The novel Kim tells the story of a young orphaned Irish boy, Kim, living in the streets of Lahore in India during the British occupation of the country. Kim’s life entails performing odd tasks and receiving alms. Kimball “Kim” O’Hara is the agonist of the story from which the novel draws its title.
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Kim’s father was a soldier for the British army, and both his parents died while the father was stationed in India, leaving Kim to survive in the streets. However, Kim is exceptionally friendly and manages to get along with nearly all persons of all ages, cultures, and tribes in the streets (Kipling 51). His guardian, Mahbub Ali, sells horses for a living and usually sends Kim on small errands and rewards him with some cash or other beneficial rewards.
Kim then encounters an aged Buddhist monk (Teshoo Lama) who is on a quest of finding the sacred “River of The Arrow” – the ultimate symbol of enlightenment (Kipling 53). Kim easily makes the monk’s acquaintance, and guides him to the local museum where the Lama hopes to find directions to the sacred river and thus gain enlightenment.
However, the museum’s curator does not know where the mysterious river is located, and Lama has to make the arduous journey of discovery with little information for direction. Kim learns that the Lama’s disciple, or chela, had died in the previous town where the monk had passed. In his usual eagerness to help, Kim decides to become the Lama’s new chela in order to ease the stress of travel for the Lama (Kipling 60).
Thus, begins the long journey towards enlightenment for both the Lama and Kim. Kim’s journey is, however, cut short when he sneaks into a British army base. Because he knew his father used to be a soldier, the symbolic flag raised by the army piques his interest, and it turns out that the army chaplain recognizes Kim through some documents he always carries. Coincidentally, Kim’s own father, Kimball O’Hara the elder, used to be stationed at the same base.
Out of a sense of duty, the chaplain decides that Kim should attend formal school (Kipling 88). When Lama hears this news, he offers to pay for Kim’s education, and they are separated for almost three years when Kim pursues his education.
In the course of his schooling, Kim is recruited as a spy and mapmaker for the British army (Kipling 187), which is involved in extensive spying, espionage activities and actual conflict with Russia, all in an effort to gain territories in Asia and India. This conflict between the two countries is known as “The Great Game” in the novel.
One of the main reasons why Kim is recruited as a spy is because of his unique ability of blending in with natives from different cultures and tribes. However, in the end, after working as a spy and mapmaker, and undertaking dangerous missions for the British army that also put the life of the Lama in jeopardy, he decides to forgo all that and rejoins the Lama in his quest for enlightenment (Kipling 280), finally achieving this when they discover the “River of the Arrow”.
Levels of Meaning in Kim
The Basic/Literal Level
At the literal level, Kim is a picaresque novel that underscores the adventures of a young orphaned Irish boy, Kim. The story begins in the streets of Lahore where poverty is rife, underscores Kim’s interactions with his peers and his elders, before exploring Kim’s subsequent quest for enlightenment, personal growth, and self-discovery together with Lama.
This adventurous journey sees Kim discover more about his father and his service in the army, and enables him to attend formal schooling and subsequently secure employment as a spy and mapmaker for the British army. Therefore, at the literal level, Kim details the adventurous journey of a boy who experiences personal growth and development in the process.
The sequence of life changing encounters that Kim experiences, beginning with his meeting with Lama, all lead him to places and people that influence his life either positively or negatively. Ultimately, these encounters force Kim to choose his own path and direction in life – that of spiritual growth and virtuous living. This is the lifestyle espoused by the natives of India and in the teachings of the Lama, as opposed to the deceitful lifestyle encouraged by the British government in his role as a spy.
The Allegorical level
Kim is set in the historical period during the British occupation of India. Many characters and instances in the novel allude to actual historical events that occurred during the period when the novel is set. The British occupation of the Indian subcontinent is a recurring feature in the novel.
Kim himself is born of a solider that was stationed in India to advance the interests of the British Empire. The novel is thus set between the years 1885-1898, since it is set after the end of the second Afghan war with Britain, which war ended in 1881. Similarly, the novel is set against the economic and geo-political conflicts between Britain and Russia. Indeed, many of the characters in the novel are connected with the conflict.
Kim himself eventually becomes a spy and mapmaker for the British army as it engages the Russians in massive espionage endeavors (Kipling 250). Kim’s guardian, Mahbub Ali, is also a spy for the British army, and he initially sends Kim with documents gathered in his spying activities to be delivered to an Englishman in Umballa when Kim sets out on his journey with Lama (Kipling 58).
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Kim’s father, as a soldier, was also tasked with furthering the interests of the British army during the great conflict. Therefore, the historical setting of Kim during the “Great Conflict” in India during the late 19th Century plays a critical role in the unfolding plot, and many characters are involved directly or indirectly in the conflict.
The Topological or Moral level
The topological or moral level of the novel Kim especially concerns the overall virtuous actions, character traits, and actions of Kim. As the novel’s main character, the moral path that he undertakes underscores the author’s moral inclinations and preferences. Kim is raised in the dirt-poor streets of Lahore, and in a sense, he acquires the virtues espoused by the natives around him.
Although he is poor, Kim maintains a generous and helpful disposition. The natives are portrayed as highly hospitable, and are accommodative of strangers as evidenced in the ease of finding board at night that Kim and the Lama experienced during their journey in search of the River of the Arrow (enlightenment) (Kipling 70). Despite the high levels of poverty in Lahore, the natives are humorous, helpful and spiritual.
Kim acquires all these qualities. On the other hand, life as espoused by the British through the activities of its army is primarily concerned with material wealth. As opposed to the natives, the British value material wealth as evidenced by their quest for geo-political control of the Asian subcontinent through colonization and “the Great Conflict”. Kim, therefore, experiences both sets of lives and values: those of the natives as well as the British (western lifestyle vs. eastern lifestyle).
When, in the end, Kim chooses to follow the Lama even after becoming a spy and mapmaker for the British army, he vouches for the native (eastern) lifestyle over the western. He chooses the values that he was raised with by the natives: values of spirituality, humility, hospitality, and friendliness.
The Requirements of Becoming a Spy/ Character Traits of a Spy
During his schooling, Kim is recruited by colonel Creighton to become a spy. The colonel notices Kim’s ability to blend easily with different people from different native tribes, as well as persons of all ages (Kipling 188).
Therefore, one of the ultimate requirements of becoming a spy involves the ability to earn the trust of another with little effort. Kim is also extremely friendly and has a sense of humor and sharp wit. All these attributes are cultured in the streets of Lahore, which enable to him, become a successful spy and mapmaker for the British army.
The Author’s Attitude towards the government of the British Raj
The British occupation of India was the ultimate expression of the imperialist aims of the British Empire. As was custom with British occupation, the cultural values, institutions and even beliefs of the native communities as portrayed in the novel are ignored or unconditionally disregarded.
As depicted in the novel, the British government policies in India did not support the local cultures. For instance, Kim is forcibly taken away from Lama and put in a formal school once the chaplain of the army discovers that Kim was, in fact, Irish and not Indian (Kipling 180). The values that he would gain from Lama are disregarded.
Since the author has the main character choosing the native practices and virtues of those of the British, the author is against the policies of the British Raj that unnecessarily negate the fundamental values of native cultural practices and institutions.
The Author’s View of Human Nature
Accordingly, the author’s support for the values of the native tribes as evidenced in his main character choosing these cultures over western cultures indicates that the author views human nature as a product of values espoused and not necessarily by the material possessions of an individual. When Kim ultimately chooses to follow the Lama, he expresses the author’s view that human nature is enriched by acquiring positive values, as opposed to wealth.
In conclusion, Kim is ultimately a journey of philosophical and cultural self-discovery for the protagonist as well as the reader. Rudyard Kipling traces the life of Kim, and simultaneously leads the reader on a similar journey that exposes the futility of colonization insofar as influencing human values and practices is concerned. Kim expresses the point that no single cultural philosophy is superior to another and that there is much good, value, and virtue even in the poorest of all communities and cultures.
Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. London: Penguin Books, 1987.