Beyond the Pale

(notes edited by John McGivering)


The story first appeared in the first Indian edition of Plain Tales from the Hills in 1888, and was included in the many subsequent editions of that collection. It was also published in Papyrus in 1909 under the title of “Bisesa”. It includes the poem “The Love-song of Har-Dyal”. See David Alan
p. 17.

The story

A beautiful young Indian woman, Bisesa, has been widowed very young, and longs for a lover. An Englishman, Trejago, who is knowledgeable about things Indian, wanders into the gully where she sits behind a barred window, and has a flirtatious exchange with her. One thing leads to another, and they secretly become passionate lovers. After an idyllic month he is attentive to an Englishwoman, with no serious intent, but Bisesa hears of it and tells him to go. He is desperate to see her, but the next time she answers his knock at the window, it is only to thrust out the stumps of her amputated hands in the moonlight. From behind her a knife stabs into Trejago’s groin, and the grating is slammed shut. There has been tragedy, and he has lost her. He has paid heavily for stepping beyond the limits of his own people.

Critical Comments

Kingsley Amis (p. 48) describes this as ‘one of the most terrible stories in the language’.
J M S Tompkins (p. 233) writes:

It is in this region of grotesque and tragic illusion and grotesque and tragic reality that we find what is permanent in Kipling, not in his precocious and cleverish dealings with Simla flirtations and Mrs Hauksbee.

Tompkins brackets this story with “The Other Man” in this collection, “A Wayside Comedy” in Wee Willie Winkie, and the later “Mrs Bathurst”. She notes that the horror of “Beyond the Pale” is enhanced by its matter-of-fact narration.
Cornell observes that, for Trejago, Bisesa and the world she represents are worth the terrible risks. He comments that the stab in the groin is reminiscent of the punishment of Abelard, the mediaeval monk who was castrated after his liaison with Heloise. (See Peter Abelard by Helen Waddell).
Bonamy Dobrée writes of Kipling (p. 62):

At the opening of that shocking – deliberately shocking – story, “Beyond the Pale” … he warns that: ‘A man should, whatever happens, keep to his own caste, race and breed’.

And Marghanita Laski (p. 39), in a passage called “The Interface and the Borderline” discusses relations between the races. and looks at some of the stories that reflect this thorny question, including “On the City Wall” in Soldiers Three:

The affair of Trejago and little Bisesa could never have come to good. Lasting amatory relationships between sahibs and Indian women were indeed beyond the pale; the converse, memsahib with Indian, was unthinkable. But the men were often lonely and the women exquisitely lovely. Kipling’s most moving story of an inter-racial relationship is “Without Benefit of Clergy” (in Life’s Handicap).

See also:


[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2012 All rights reserved