Written when Rudyard Kipling was 19, this story first appeared in the 1885 Quartette, the Christmas annual of the Gazette. An ironic and haunting ghost story, “The Phantom Rickshaw” has a message: Using people, specifically women, as mere sex objects will bring suffering and death. Jack Pansay, the only one who sees the ghost of Mrs. Agnes Keith-Wessington, cannot understand why he is being haunted, even though everyone around him, including his fiancée, Kitty Mannering, and his doctor, Heatherlegh, regard him as a “blackguard.” Returning to India after vacationing in England, Jack, a civil servant of the British Empire, has a casual shipboard fling with Agnes but then abruptly and cruelly severs the relationship. When Jack announces to Agnes his engagement, she dies of grief. The apparition that haunts Jack is this scene of his announcement: Agnes seated in a yellowbanded rickshaw, looking frail and sorrowful, her golden head leaning out, a handkerchief pressed to her face. During subsequent encounters Jack demands an explanation for the haunting, and Agnes’s ghost replies: “Jack! Jack darling! Its some hideous mistake. . . . Please forgive me and lets be friends” (122). Kitty, disgusted by Jack’s bizarre behavior and conversations with invisible people but more so by his treatment of Agnes, breaks off their engagement. Haunted and abandoned, Jack dies, creating much speculation about the cause of his death.
The ghost story has two parts: The brief first part told by an unnamed narrator and the longer second part. The first part constructs a plausible scenario for the willing suspense of disbelief necessary for fantasy tales. However, Heatherlegh’s first explanation, that Jack died of overwork, is ironic, for Jack frequently vacations in both England and India. Heatherlegh’s second explanation, that Jack is crazy and has a devilish attitude, is more plausible given his cruelty toward Agnes.
The second part is the ghost story narrated by Jack. When medical cures fail, Heatherlegh suggests that Jack write his hauntings down to cure him of his delusions, but the therapy fails, making Jack an object of ridicule and providing fodder for more storytelling. Although neither Jack nor the reader discovers what the ghost’s words mean, they are prophetic: Jack roams the streets of Simla with the ghost of Agnes as his only friend.
Although Kipling has generally been faulted for his sympathy with Britain’s imperialism, “The Phantom Rickshaw” suggests the colonial subject’s insight into the inevitable failure of imperialism. The story’s unusual opening, “One of the few advantages that India has over England is a great knowability” (113), is followed by a description of India’s excessive hospitality. The “knowability” reflects, perhaps, India’s knowledge that Britain, flattered by its glory and power, had failed to clothe its own naked greed and was unaware of its nakedness. Britain had become so accustomed to fleecing its colonies, the first narrator says, that “every Englishman in the Empire . . . may travel anywhere and everywhere without paying hotel-bills” and that “globe trotters who expect entertainment as a right, have . . . blunted this open-heartedness” (113). Heatherlegh concocts stories that have the appearance of rational explanations and disseminates these stories to spare Jack further humiliation, just as the British Raj had methodically disseminated narratives of its own altruism in bringing enlightenment to the so-called uncivilized natives of India. But just as Jack’s arrogance and greed for sexual adventure bring about loss and death, the unchecked greed and glory of the British Empire brought loss and death to British citizens, reflecting the Indian philosophy that people who did wrong eventually paid the price for their wrongdoing. Nonetheless, “The Phantom Rickshaw” is first and foremost a haunting ghost story, comparable to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” that launched Kipling’s career in the genre of the supernatural.
Kipling, Rudyard. Phantoms and Fantasies. New York: Doubleday, 1965.
———. Something about Myself: London: Macmillan, 1937.
Ricketts, Harry. The Unforgiving Minute: A Life of Rudyard Kipling. London: Chatto & Windus, 1999.