, but still he does not believe that this rescues the story. O'Connor says that had he written the story he would have revealed the illegitimacy at the beginning. The result would be to remove the story from the world of celestial gardeners and place it in the real world, thus indicating throughout that the story is one of Helen's heroism in bringing the child home in the first place (l0l-l03).
Eliot Gilbert has tackled these objections to the story directly and has suggested that Kipling is not guilty of trickery here, but instead has concealed the facts of Helen's case as an essential echo of the theme of concealment which prepares the reader to experience the same shock that Helen does at the end. He argues that the supernatural ending "represents the final intensification of the author's vision, too compressed and cryptic to find expression within the realistic framework of the rest of the tale." However, as excellent as Gilbert's discussion is in rescuing the story, it still would not dismiss O'Connor's misgivings, nor does it clearly explain why Kipling's vision requires the so-called supernatural conclusion.
The basic technique of the story depends on a gap between details that are "public property," that is, details which the village is aware of and which in turn the reader knows, and unwritten details which are private property, known only to Helen herself. What is public is a lie and what is private is the truth; furthermore, what is ugly in the public eye is revealed as beautiful in the eye of the reader at the conclusion. The basic question is: what makes the truth beautiful at the end? Even at the end, Helen does not accept the young man as her son, still referring to him as her nephew, thus continuing the protective lie she has perpetuated throughout the story. The irony, however, lies in the fact that Helen's heroism depends precisely on this concealment, for it is obviously done not for her own sake, but for her child's.
Earlier in the story, when the boy wants to call Helen "Mummy," and she allows him to do so as their secret only at bedtime, she reveals the secret to her friends, telling the boy that it's always best to tell the truth. His reply--"when the troof's ugly I don't think it's nice"--constitutes a revealing irony in the story about the nature of truth and its relationship to beauty. What the boy calls "ugly" is the truth Helen tells that the boy calls her "Mummy" even though she is not his mother. The truth that she is his mother is however the beautiful truth that cannot be revealed within the profane realm of everyday society, for that truth would indeed be ugly from that profane point of view.
The death of the boy and his mysterious spontaneous burial under the shelled foundation of a barn marks the psychic death of Helen also, for in her double life, she truly has lived, like Mary Postgate, only for her son. The resurrection of his body marks a parallel resurrection for her as she makes her trip to visit the grave. Mrs. Scarsworth is, as other critics have well noted, an embodiment of Helen's split self and thus echoes her previous position. Mrs. Scarsworth tells Helen that she is tired of lying. "When I don't tell lies I've got to act 'em and I've got to think 'em always. You don't know what that means." Helen of course knows precisely what that means, but even though she is the one most able to directly sympathize with Mrs. Scarsworth, still she cannot tell the truth, for that truth is ugly within the profane world.
However, what is ugly to the profane world is finally revealed as beautiful within the realm of the sacred. Helen, who is both Mary Magadelene, the fallen, and Mary the mother of Christ, goes to find the grave of her son and savior and is directed to it by the ultimate embodiment of the sacred. It seems inevitable, in a story which deals with a double life-- the life of public property and the life of private emotion--that the ultimate incarnation of spirit within body in Western culture should be the means by which the secret of spirit is revealed to the reader. The secret revealed at the end of the story is the same as the one revealed when Mary comes to look for the body of Christ--that is, that he is not here, but has arisen--that is, that he is not body but spirit. The true reality of the story is the reality of the sacred and always hidden world, which is sacred precisely because of its hidden nature.
As is usually the case in short fiction, it is the world of spirit, the world of the sacred that constitutes the truth, and that truth, regardless of what it appears to be within the profane framework, is always beautiful. It is not so much that Kipling plays a supernatural trick at the end of the story, but rather that he needs an ultimate embodiment of spirit within body to communicate the ironic reversal of the apparent lie being the most profound truth. The not-told of the short story is more important than what is told, for what cannot be told directly always constitutes the ideal nature of story itself.