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Throughout Kipling’s Kim, the protagonist, Kim, moves between the white and nonwhite worlds in India with the ease and skill of a chameleon. His unique ability to ignore caste divisions and experience true freedom of motion allows Kipling to render a vision of India unconstrained by typical limits of perspective. The motif of Kim’s white blood further provides a unifying theme for the portrayal of India’s struggle between British Imperialism and national pride.
Kipling’s main goal in Kim is to show a nostalgic picture of India with a savory attention to minute details of its rich tapestry of cultures to readers in Europe. With sweeping views of the country from southern cities to northern mountains, Kim’s adventures explore the totality of the empire in a manner reminiscent of Odysseus. This clearly male novel focuses on men, leaving women in the margins because of their limited vision and inability to inhabit all worlds like Kim. “Seeing all India spread out to left and right?[and feeling] these things, though [Kim] could not give tongue to his feelings” is the objective of the novel (Kipling 77). Kipling wants the reader to be so enthralled with India and so familiar with his love for the land that he can share the taste of Kim’s sugar-cane and the Lama’s snuff (77). This scene on the Grand Trunk Road typifies the sweeping view of India Kipling is attempting to render. Yet, the novel’s focus is not exclusively on a distant bird’s eye view of India from above, where it can be seen spreading out from a distance, but an intimate safari into places Englishmen cannot enter without the help of Kim, who can befriend anyone and pass unnoticed into the heart of India.
Said, in his article, “Kim, The Pleasures of Imperialism,” argues for the need to discuss the novel with a focus on its extrinsic context. “We must not unilaterally abrogate the connections in it [history and political circumstances], and carefully observed by Kipling, to its contemporary actuality” (Said 41). Said’s main extrinsic connection is the Sepoy Mutiny, which was fresh on most English minds. He points out that most Englishmen perceived the rebellion as a localized confusion regarding cow and pig oils used in weapons of native soldiers. Kipling, he assumes, must have ignored the true drive behind the rebellion–freedom from English Imperialism–because he viewed British power as the logical and welcome goal in India.
Assumptions aside, Kipling clearly recognized the social hierarchy in India and is meticulous in his attention to castes and their mannerisms. In this manner Kim is aware of contemporaneous social and political baggage, incorporating current realities into the core of his novel. “The division between white and nonwhite, India as elsewhere, was absolute and is alluded to throughout Kim: a Sahib is a Sahib, and no amount of friendship or camaraderie can change the rudiments of racial difference” (Said 30). Yet, despite this absolute sounding thesis, Kipling manages to disprove Said with Kim, who is both white and nonwhite. Kim remains subordinate to the Lama for the duration of the novel in the position of chela, begging for him, washing his feet, and carrying his baggage. It is precisely this ability to shrug off a Sahib’s niche in Indian society (and by extension reject all of British Imperialism) that allows Kim to enter the nonwhite world. Thus, Said’s racist judgment of British absolutes finds an exception in Kim.
Race, nevertheless, plays a crucial role in the novel and is the focus of its main motif. Kim’s white blood is referenced in various places, despite the lack of necessity, because of its significance in the context of an Empire ruled by white men. The opening lines of the novel identify Kim without complication as “white a poor white of the very poorest” (Kipling 3). This is the centerpiece of his personality and several of his non-Indian mannerisms and instincts are attributed to his English heritage, despite his total lack of white nurturing. In chapter 2, for example, Kim swiftly picks up the dropped silver because “he was Irish enough by birth to reckon silver the least part of any game” (Ch 2). This explanation of his behavior seems illogical because Kim does not even know what “Irish” means, much less how such people supposedly behave. Clearly Kipling’s imagination wandered during this passage, but that hardly justifies other similar passages. For example, Kim claims to hate snakes and the narrator attributes this to “the white man’s horror of the Serpent” (Ch 3). Considering both his parents died before he can remember and his adopted mother was a half-caste, it is difficult to determine where such instincts arise from other than from a genetic Irish predisposition that cannot be erased with nurturing.
Another scene shows “Kim’s white blood set[ting] him upon his feet” “where a native would have lain down” (Ch 3). Kim does not understand Sahib’s and cannot relate to them until he has finished his training at St. Xavier’s. After living with white people and learning their customs, Kim can understand the priest’s and Mahbub Ali’s assertion that “once a Sahib – always a Sahib (Ch 5 and Ch 6). Yet, throughout the novel Kim rebels this labeling: “I do not want to be a Sahib” (Ch 6). To accept the priest and Mahbub Ali would mean his chameleon powers had vanished and he could no longer enter the nonwhite world.
This is the key dilemma in the novel, and it is something Kipling never resolves in the end. How Kim assimilates his work for the British Government and his love for Indian culture is an issue Kipling either fears to face or neglects to perceive. The closest the novel approaches to addressing this issue is in Ch 7:
“‘But I am to pray to Bibi Miriam, and I am a Sahib.’ He looked at his boots ruefully. ‘No; I am Kim. This is the great world, and I am only Kim. Who is Kim?’ He considered his own identity, a thing he had never done before, till his head swam. He was one insignificant person in all this roaring whirl of India, going southward to he knew not what fate” (Ch 7).
This existential passage faces Kim’s duality head on. He cannot be both Indian and Sahib according to the rules of society, but somehow he is exactly that dichotomy. Kim concludes that he is Indian, as implied in the title “insignificant person.” If he were a Sahib, he would not be insignificant and could not be mixed in the “roaring whirl of India.” It is a pity Kipling does not do more with this passage. Another passage showing Kim’s dichotomy is when he states his necessity to “be free and go among my people?otherwise I die!” (Ch 8). Kim accepts the Sahib training as practice for another disguise and a necessary step to play the Game, but does not embrace the training as a connection to his born heritage. The possessive connection with the people of India and the desire for freedom of motion betray Kim’s true identity as an Indian at heart. “What am I? Mussalman, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist? That is a hard knot” (Ch 8). The question he asks Mahbub Ali is the question of the novel and necessarily remains unanswered because Kim’s identity is unanswerable.
The search for one’s identity is a common theme in novels and perhaps the theme of American literature. It is interesting to contrast this importance to Kipling’s rejection of it. Identity, as seen in Kim, is confining, thus the answer to Kim’s question of “who am I?” is resolved with a simple answer “not a Sahib.” Unfortunately, Kipling looses track of this and attributes special predispositions to Kim’s white blood. Toward the end of the novel, for example, Kim attacks the Russian spy with a “blow [that] waked every unknown Irish devil in the boy’s blood” (Ch 13). Such a reference to Kim’s blood is totally inconsistent with his true identity, which cannot ever be narrowed into one category. Other references, such as on the mountain when Kim “remembered that he was a white man, with a white man’s camp-fittings at his service” (Ch 13) also serve the same destructive end of weakening Kipling’s craft.
Kim’s lack of definable identity challenges the notions of empire as applied to the novel. Extrinsically, Kipling denies the absolute power of race in social order. White superiority is debunked and asserted in Kim’s dichotomy. On the one hand, Kim is successful because he is not a British native and can view the richness of India because he is part of it. On the other hand, Kim is the only person in the novel who can see all the beauty in India and he happens to be a white man, thus implying that a nonwhite could not have the same vantage point. Thus, empire is in the back of Kipling’s mind at all times, even while attempting to flee from it in the most genuine settings in India.
Kim’s blood and related identity dilemma is best resolved when he speaks to the Lama, reminding him of his blindness to race:
“‘Now I look upon thee often, and every time I remember that thou art a Sahib. It is strange.” ‘Though has said there is neither black nor white. Why plague me with this talk, Holy One? Let me rub the other foot. It vexes me. I am not a Sahib. I am thy chela, and my head is heavy on my shoulders'” (Kipling 323).
Kim is a morphing chameleon who can inhabit different castes and roles with expert ease. His success ultimately lies in his faith that he is “Friend of the Stars” and can be, not just play the part of, anyone in India.
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