Rudyard Kipling’s chef-d’oeuvre novel, “Kim”, traces the life of an Irish orphan, Kim, who lives a near vagabond existence in the streets of India during the time of the conflict between the British and Russian empires for power and influence in Asia. The conflict, involving massive espionage activities and intensive spying from both British and Russian camps, is known as the Great Game in the novel.
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Kim begins with the introduction of the main character, Kimball “Kim” O’Hara, a thirteen-year-old Irish orphan who blends easily with the natives of India. Kim survives by doing odd jobs that he is assigned, and when the going gets to tough, he is forced to beg for food and money.
However, despite his young age, Kim easily mixes with people of all cultures and ages. He is comfortable conversing with his elderly guardian Mahbub Ali, as he is his young friend Abdullah (Kipling Chapt. 1, Para. 11). In the streets, Kim is known as ‘Friend of All the World’ due to his unique ability of fostering friendships with people of all cultures, gender and age (Kipling Chapt. 1, Para 21). He is also known for his sharp tongue, wit and sense of humor.
One day, Kim encounters an aged Tibetan monk on a mission of achieving enlightenment, and befriends him. When Kim learns that the monk, Teshoo Lama, had lost his disciple and is now forced to travel alone despite his advanced age, he decides to become Teshoo Lama’s disciple (Kipling Chapt. 1, Para. 48). Kim informs his guardian of his intentions, and Mahbub Ali grants him permission, but first hands him some documents, which he tells Kim to deliver to an English colleague in the town of Umballa.
Thus, begins the epic and adventurous journey of the young Kim, who, in the quest of finding enlightenment with the Buddhist Lama, encounters both friends and foe, learns more about life and living, grows, discovers himself and more about his father, and finally decides on the path his life will take under the guiding hand of Teshoo Lama.
Levels of Thematic Expression in the Novel
Theme of Personal Growth and Development
The novel Kim has two levels thematic of expression. At the basic level, the novel is about a young orphan who struggles to overcome his poor condition in search of a better life and fulfillment. Kim’s daily struggles in his life depict the intensity of poverty and its effect on people, especially young orphaned children.
Kim is sometimes forced to beg for food in order to survive. However, Kim’s status is not unique, the poverty levels in the Indian streets where he lives are quite high, and most of the people Kim lives and interacts with suffer a similar fate (Kipling Chapt. 1, Para. 22). Indeed, the caste system in India as depicted in the novel sees Kim living amongst people in the lowest caste, who are also the poorest.
During his journey with the monk in search of the mysterious and elusive “River of the Arrow” that is meant to signify enlightenment for Teshoo Lama (and by extension Kim himself), Kim has his journey interrupted several times in instances where he gains lessons on human civility, courage and fairness.
On the train journey to Umballa, Kim and the Lama encounter travelers from different areas of India and the world, all in their separate earthly pursuits (Kipling Chapt. 2 Para. 18). The interactions between the two travelers and the rest of the passengers instill in Kim a sense of appreciation for other cultures and lifestyles.
On reaching Umballa, Kim and the Lama accidentally trespass on a farmer’s land (Kipling Chapt. 3, Para. 38). The farmer hurls abuses at the two, but the Lama’s measured reaction to the farmer’s unnecessary vitriolic attacks teaches Kim the value of patience, forbearance and humility because the farmer swiftly apologizes to the two for his earlier outburst (Kipling Chapt. 3, Para. 41).
Further, when they reach the Grand Trunk Road, the spectacle of different travelers from different cultures all in separate journeys influenced by their cultural practices awes the young Kim, and his sense of accommodation for the diversity of humans is heightened (Kipling Chapt. 4, Par 14). All along this journey, different persons openly welcome Kim and the Lama into their homes – such is the accommodative spirit of the natives that leave a mark on Kim.
Finally, Kim’s journey is cut shot when he sneaks into an army barracks. The chaplain of the army barracks realizes, from the documents in Kim’s possession, that he is, in fact, an Irish native, and further probing reveals that he is the son of Kimball O’Hara senior (Kim’s father) who was a soldier stationed in the same barrack.
Mr. Bennett (the chaplain) decides that Kim should join a formal school in order to make something of his life, and thus Kim is separated from the Lama for the three years he is the school. At school, Kim learns espionage tactics and spying maneuvers and later joins the British government as a spy agent.
At this level, the novel expresses the personal growth and maturity of the main character, Kim. His journey from the streets as a beggar and vagabond, to the heart of British espionage plans, all the while searching for and attaining spiritual fulfillment depict the theme of growth and development.
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Theme of Espionage and Vain Imperialistic Pursuits
The second level of thematic expression in the novel is concerned with the Great Game: how the conflict between the two powerful countries of Russia and Britain for control of Asia (India in particular) affects the lives of the natives. The espionage tactics by the two countries, especially those of Britain, are intertwined with the lives of many of the characters in the novel.
To begin with, Kim’s guardian Mahbub Ali is evidently a spy for the British government/army, and the documents that he gives to Kim when the youngster embarks on the journey with the Lama are espionage material gathered secretly for the British army.
On their journey, Kim and the Lama meet a retired Indian soldier whose loyalties are with the British army after having pledged loyalty to Britain during an army mutiny early in his life. This retired soldier develops a keen interest in the unfolding events that point to an imminent border war between Russia and Britain.
Furthermore, Colonel Creighton recruits Kim to work as a spy agent and mapmaker for the army (Kipling Chapt. 7, Para. 18). The Colonel discovers that, due to Kim’s previous existence in the streets, he easily blends with people of diverse cultures and tribes in India. The Colonel thus trains him to become a spy.
Ultimately, Kim’s personal growth and development, as a theme in the story, crosses paths with the imperialistic needs of the British government that recruits him as a spy, and in the end, Kim chooses the path that has instilled human values in him – enlightenment, and rejoins the Lama (Kipling Chapt. 15, Para. 8). Kim eschews the prideful nature of imperialistic conquests that define the nature of the Great Game, and purposes to be the Lama’s disciple.
Author Attitude towards the British Government
The author’s depiction of the lives the natives are living, the cultures of India and the values of the main character give an indication of the author’s attitude towards the British government. Throughout the entire novel, the author has endeavored to foreground the altruistic, friendly and hospitable values of the Indian natives.
The main character of the novel, Kim, has Irish roots but has been raised amongst the natives. Though he lives in exceptionally poor conditions, he maintains his sense of humor, friendliness and accommodative attitude towards others – values that he acquires from the natives who collectively are responsible for him. The author goes to considerable lengths to describe the picturesque landscape of Asia and India.
The beauty of Asia, along with its people, is a thematic concern for the author. Nevertheless, after Kim goes to formal school and is trained as a spy, his values are compromised. Espionage activities obviously require the practitioner to acquire aliases, deceive, mislead and other such acts and values that are in direct conflict with the nature and practice of the humane values of the natives as described in the novel.
Therefore, the training that he receives from the British government and the job he undertakes for the army as a spy stands in direct contrast to the values that he acquires from native cultures. The author thus expresses the belief that the native values are supreme to the imperialistic interests of the British government and army, and in a sense, the author vouches for the simplistic but virtuous life of the natives over the materialistic endeavors of the British government.
Human Nature as depicted by the Author
As stated in the foregoing paragraph, the author believes that human nature is defined more by the values expressed by an individual than by materials and riches gained. The poor people in the streets of India where Kim grew up express human values of altruism, hospitality, and forbearance that add values to their lives more than any riches would add.
The poignant moment that captures the author’s message; that is, human values of virtue are more noteworthy, is depicted through Kim’s ultimate transformation. After experiencing both types of lifestyles and values as expressed by the natives and the British, he chooses the values of the natives by pledging his allegiance to the teachings and values of the Lama at the end.
The novel Kim ultimately exposes the vanity of imperialistic pursuits by powerful countries at the expense of more humane and lasting pursuits. The story of Kim’s life puts paid to the notion that the native tribes of conquered nations do not necessarily have any positive values to be imitated. The author vouches for the unsophisticated, but virtuous life of the natives over the wealthy and vice-filled lifestyle of the citizens of the two countries in conflict – Russia and Britain.
Kipling, Rudyard. “Kim.” The Literature Network, 2011. Web. http://www.online-literature.com/kipling/kim/15/