“At the End of the Passage,” one of Rudyard Kipling’s Indian tales, was first serialized in 1890 and appeared in the 1891 collection Life’s Handicap. It deals with themes familiar to Kipling’s Indian fiction: the grueling day-to-day work involved in the running of British India and the incursion, or apparent incursion, of the supernatural.
The story opens with four friends, Hummil, Spurstow, Mortram, and Lowndes, spending an evening at Hummil’s bungalow. The pressures of work and the ravaging heat combine to make them, especially Hummil, lackluster and weary. Later Hummil confides to Spurstow, a doctor, the full extent of the nightmares that afflict him. Spurstow administers morphine and advises him to take time off, but Hummil declines. Alone, he is confronted with an apparition of himself but endeavours to rationalize the experience. However, a week later he is discovered dead, having apparently died of pure fright. He is hastily buried, and life amid the excruciating Indian summer goes on.
The story employs standard gothic motifs: delirium, nightmares, doubles. Also, like much gothic fiction, it is ambivalent: It is impossible to determine if the events depicted have a genuinely supernatural cause or result from psychological disturbance. Certainly the strain of the work to which Hummil is subjected appears conducive to hallucination. At the same time, the suggestion of some external agency at work is not easily discarded, especially in view of native superstitions as expressed by Hummil’s servant Chuma, and the sheer extent of the horror in Hummil’s dead eyes.
Kipling’s emphasis in this story is also the appalling work conditions that cause Hummil to break down— the kind of hardships Kipling felt were generally suppressed or misrepresented in official accounts of Anglo-Indian life. The discrepancy between such reports and the grim reality is made painfully clear in this story as the four friends, worn out in rendering service to the empire, read a newspaper report of a politician accusing Anglo-Indians of living in luxury while oppressing the natives. And much of the narrative is given over to describing the overpowering heat, loneliness, and boredom that they suffer. Furthermore, there is the burden of overwork: Hummil has had to take on extra duties after the death of a colleague apparently driven to suicide. Moreover, it is implied that he might have been saved if his friends had not been too busy to keep an eye on him.
However, Kipling wishes to draw attention not only to the strains of Anglo-Indian working life but also to its unsung heroism. Hummil’s refusal to take some leave arises out of a noble desire to spare Burkett, the man who would have to take over, as Burkett has family commitments. Spurstow is impressed, declaring that he thought such acts of selflessness belonged in the past. Beyond this, Hummil’s sacrifice goes virtually unrecognized. But for Kipling, it is all the more remarkable on that account—one example among many in his Indian fiction of the kind of valor upon which the great Indian empire rests, and for which it grants scant reward.
Kipling, Rudyard. Life’s Handicap. Edited by A. O. J. Cockshut. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.