The first edition of Plain Tales from the Hills contains 40 stories written by Rudyard Kipling between 1884 and 1887. Most of the stories were first published in the Civil and Military Gazette, of which Kipling was assistant editor, in Lahore, India, between 1884 and 1887.
The stories are short and were designed to fit a column and a half of the Gazette. The majority concern Anglo-Indian life, usually, though not always, contemporary. The subjects are personal and professional rivalries, love affairs and flirtations, dances, sporting occasions, government policies, job searches in the British administration, and the work of British officials and businesspeople. In addition, some stories focus exclusively on military life. Four of these deal with a trio of private soldiers, one of whom, the Irishman Mulvaney, is the principal narrator of three of them. Plain Tales from the Hills also contains stories with Indians as their central characters. Even in these, however, there is mostly an interaction (usually unfortunate) between European and Indian characters at the center of the text.
The collection’s title is ambiguous. These are tales not just of the Indian plains but also of life in mountainous northern India (for example, in Simla, the summer capital of British India). They are “plain” not in the sense of being simple but rather in the sense of being outspoken. Many are scarcely “tales” in any developed sense but have plots without much complexity and seem much closer to gossip and anecdote than to short stories by Kipling’s contemporaries de Maupassant or Chekhov.
The principal narrator of the stories is anonymous but presents himself as a knowledgeable observer of Anglo-Indian and Indian life who is able to move from the world of powerful imperial administrators through the various ranks of European and Indian society to the world of some of the lowest of British India. Indeed, the theme of knowledge recurs in the narrator’s comments on life and in characters like the policeman Strickland or the drunkard McIntosh Jellaludin, who has adopted an Indian way of life. The narrator often addresses the reader directly, frequently mentioning stories that he will not tell at the moment. As a whole, the stories are marked by a negative view of British India. Bureaucratic infighting and incompetence, a struggle for easy and lucrative postings, and cruelty and callousness in personal relationships fill the stories. The racism and violence of Kipling’s narrator and characters are hard for modern readers to accept, and they are not part of his cynicism toward the world he depicts. However, approval is given to some characters: the enterprising (and naked) British soldiers who take a town in Burma; the imperial administrator who is wise enough to listen to a child; the resourceful Mrs. Hauksbee, who often does good; and Eurasian Michele D’Cruze, who maintains British imperial authority in the face of a riot.
It is noteworthy that many of the stories in Plain Tales from the Hills involve the crossing of borders, usually racial ones. In this respect, “Beyond the Pale” stands as a complex examination of Kipling’s fascination with the Indian world but his insistence on the terrible consequences of passing too far into that world. The concluding story of the collection, “To Be Filed for Reference,” presents a similarly ambiguous version of the topic.
Kerr, Douglas. “Plain Tales from the Hills (1888).” Literary Encyclopedia.
McGivering, John, ed. Notes on stories in Plain Tales from the Hills. The Kipling Society: Readers’ Guide.