The Tender Achilles

(notes edited by Dr Gillian Sheehan and John McGivering)


First published in the London Magazine for December 1929 with illustrations by Albert Bailey, collected in Limits and Renewals (1932) where it is accompanied by “Hymn to Physical Pain” (Mr. C. R. Wilkett’s version) The poem is collected in Definitive Verse, Inclusive Verse and The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library) with the sub-title “Limits and Renewals”, and followed by “The Penalty” which is similarly collected.

The story

After the Annual Dinner of St. Peggoty’s Hospital, Sir Thomas Horringe (‘Scree’), an eminent surgeon, takes Robin Keede,(The Doctor of “In the Interests of the Brethren” in Debits and Credits) and the Narrator, to his comfortable rooms in Wimpole Street for a drink, a smoke and a yarn. After some general conversation, they discuss the case of Mr. C. R. Wilkett (‘Wilkie’ or ‘Wilks’), not a particularly good surgeon but an excellent bacteriologist that Sir James Belton (‘Howliglass’) wants for his hospital laboratory. Wilkett is, however, suffering from a nervous breakdown and an injured foot after wartime service in France.

The hospital chiefs persuade him that his foot seriously needs attention, show him evidence that it is tuberculous, which he accepts against his better judgement, operate on him, and then explain that there had been an error in the laboratory and that it had not been tuberculous after all. The arguments with the senior doctors, in which his judgement is ultimately shown to have been correct, restore his faith in himself, and he recovers his equilibrium. He takes up his post as head of the laboratory, but never knows about the girl who – in falsifying the records – risked her career to save him. See Notes on the verse “The Penalty” which follows this story.


The ORG Notes originally appeared in KJ 117/12 for April 1956, in which the points on medical matters were prepared by Alan Seymour Philps (1906-1956). Philps served in the 1939-45 War in a Casualty Clearing Station and was later Surgeon in Charge of the Eye Department at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.

See the Notes by Peter Lewis on “The War in the Mountains” for a plan which shows the location of the Western Front.

Andrew Lycett (pp. 540 and 546) notes that this story allowed Rudyard to display his knowledge of surgical procedures in field hospitals during the 1914-18 war, some of which must have been contributed by Gerald Stanley, an English surgeon living in Paris.

For the character of Sir James Belton, Kipling drew on his long friendship with Sir John Bland-Sutton, distinguished surgeon at the Middlesex Hospital, and President of the Royal College of Surgeons. Bland-Sutton often dined at Bateman’s.

See Dr Gillian Sheehan’s notes in this guide on “Some of Kipling’s medical acquaintances” and “Doctors in the stories”.

Critical comments

John Coates examines this volume in his Chapter 5 “The Redemption Theme in Limits and Renewals”, briefly touching on this story, together with “The Miracle of St. Jubanus” and “The Woman in his Life”:

These have certain points of similarity. In each case incipient mental disturbance is averted by a simple physical expedient.

…It is clear that guilt stems from obsessive perfectionism and morbid vanity. He is subjected to just such an operation as those he performed, is told that the diagnosis was a mistake, and, being obliged to relive the experience, sees it from another perspective. (pp. 90-91)

J M S Tompkins (page 112, passim) discusses the “hidden narratives” in this and other stories of Kipling’s :

…. One must thread the maze to reach the heart of the matter…..There are always sufficient directions but they do not spring to the eye, they must be looked and listened for …

Dr Tompkins finds other examples in the later works of Jane Austen. See also her suggestion (page 107) that: ‘this story suffers from over-revision’, and that the woman who messed up the samples is the “Star” of “The Penalty”, the verse that accompanies this story.

See also Mary Hamer’s essay
“Kipling and Dreams”.

[G S / J H McG]

©Gillian Sheehan and John McGivering 2008 All rights reserved