"The Phantom
Rickshaw"


(notes edited
by John McGivering)




notes on the text
[May 19 2004]

Publication

This story was first published in Quartette, the Christmas Annual of the Civil and Military Gazette for 1885, which included four stories by the nineteen-year-old Kipling with other items of prose and verse by his parents and sister. It was revised before being collected in The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Tales, Volume 5 of the Indian Railway Library, of 1888. It was included in Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories, published in 1890, and in numerous later editions of that collection.

The story

Jack Pansay has had a passionate ship-board romance with Agnes Keith-Wessington, the golden-haired wife of an officer. He wearies of her and tells her so, but she refuses to accept his rejection, insisting that it is all "a hideous mistake". She grows wan and thin, but he continues to respond curtly and brutally. He becomes engaged to Kitty Mannering, a lively young woman, whom he deeply loves, and - not long after - Agnes dies of a broken heart. Soon after, his rides out with Kitty, around Simla, are disrupted by the ghost of Agnes, in her familiar yellow-panelled rickshaw, which only he can see. She is still insisting that it is all "a hideous mistake". His friends think he is mad or drunk, his doctor is mystified, and Kitty breaks off the engagement. His life is ruined, and he goes to his death, still haunted by the golden-haired ghost.

Some critical comments

Cornell (p. 105) likens this story to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat”, finding it only better in that it takes place in Kipling’s Simla and not a Gothic (or perhaps 'Gothick') setting at some time in the past. See also “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes“ later in this volume.

Tompkins (pp. 120 and 198-9) discusses this story in her chapters entitled “Hatred and Revenge” and “Man and the Abyss”, taking the view that:

The young writer had neither the tact nor the self-denying consistency to carry such a difficult mode to complete success…..He managed better in …. “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”.
Carrington (pp. 68-9) observes that: "...this story has some claim to a study of hallucination, the first and not the weakest of the many tales of psychopathic states which he was to publish...It is well worth reading today.

Harry Ricketts (pp. 81-2) sees this story as expressing some of Kipling's feeling of being abandoned, and haunted, by Flo Garrard, who had rejected him. Ricketts notes that in Something of Myself Kipling refers to "The Phantom Rickshaw" as one of the first fruits of his 'Personal Daemon', the compelling force outside himself which influenced his most deeply felt writing. In Something of Myself he said of it (page 209):

"Some of it was weak, much was bad and out of key, but it was my first serious attempt to think in another man's skin."
Kipling's other stories of the supernatural include “By Word of Mouth” and “The Bisara of Pooree” in Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), “At the End of the Passage”, “The Mark of the Beast” and “The Dream of Duncan Parrenness" in Life’s Handicap (1891), “The Lost Legion” in Many Inventions (1893), “The House Surgeon” in Actions and Reactions (1909), “In the Same Boat” in A Diversity of Creatures (1917), “The Wish House” and “A Madonna of the Trenches” in Debits and Credits (1926), and “Unprofessional” in Limits and Renewals (1932).

A visit to the Cow’s Mouth (Gau-Mukh/Gye-Mukh), a very sinister place, with a strong aura of the supernatural, is described in Letters of Marque No.XI (From Sea to Sea, Vol I) and elaborated in Chapter 12 of The Naulahka.