The Kent Conference

September 7-8 2007



Finding one’s way through
Actions and Reactions.


Elodie Raimbault (Université de Paris 3)

[September 7 2007]


The bulk of Kipling’s writing consists of his short stories and critics often focus on the most striking ones, on the masterpieces. They thus create or perpetuate a group of “hits” which are collected in anthologies. In Actions and Reactions, the most famous stories may be “With the Night Mail” or “The House Surgeon”, but certainly not “The Puzzler”: what brings them fame is their intrinsic originality and their forceful character but also an interesting critical history. The more a story is analysed, the more interesting it gets – such is the power of criticism. The point here is not to add another layer of criticism on the most successful stories but rather to deal with the collection as a whole, and to analyse the effects of this type of book organisation on the reader.

Except for “Garm – a Hostage”, the stories were all written between 1905 and 1909. They all appeared first separately in newspapers, showing that they can be read independently. When the collection was published in 1909 it was entitled differently from any of the stories included. An apparently thematic title now tops up these eight very dissimilar stories and appears as a link between them, which means that the stories’ status changed in the process of collection. Despite a first impression of disjunction, the reader feels that the collection is more than a mere juxtaposition. The poems did not accompany the stories when they were published in the newspapers, whereas Kipling wrote them for the collection, showing that they have a role to play in its building up.

In his stories, Kipling created many characters whose main function is to listen to a narrator telling his yarn: this certainly proves the importance of the question of the horizon of expectation, using Jauss’s term, and more generally that of the reader’s role. Kipling invented his own type of organization for his collections, and book after book his readers became used to this form. Actions and Reactions can be taken as one example of the kiplingian short story collection and of the strategies at work in it.

The house imagery

The obvious fact that the stories are at the time of their creation totally independent has to be challenged: Kipling chose to place them in a particular order and to associate them with one another within a collection. There is a structural similarity between the spatial composition of the collection and the places of a mixed but united nature described in the stories. The architectural metaphor of the house is very relevant in this respect. Interestingly, the first and last of the stories in the collection are about houses. “An Habitation Enforced” is about a young American couple buying a house and being gradually accepted as part of a community; “The House Surgeon” tells how a haunted house is made habitable by the narrator. Both houses are rather large and described as labyrinths. In the first story, a particular sentence appears as the guideline of this study:

He led them on and on, through a maze of back-kitchens, dairies, larders, and sculleries, that melted along covered ways into a farmhouse. (Actions and Reactions 13)
In the last story, the narrator alludes once more to the image of the maze:

We played a sort of Blind Man’s Bluff along the darkest passages, in the unlighted drawing-room, and little dining-room, calling cheerily to each other after each exploration that here, and here, and here, the trouble had removed itself. (Actions and Reactions 296-7)
These labyrinths are neither gothic nor threatening: on the contrary they are invitations to lose oneself and start a game of exploration. These two passages may be seen as an indirect formulation of the directions for use of the collection, as if the author was explaining to his readers how he intends them to read his stories. In “An Habitation Enforced”, the discovery of the house occurs quite unexpectedly and on a playful mode:

The footpath turned the shoulder of a slope, through a thicket of rank rhododendrons, and crossed what had once been a carriage drive, which ended in the shadow of two gigantic holm-oaks.
‘A house!’ said Sophie, in a whisper. ‘A colonial house!’
(Actions and Reactions 8-9)
The first impressions Sophie and her husband George get of the house are quite false and cliché: “colonial”, “Look at that view. It’s a framed Constable”. They compare their adventure to a touristy visit:“Don’t you like us exploring things together – better than Pompeii?”. In Out of Place, Ian Baucom mentions the ruined country house as one of the places which have been used by writers to portray Englishness:

[These] places have served as apt metaphors for writers struggling to define what it means to be English, and (…) such metaphoric understandings have been literalized, sometimes subtly, sometimes crudely, so that these material places have been understood to literally shape the identities of the subjects inhabiting or passing through them. (Baucom 4)
Sophie and George Chapin are influenced by what they expect from a ruined country house and fail to see its originality at first: not only is it English, but it is the emanation of the particular county and land it stands on.

When they finally understand the house better, they see it as part of the country, as an expression of the historical links between the people and the land. It then becomes more than a house, a whole “hidden kingdom” with a soul of its own which indeed shapes the identity of the Chapins. As soon as the sentence, “He led them on and on, through a maze of back-kitchens, dairies, larders, and sculleries, that melted along covered ways into a farmhouse”, the notion of a unity revealing itself out of an accumulation of small entities is present in the phrase “melted into a farmhouse”. In “The House Surgeon”, the house is shown as a living organism, a body suffering some unexplained pain and transmitting it to the inhabitants:

We were silent again, and, in a few seconds it must have been, a live grief beyond words – not ghostly dread or horror, but aching, helpless grief – overwhelmed us, each, I felt, according to his or her nature, and held steady like the beam of a burning-glass. (Actions and Reactions 271-272)
The pain tends to affect one room at a time, so the family gathers in one room only, fearing the depression might be in the next one. The house is haunted, invaded by two spirits who are striving to communicate and making the inhabitants depressed. When the house is finally healed thanks to the narrator who managed to connect the two spirits and put them to peace, the house ceases to be only seen as separate rooms:

They drew short, but afterwards deeper, breaths, like bathers entering chill water, separated one from the other, moved about the hall, tiptoed upstairs, raced down. (Actions and Reactions 296)
The first reaction of the owners is to walk around the house and to make it whole again through their movements.

Following the idea that there is a metaphorical relationship between the houses in the stories and the construction of the collection, it appears that the book needs to be made whole by our reading, that is to say that the stories are independent only as long as they are not read in a sequence. The main question being that of the relation between the stories. What paths are we to follow and what bridges can we throw between the tales?

A mechanically organised collection

Both houses are complex places in which each room has a name and a function. In “The Mother Hive”, a similar pattern can be found: the hive is an organised and complex space where each bee has a precise role to play. For instance, the wax-making process is explained in very short and assertive sentences resembling orders:

Before a bee can make wax she must fill herself with honey. Then she climbs to safe foothold and hangs, while other gorged bees hang on her in a cluster. There they wait in silence till the wax comes. The scales are either taken out of the maker’s pockets by the workers, or tinkle down on the workers while they wait. The workers chew them (they are useless unchewed) into the all-supporting, all-embracing Wax of the Hive. (Actions and Reactions 88)
“The Mother Hive” is followed by a science fiction story with which it apparently bears no connection, “With the Night Mail”. Yet, between the anthropomorphic bees and the futuristic balloon trip over the Atlantic Ocean, the bridge is built thanks to a common theme and a structural similarity of the hive and the mail tower: both stories begin with the alighting of a flying object on a busy platform. The bees are bound to their hive as the dirigible balloons are to their mail tower. The hive is accessed through an alighting-board, and the bees come and go just as the dirigibles do. Among the fictional advertisements added at the end of “With the Night Mail”, a column is even entitled “The Bee-Line Bookshop”. Another link between the stories is that both present a vision of a strictly organised and hierarchic society, verging on the military. Each individual has a role to play in this machine-like society, and revolutionary attempts are annihilated.

In a machine age, the terms “action and reaction” are applied to a wide range of objects, including animals and humans, as is explained by Herbert L. Sussman in his book Victorians and the Machine:

By the middle decades of the century, with the success of the Darwinian theory and with advances in scientific physiology, it seemed to biologists that the modern machine, self-powered, often self-regulating, moving predictably by the complex interaction of springs and levers, provided an ideal theoretical model for organic life itself. In 1874 Thomas Henry Huxley, the acknowledged spokesman for science in England, in an essay entitled “On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and Its History,” could declare the principle of mechanism as the central hypothesis of modern biology.(Sussman 135)
It is therefore not new to compare animals and even men to machines. The question is whether the collection can be seen as mechanically organised as well. The alternation of prose and poetry is strictly applied: each story is concluded by a poem developing one of its themes or characters. The poems can be seen as so many closures and boundaries between the stories, as limits intended for the reader to stop there or at least pause in his reading.

However, it would be presumptuous to think that the form of a collection could be that prescriptive. The poems must be seen more as dual agents of closure and opening, as thresholds: they remain within the scope of the story they are closing and at the same time they take a sufficiently different stance to open up onto the next story. They could then be parts of a mechanism activating the process of reading: at the end of a story, the reader is prompted to go on and read the next one, the poems acting like a pump. The words “Actions and Reactions” also lead to the notions of fate and destiny: they picture a mechanical, inevitable and binary movement between cause and consequence. If we apply this to the field of fiction, then we must see the plots as run by necessity. In Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story “The Blue Carbuncle” the phrase “action and reaction” is used to describe the ways in which individuals run into one another in London, and also the notion that in a crowded city every action induces a reaction, every move provokes another one. In Sherlock Holmes’ own words:

No, no. No crime. Only one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles. Amid the action and reaction of so dense a swarm of humanity, every possible combination of events may be expected to take place, and many a little problem will be presented which may be striking and bizarre without being criminal. (Conan Doyle 151)
In a situation of shock, the reaction to a movement is another movement in the opposite direction: such is the nature of the link between some stories in the collection. For instance, after the world of science fiction depicted in “With the Night Mail”, the incipit of the story “A Deal in Cotton” strongly indicates a remote time and place (“Long and long ago, when Devadatta was King of Benares…”), before finally reaching present day England in which the narration takes place (“lives now at a place in England called Weston-super-Mare”). The detour via oriental antiquity must be interpreted as an enhancement of the discrepancy between the two stories. Highlighting the gap is a paradoxical but efficient means of bridging it.

Another type of relation can be found between “A Deal in Cotton” and “The Puzzler”: there is no great thematic difference between the two stories. Both deal with a colonial official trying to develop the province he is in charge of. But while “A Deal in Cotton” tells in a dark atmosphere of a melancholic gathering of old friends, “The Puzzler” turns into a comic of situation type of story. The change of tone is very striking, all the more so as the world depicted in both stories is the same. When read in the order chosen by Kipling, each story definitely reacts with the preceding ones, either thematically or formally, and they lead the reader along an interpretable path. Just as the rooms in the country house, they can be said to “melt along covered way into a collection”. The links are not always very visible but they exist.

A musical composition

The notion of a “model reader” as defined by Umberto Eco is certainly useful here : an author always writes with a model reader in mind, a reader who is going to actualize the text by his reading, that is to say by his role as a conscience able to fill in the blanks of the text. This model reader is not an existing person of course, but an operative notion useful as the text is written. Kipling left it to the reader to determine what the links between the stories are, although their nature is partially implied by the title of the collection. What is the role of the poems within this collection, are they too agents of interpretation helping the reader? They can simply complement the story they follow by, for instance, expressing in more general terms a particular situation. At the end of “Little Foxes”, in which Kipling mocks a London liberal Member of Parliament, the poem entitled “Gallio’s Song” transposes the situation into the Roman Empire. The poem acts as a kind of commentary upon the story. Other stories are completed by a poem which voices the words of a character who was not allowed to speak in the story. After “An Habitation Enforced”, the land itself is given a voice and the poem “The Recall” is its chant:

I am the land of their fathers,
In me the virtue stays;
I will bring back my children
After certain days.

(Actions and Reactions 51)
The land then is more explicitly shown as the agent of the enforcement mentioned in the title of the story. Being shorter and rhymed, the poems are also more likely to be remembered by the reader.

However, the poems occasionally seem more distant from the story, or even in contradiction with it. Some poems appear to draw a stern lesson from a lighter narrative, just as in apologues. “The Power of the Dog”, which comes at the end of “Garm – a Hostage”, is a warning concerning the possible dangers linked to the attachment existing between a dog and its master:

Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
(Actions and Reactions 85)
In the story, the friendship between man and dog is much valued, whereas what is highlighted in the poem is the fact that this attachment can lead to difficult emotional situations. Through this type of poem another voice speaks and gives a musical counterpoint to the story.

The poems are the voice of hesitation, of modulation, of alternation. The stories could very well be read without their poems, they are already whole, and in that sense the poems do not always complete the stories. What the poems achieve is a modulation on the theme; they give another shade to the story. The story remains identical but after reading the poem the reader will not see it with the same unanimity. The reader is led to imagine a dialogic relationship between the story and the poems because of this modulation. The most striking modulation may be the one between “The Mother Hive” and its poem “The Bees and the Flies”. The story is told in earnest and has strong moral overtones, with a glorification of the faithful bees who embody the virtues of courage and perseverance at the end of the story. In the poem, the tone is clearly mock-heroic. First referring to Virgil, it is about the naivety of a farmer who tries out the old belief that bees will swarm in the body of a dead bull – only to find worms and flies in it:

A busy scene, indeed, he sees,
But not a sign or sound of bees.
Worms of the riper grave unhid
By any kindly coffin lid,
Obscene and shameless to the light,
Seethe in insatiate appetite.

(Actions and Reactions 107).
The collection then ceases to be read linearly. The reader, surprised by the poem, will go back to the story which has indeed changed from his first interpretation. The poem initiates a to-and-fro movement within the unit made up of a story and a poem. The musical structure of variations on a theme is to be found in the collection at different levels: within the smaller units, but also more generally from story to story. The echoes are numerous and lead the reader to perceive the collection as a whole.

The book is made of powerful and subdued moments, of strong and weak beats: it is composed like a musical piece in this respect. It appears that the word “composition” fits this type of book organization better than the usual “collection” which suggests a juxtaposition of separate elements. Here, the book is truly a unity and all its parts relate to one another to produce meaning. Its interpretation evolves as the reader goes through it; the more futile stories both enhance the effect of the others and gain weight thanks to the interactions between the stories.

Three main ways of reading Actions and Reactions can therefore be identified: first as a set of connected units, thematically organised; then as a musical composition, at once linear and full of echoes; and finally, but this is too vast a subject to be dealt with here, a third reading would link other stories, coming from other collections, to some of the Actions and Reactions stories. Kipling indeed creates some bridges himself by using recurrent characters: at the beginning of “A Deal in Cotton” he explicitly refers to the story “A Conference of Powers”.

This multiplicity of possible readings and the modulations afforded by the poems both show that the collection is meant to be freely read. Kipling teaches his reader how to read his work and the reader can free himself from the structure of the collection precisely thanks to its fluidity. Some stories are strongly assertive, as for instance “The Mother Hive”, and Kipling has been blamed for this, especially when he sides with the reaction. However, his use of the poem as a modulation of the point of view, or more generally the fact that he decided to make this story part of a collection, shows that he may have seen the necessity of indirectly qualifying its reactionary aspect thanks to the complexity of the collection’s organization. A very subtle strategy indeed.


[E.R.]


List of works cited

BAUCOM Ian. Out of Place. Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.
CONAN DOYLE Arthur. “The Blue Carbuncle”. 1892. Sherlock Holmes. His Adventures, Memoirs, Return; His Last Bow & the Case-Book. The Complete Short Stories. London: Murray, 1929.
ECO Umberto. Lector in Fabula ou la Coopération interprétative dans les textes narratifs. Traduit de l’italien par Myriem Bouzaher. Paris: Grasset, 1985.
JAUSS Hans Robert. Pour une esthétique de la réception. Traduit de l’allemand par Claude Maillard, préface Jean Starobinski. Paris: Gallimard, collection « Bibliothèque des idées », 1978.
KIPLING Rudyard. Actions and Reactions. London: Macmillan, 1909.
---. “A Conference of Powers”. Many Inventions. 1893. London: Macmillan & Co, 1928.
SUSSMAN Herbert L. Victorians and the Machine. The Literary Response to Technology. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1968.


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