Analysis of Rudyard Kipling’s Novels

Best known for his short fiction, Rudyard Kipling (30 December 1865 – 18 January 1936) wrote more than 250 stories. His style of leaving a story open-ended with the tantalizing phrase “But that’s another story” established his reputation for unlimited storytelling. Although the stories are uneven in quality, W. Somerset Maugham considered Kipling to be the only British writer to equal Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov in the art of short fiction.


His early stories both satisfied and glorified the Englishman in India. The empire builder, the man who devotes his life to “civilize the sullen race,” comes off in glowing colors, as in the story “The Bridge Builders.” Some of his best stories skillfully blend the exotic and the bizarre, and the early “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888), which is about two drifters and their fantastic dream to carve out a kingdom for themselves in Central Asia, best illustrates such a story. “A Madonna of the Trenches,” with its strange, occult atmosphere; “The Children of the Zodiac,” about a young poet who dreads death by cancer of the throat; and “The Gardener” (1926), with its unrelieved sadness and autobiographical reflections on the death of his son, reflect the pain, the suffering, and the dark melancholy of Kipling’s later life.

The stories that make up The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895) were written in Brattleboro, Vermont, when Kipling’s mind “worked at the height of its wonderful creative power.” They are in the class of animal and folktales that make up such world literary creations as the ancient folktales of Aesop’s Fables (fourth century b.c.e.) and The Jataka Tales. Into the Jungle Book stories, Kipling incorporated not only the clear and clean discipline of the public school but also his favorite doctrine of the natural law. This law had a great impact on the Boy Scout movement and the origins of the Wolf Cub organization, found in the Mowgli tales.

Kipling was a prolific writer, and, as a journalist, he wrote a considerable number of articles, stories, and poems not only for his own newspapers but also for a variety of literary journals in England and the United States. In addition, he was a prolific letter-writer and carried on lengthy literary and political correspondence with such men as President Theodore Roosevelt, financier Cecil Rhodes, and writer H. Rider Haggard. His correspondence with Haggard has been collected in Rudyard Kipling to Rider Haggard: The Record of a Friendship, edited by Morton N. Cohen (1965). Two volumes of his Uncollected Prose were published in 1938, and even some of his desultory writing, such as American Notes, concerned with his travels in the United States in 1891, was reissued in the late twentieth century with editorial notes. Kipling personally supervised the publication of the Sussex edition of his work in thirty-five volumes (1937-1939). The Kipling Society, founded in 1927, publishes the quarterly Kipling Journal, which keeps Kipling enthusiasts informed of publications about Kipling. Biographical material on Kipling—including his autobiography, Something of Myself: For My Friends Known and Unknown, published posthumously in 1937—is considerable, and the record of his literary achievement is now complete.

Kipling’s first book of fiction appeared in 1888. Since then, his works have undergone several editions, and several of his short stories and poems have found a permanent place in anthologies. Although England and India have both changed enormously since the turn of the twentieth century, Kipling’s stories continue to attract and fascinate new readers. He was a best-selling author during his lifetime—one of his animal stories, Thy Servant a Dog (1930), sold 100,000 copies in six months in 1932—and he continues to be extremely popular in the English-speaking countries of the world. Several of his works, notably Captains Courageous, Kim, The Jungle Book, and some short stories, have been made into motion pictures.

Throughout his lifetime, and soon after his death, Kipling was associated with the British empire. He had become the laureate of England’s vast imperial power, his first book was praised by the viceroy in 1888, and the king used Kipling’s own words to address the empire on Christmas Day in 1932. The day Kipling’s ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey—January 23, 1936—King George V’s body lay in state in Westminster Hall and the comment that “the King has gone and taken his trumpeteer with him” appropriately described the image Kipling had projected.

Kipling wanted to serve the empire through the army or the civil service. Because he had neither family connections with which to obtain a civil service job nor strong eyesight, which barred him from military service, Kipling turned to writing. He wrote with a passionate intensity coupled with admiration for the soldiers, the bridge builders, the missionaries, and the civil servants in remote places who served the empire under “an alien sky.”Many of the phrases he used to narrate their tales—“What do they know of England who only England know?,” “East is East and West is West,” “the whiteman’s burden,” “somewhere east of Suez”—have become part of the English language and are often repeated by those who are unfamiliar with his writings. To have used the pen in place of a gun to serve the imperial vision and have such lasting impact on British thinking constitutes a major achievement.

In 1890, Kipling published or republished more than eighty stories, including the novelette The Light That Failed. At twenty-five, he had become a famous literary figure. At forty-two, he became the first Englishman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for “the great power of observation, the original conception and also the virile comprehension and art of narrative that distinguish his literary creations.” He had also become a controversial personality, since critics and readers saw in his work the effort to mix the roles of the artist and the propagandist. Kipling’s writings would continue to be controversial and generate extremes of admiration or condemnation. He generates a love-hate response, and there are frequent Kipling studies that evaluate and interpret his writings from a new perspective. He is neither neglected nor ignored, which is a true testimony to his importance as a writer.

Rudyard Kipling wrote four novels, one of them, The Naulahka, in collaboration with Wolcott Balestier. Kipling was essentially a miniaturist, and his genius was for the short story, a single event dramatized within a specific time frame. His novels reflect an episodic quality, and although Kipling brings to them a considerable amount of technical information—about cod fishing in Captains Courageous, army and artistic life in The Light That Failed, authentic topography and local color in The Naulahka—he fails in the development of character and in evoking an emotional response from his readers. Kim, however, is an exception.

The Light That Failed

The Light That Failed, dedicated to his mother, has often been described by critics as “the book that failed.” Kipling acknowledged a debt to the French novel Manon Lescaut (1731, 1733, 1753) by Abbé Prévost in writing the novel. It was first published in the January, 1891, issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine and was later dramatized and filmed. When Macmillan and Co. published it two months later, there were four new chapters, and the story concluded with a tragic ending and the note, “This is the story of The Light That Failed as it was originally conceived by the writer.” The difference between the magazine version, with its more conventional ending, and the book version, with the sad ending, caused some consternation among readers and critics.

The Light That Failed has many autobiographical elements. The novel opens with two children brought up by a sadistic housekeeper; Kipling drew upon his own early life in “the house of desolation” for some of the harrowing experiences of Dick and Maisie in the novel. Dick and Maisie are not related but have an adolescent crush on each other. They are separated, and while Dick goes to the Far East to serve on the frontiers of the empire, Maisie pursues her dream of becoming an artist. Dick wants Maisie to travel with him, but Maisie, committed to her art, remains in England. Dick later moves to Egypt as a war artist. He returns to London, and after a period of frustration, he enjoys fame and success. Kipling draws on his familiarity with the art world to describe the life of Dick in London. He had never been to Africa, however, and for the realism of his African scenes, Kipling relied on information he obtained from his friends. When Dick expresses fury and anger at unscrupulous art dealers, Kipling is lashing out at the publishers in America who boldly pirated his works.

In Dick and Maisie’s doomed love and its impact on Dick, readers see echoes of Kipling’s own unrequited love for Violet Flo Garrard. Flo was a painter, like Maisie, and in the words of Kipling’s sister, Flo was cold and obsessed with “her very ineffective little pictures.” Writer Angus Wilson, in his study of Kipling, believes that Kipling found in Flo the quintessential femme fatale, “the vampire that sucks man’s life away.” Kipling has transferred some of the intensity of this feeling to Dick Heldar, almost his alter ego at certain times in the novel. Dick Heldar’s obsession with the single life and his desire for military life also express Kipling’s own passions. When Dick goes blind after being spurned by Maisie, Kipling is again drawing upon his own anxiety about the possible loss of his own vision.

The Light That Failed ends very melodramatically with Dick’s death in the Sudanese battlefield amid bloody carnage. Apart from the autobiographical elements in the novel, The Light That Failed has little interest for the contemporary student of Kipling.

The Naulahka

Subtitled “A Story of East andWest” and written in collaboration with Wolcott Balestier, The Naulahka compares the ways of the East, represented by the princely state of Rhatore in Central India, to those of the West, represented by the village of Topaz, Colorado. Balestier supplied the Western elements of the novel, and Kipling wrote the Eastern chapters. The result is a poorly written, melodramatic, and lackluster novel.

Naulahka is a priceless necklace owned by the Maharaja of Rhatore. Tarvin, an aggressive American entrepreneur, wants to bring the railroad to feudalistic Rhatore; he enlists the services of Mutrie, the wife of the president of the railroad company, to influence her husband. He promises to get her the Naulahka as a gift. Tarvin’s fiancé, Kate, is also in India to help the Indian women. With her help, Tarvin tries to influence the Maharaja’s son. Kate wants a hospital; Tarvin wants the railroad. Kate then breaks off her relationship with Tarvin; he secures the necklace but returns it in order to save Kate’s life, which is threatened by a mad priest. Finally, Kate and Tarvin return to the United States.

The characters in The Naulahka are one dimensional, and the narrative style is very episodic. Kipling has drawn heavily from his earlier book Letters of Marque (1891), lifting entire passages and incidents.

Captains Courageous

A better novel than The Light That Failed, Captains Courageous is Kipling’s only completely American book in character and atmosphere. Kipling made several visits to Gloucester, Massachusetts, with his friend Dr. John Conland to saturate himself with considerable technical information about cod fishing. He has used this information extravagantly in telling the story of Captains Courageous. The novel was published serially in McClure’s Magazine, and Kipling was not pleased with its publication. In a letter to a friend, he wrote that the novel was really a series of sketches and that he had “crept out of the possible holes by labelling it a boy’s story.”

Captains Courageous is the story of Harvey Cheyne, the spoiled only son of a millionaire. On a voyage to Europe, Harvey falls overboard and is picked up by a fishing boat. He bellows out orders and insults the skipper, Disko. Disko decides to teach the boy a lesson and puts Harvey under a strict program of work and discipline. The plan succeeds, and Harvey emerges stronger and humanized. When the boat reaches Gloucester, laden with salted cod, a telegram is sent to Harvey’s father, who rushes from San Francisco to retrieve his son. Harvey returns with his father to resume his studies and prepare himself for taking over his father’s business empire.

“Licking a raw cub into shape,” the central theme of Captains Courageous, is a favorite subject of Kipling. The technical knowledge about cod fishing is impressive, but the characters themselves have no individuality. Harvey Cheyne’s transformation from a stubborn, spoiled young man into a mature, responsible individual is achieved too speedily. Kipling has used the story merely to illustrate what Birkenhead describes as “the virtue of the disciplined life upon a spoiled immature mind.”


T. S. Eliot considered Kim Kipling’s greatest work. Nirad C. Chaudhury, an Indian scholar, called Kim “not only the finest novel in English with an Indian theme but also one of the greatest of English novels in spite of the theme.” Kipling wanted to write a major book about India, and he started the project in 1885, in “Mother Maturin: An Anglo-Indian Episode.” That work concerned itself with the “unutterable horrors of lower class Eurasian and native life as they exist outside reports and reports and reports.” It was the story of an old Irishwoman who kept an opium den in Lahore but sent her daughter to study in London, where she marries, then returns to Lahore. Kipling’s father did not like it, however, and Kipling dutifully abandoned the project. Kim emerged instead.

Published in 1901, Kim is Kipling’s last book set in India. In Something of Myself, he tells readers how he had long thought of writing about “an Irish boy born in India and mixed up with native life.” Written under the influence of his demon—Kipling’s word to describe his guardian muse—Kim takes in all of India, its rich diversity and intensity of life.

In growing old and evaluating the past, Kipling turned to the best years of his life, his years in India. In Kim, Kipling relives his Indian years when everything was secure and his family intact. Kim’s yearning for the open road, for its smells, sights, and sounds, is part of the longing of Kipling himself for the land that quickened his creative impulse and provided his literary success.

Kim is the story of an Irish orphan boy in India, a child of the streets. He grows up among Indian children and is aware of all the subtle nuances of Indian life. Yet, at the same time, he has the spirit of adventure and energy of his Irish ancestry. His joining the Red Lama from Tibet on his quest for the River of Healing, and Kim’s fascination for the British Indian secret service, “the Great Game,” results in his own self-discovery.

Kim has the characteristic features of a boy’s story, the lovable boy involved in a quest filled with adventure and intrigue. One is reminded of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1881-1882) and Kidnapped (1886) and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Kim, however, rises above the usual boy’s story in that it has a spiritual dimension. By coming into contact with the Lama, Kim emerges a sadder and wiser being at the end of the novel. Kim’s racial superiority is emphasized throughout the novel, but after his association with the Lama, Kim is able to say, “Thou hast 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.” This is an unusual admission for Kim and Kipling.

Many of Kipling’s earlier themes are elaborated and incorporated into Kim. There is the vivid picture of the Indian army; the tale of “Lispeth,” from Plain Tales from the Hills, repeated in the story of the Lady of Shamlegh; and the Anglo-Indian, the native, and the official worlds providing backgrounds as they did in the short stories. Administering medicine in the guise of a charm to soothe and satisfy the Indian native, Jat is an echo from the earlier story, “The Tomb of His Ancestors.” Buddhism, whose scriptural tales—The Jataka Tales—supplied Kipling with a wealth of source material for his two Jungle Books and Just So Stories (1902), supplies the religious atmosphere in Kim. Even Kim’s yearning for the open road had been expressed previously in the character of Strickland, who, incidentally, makes a brief appearance in Kim.

Both Kim and the Venerable Teshoo Lama, the two main characters in Kim, emerge as distinctive individual characters and not mere types of the Asian holy man and the Anglo-Indian boy. They grow and develop an awareness of themselves and their surroundings. Kim realizes that his progress depends upon the cooperation of several people: the Lama, Mukherjee, Colonel Creighton, and Mahbub Ali. The Lama too undergoes a change of character. He realizes that his physical quest for the River of Arrow has clouded his spiritual vision. The River of Arrow is at his feet if he has the faith to see it.

In selecting the Buddhist Lama as the main character, Kipling has emphasized the Middle Way. To the Lama, there is no color, no caste, no sect. He is also the tone of moderation without the extremes of Hinduism and Islam, the two main religious forces on the subcontinent.

In the relationship between Kim and the Lama, Kipling portrays an integral part of Indian spiritual life, the disciple and teacher relationship, the guru and chela interaction. It is not an ordinary relationship between a boy and a holy man; it is a special relationship, as the Lama notes, forged out of a previous association in an earlier life, the result of good karma. Kim is indeed a virtuoso performance; it is Kipling at his best.


Principal long fiction · The Light That Failed, 1890; The Naulahka: A Story of East and West, 1892 (with Wolcott Balestier); Captains Courageous, 1897; Kim, 1901.

Other major works
Short Ficition: In Black and White, 1888; Plain Tales from the Hills, 1888; Soldiers Three, 1888; The Story of the Gadsbys, 1888; The Phantom ‘Rickshaw and Other Tales, 1888; Under the Deodars, 1888;Wee Willie Winkie, 1888; Life’s Handicap, 1891; Many Inventions, 1893; The Jungle Book, 1894; The Second Jungle Book, 1895; Soldier Tales, 1896; The Day’s Work, 1898; Stalky and Co., 1899; Just So Stories, 1902; Traffics and Discoveries, 1904; Puck of Pook’s Hill, 1906; Actions and Reactions, 1909; Rewards and Fairies, 1910; A Diversity of Creatures, 1917; Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides, 1923; Debits and Credits, 1926; Thy Servant a Dog, 1930; Limits and Renewals, 1932.
Poetry: Departmental Ditties, 1886; Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses, 1892; The Seven Seas, 1896; Recessional and Other Poems, 1899; The Five Nations, 1903; The Years Between, 1919; Rudyard Kipling’s Verse, 1940 (definitive edition).
Nonfiction: American Notes, 1891; Beast and Man in India, 1891; Letters of Marque, 1891; The Smith Administration, 1891; From Sea to Sea, 1899; The New Army in Training, 1914; France at War, 1915; The Fringes of the Fleet, 1915; Sea Warfare, 1916; Letters of Travel, 1892-1913, 1920; The Irish Guards in the Great War, 1923; A Book of Words, 1928; Something of Myself: For My Friends Known and Unknown, 1937; Uncollected Prose, 1938 (2 volumes); Rudyard Kipling to Rider Haggard: The Record of a Friendship, 1965 (Morton N. Cohen, editor).
Miscellaneous: The Sussex Edition of the Complete Works in Prose and Verse of Rudyard Kipling, 1937-1939 (35 volumes).

Bauer, Helen Pike. Rudyard Kipling: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1994.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Rudyard Kipling. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
____________. Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Carrington, Charles. Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works. London: Macmillan, 1978.
Coates, John. The Day’s Work: Kipling and the Idea of Sacrifice. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.
Knowles, Frederic Lawrence. A Kipling Primer. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1974.
Laski, Marghanita. From Palm to Pine: Rudyard Kipling Abroad and at Home. New York: Facts on File, 1987.
Orel, Harold, ed. Critical Essays on Rudyard Kipling. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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