An Error in the Fourth Dimension

(notes edited by Alastair Wilson)


This story first appeared in the U.S.A. in Cosmopolitan of December 1894, with illustrations by W. Van Shirsk It was collected in:

  • The Day’s Work in 1898
  • Scribner’s Edition Volume XIV
  • the Sussex Edition Volume VI, page 329
  • the Burwash Edition Volume VI.

The story

Wilton Sargent, an American millionaire, a collector and an anglophile, is hounded by the press at home (this was a period when Britain and America did not always see eye to eye – the Venezuelan crisis, when the USA faced down Great Britain in furtherance of the Monroe Doctrine, was about to break). He settles in England, where his wealth enables him to buy services of each and every sort.

During a petty dispute with one of his expert agents, he decides, on the spur of the moment, to go to London to collect some evidence to support his side of the argument, and has a servant flag down an express train. On arrival in London he is arrested, and the railway company sue him for damages for detention of their train, etc. Sargent tries to resolve the problem by a quiet word with the railway company’s chairman, but is met by blank incomprehension. It transpires that they think he is deranged. The total lack of mutual comprehension so enrages Sargent that he sells up, and returns to America.


Like most of the stories collected in The Day’s Work, this was written when Kipling and his family were living in Vermont, though its gestation seems to have occurred in the summer of 1894 while they were visiting Kipling’s parents in Wiltshire. There is a specific reference to the tale in a letter from Kipling to Robert Barr, written from his parents’ home at Tisbury on 28 July 1894 (Letters Vol. 2, Ed. Pinney). He wrote:

‘I have beside me, … a sort of nest of notions in the complicated absurdity line: viz: … 3 – the adventures of an American millionaire who bought an estate in England and one day when he was in a hurry to get to town flagged down the York express. They are all full of the purely male horse-play and schoolboy rot that women bless ‘em find it so hard to understand. … and they’ll be written with a single eye to the Idler‘.
(Barr was a journalist, and editor of a humorous magazine The Idler which he had founded with Jerome K. Jerome. As can be seen above, this tale was not, in fact, first published in The Idler, though it was published therein in April 1895.)


The story is about a rich American living in England, and may be considered as the reverse of the coin when compared to the later “An Habitation Enforced” (Actions and Reactions). The latter tells of an American and his family happily settling in England. “An Error in the Fourth Dimension” shows a great gulf, as Kipling saw it, between his countrymen and Americans, and only has a ‘happy ending’ when the American goes back to his own land.

The ORG entry started with an introduction which cannot be improved:

The story, told in a slightly patronising manner, is of a wealthy young American who had settled in England and was trying to appear thoroughly English. It is one of Kipling’s less amiable tales, in marked contrast in several ways to the wholly delightful and sympathetic “An Habitation Enforced”. It must, however, be judged on its merits purely as a farce.

The title has no particular relation to the story, except perhaps in the author’s mind, and although analytical geometry recognises even more than four dimensions, the universally recognised dimensions of space are three – length, breadth and height – because three lines and no more can be drawn at right angles to one another. It may be said that a three dimensional article, to exist at all, must exist for a period of time, however short, and that therefore time is the fourth dimension, but this is only a confusion of ideas and language unknown to a mathematician. All we can safely say is that in mathematical operations time is sometimes found to be behaving like a fourth dimension.

Perhaps Kipling’s definition of the fourth dimension may be guessed at from a passage in Chapter 3 of Something of Myself, in which he says: ‘having no position to consider, I could move at will in the fourth dimension’, meaning that he, as a journalist, was of, but outside, the English community in India – the soldiers, the civil servants, the P.W.D. [Public Works Department], the Forestry service – and so, like Asmodeus in The Devil on Two Sticks, as Edmund Wilson says, ‘could hover over them with all their roofs uncovered’. [Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), a respected American literary critic: The Devil on Two Sticks, an early 18th century French satire by A.R. Le Sage]

The late Mr. W.H. Hazard, an American, was good enough to report at length on several aspects of this story, and his contributions will be identified by his initials.

The tale is told, initially in the third person, by a detached observer who, it soon appears, is acquainted with Sargent. The scene of the story moves to Sargent’s country house, the teller of the tale becomes involved, and the telling shifts, almost imperceptibly, into the first person. Readers of these notes may like to note that Professor Daniel Karlin, in his introduction to Rudyard Kipling, in the O.U.P. series Oxford Authors (OUP, 1999), explains, most cogently, this detached observation of the scene, which Kipling employed throughout his career. Professor Karlin says:

Accordingly Kipling’s stories are full of self-contained people, especially men and children, who watch and listen and hold their tongues; effusiveness is for him the sin against the Holy Ghost.’


This editor has always considered the tale to be an inconsequential one, having no great significance in the Kipling canon, and, as will be seen below, Angus Wilson (p. 194) described it as: ‘a beta-plus story in the measure of Kipling’s art’. There is one central idea – the difference between Americans and the English, and that is all: one may say it is a case of ‘Oh, West is West, and further West is further west, and never the twain shall meet’.

Philip Mason wrote:

… his views on America were mixed because he was a very mixed person. One side of him liked the directness, the quick emotional reactions, the independence, the egalitarianism on which Americans prided themselves. … But then something pulled him up short and he had to express his distaste for people who really did not understand the kind of things he had learnt so painfully at Westward Ho! – who showed off so blatantly, who were so lawless, so brash and so shrill. … the irritation spurts out in ‘An Error in the Fourth Dimension’, [1898 – the date of its collection in The Day’s Work, but as stated above it was first published in America in December 1894; Ed.] a tale about an American millionaire who tries to settle in England, becomes almost assimilated, and savagely returns to the blatancy and rawness he had once tried to suppress.

However, the tale has attracted a fair amount of comment from Kipling’s biographers and critics, although more than one makes the incorrect assumption that it was written after the Kiplings had left America in 1896, and that therefore any anti-American bias was the result of that unhappy occurrence. One minor point in considering what the critics wrote is that Professor Tompkins, who may be considered one of the more objective critics, seems to have made NO comment on the tale. (There is an index reference in her book, but it appears to be incorrect – there is nothing in the text.)

Charles Carrington writes, a propos Kipling’s stay at Tisbury where, as we have seen, the tale was conceived:

… the unchanging life of feudal Wiltshire in this social circle spurred Rudyard to write of the contrast between American and English country ways … the tartly unkind story of an anglicised American, which he called ‘An Error in the Fourth Dimension’, was also written that summer.

Professor J I M Stewart deals with the story at some length, referring initially to Kipling’s visit to Tisbury in the summer of 1894:

He was now back in the closed society of his beloved parents, and certainly aware that association with his father regularly strengthened the sensitiveness of his own work. The growing solidity of his reputation, moreover, had given him a surer stance in relation to English society. It may well be that he was now disposed to rethink the whole proposal to lead a preponderantly expatriate life. Certainly his feelings about America and the Americans were turning ambivalent again. For it was now that he wrote the lurkingly ill-natured story ‘An Error in the Fourth Dimension’.

There is a whole category of Kipling stories in which we are invited to be very much amused by the spectacle of a dislikable person being in some way outrageously humiliated. This story veers too much in that direction to be wholly successful in its own kind – which Henry James would have called Comedy of the International Situation. But it is exceedingly funny – and, moreover, it has a further, and odd, claim upon our attention. In a topsy-turvy fashion, it is like a work of prophecy. We can read it, that is to say, as an ironical inversion of something soon to be happening in Vermont.

We begin with a rather sympathetic portrait of an expatriate American millionaire, Wilton Sargent. He has inherited from his father controlling interests in several thousand miles of railway track, and sees no reason why he should himself go to an office daily, rather than cultivate fine tastes and liberal pursuits; ‘so he fled, and they howled behind him that he was an unpatriotic Anglomaniac, born to consume fruits, one totally lacking in public spirit’. Sargent does not find living in England altogether easy. ‘The impenetrability of this regulated life irritated him, and he strove to learn something of the human side of these people. He retired baffled, to be trained by his menials.’ So long as he maintains this posture of observant and due humility, all is well; he is accepted. Nevertheless he is at risk, for ‘there is room for an infinity of mistakes when a man begins to take liberties with his nationality.’

At this point, Kipling, as narrator, enters the story. He has been urgently invited by Sargent to his large country house, Holt Hangars. It turns out that a most bewildering thing has happened. Sargent has had occasion to visit London in a hurry (it was a matter of authenticating an Egyptian scarab – for he has all sorts of cultivated interests), and since one of England’s mainline railways ran at the foot of his forty-acre lawn he had simply ordered his butler to go down and signal the next rain to stop. The butler had done so – resourcefully employing the red flag from the ninth hole of his employer’s private golf course. The train – it proved to be one of the crack express trains of England – had duly stopped, but Sargent’s attempt to board it had not been appreciated. In fact there had been a fight, Sargent had spent the night in a police cell, and had been fined forty shillings by a magistrate the next morning.

But that has not been the end of the matter. The Railway Company has been threatening Sargent with a civil action; his reasonable suggestion that their President should drop down to talk the matter over has been rejected; there has been a great deal of correspondence, with Sargent always declining to bring in his solicitor; now there has come the baffling suggestion that between the railway line and himself he should put up a fourteen-foot wall, crowned with bottle glass. When Kipling hears this he has a glimpse of the truth, and it fills him “with pure joy”. The Railway Company has come to the inevitable conclusion that Sargent must be mad. Only a lunatic, after all, could think of flagging down an English express train. On this basis a substantial farcical situation is built up, and the story concludes good-naturedly enough.

But ‘An Error in the Fourth Dimension’ is by no means good-natured all through. The story’s essence is the comedy inherent in Anglo-American mutual incomprehension, and it must fail as soon as the balance of its sympathies is weighted on one side. For the most part Kipling here manoeuvres very well, and Wilton Sargent gives as good as he gets. But, every now and then the picture turns ugly: under stress, Sargent’s Americanness is described as ‘beginning to ooze out all over’, and his voice rises ‘to the high throaty crow of his breed when they labour under excitement’. This is unpleasant, and it has offended some sophisticated Americans, including the writer and critic Edmund Wilson. Yet along with it, in the descriptive snatches depicting Sargent’s native background, we can detect in the writing a note of positive nostalgia for the American scene. Kipling, as much as Wilton Sargent, doesn’t quite know where he stands.

Philip Mason expanded his comments (see above) on the tale as follows:

So nearly four years passed in alternating moods of exasperation and affection towards the half-adopted country. It was in one of the former, while on a visit to England, that Kipling wrote ‘An Error in the Fourth Dimension’, in which he reverses the situation, imagining an American, the possessor of many inherited millions, who, finding that Americans thought he ought to go to the office and work, came instead to England to live, in the language of the day, like a gentleman. His pleasure was not in fishing and hunting, but in collecting rare and beautiful things and making no effort to acquire more money; he lived, in short, like a character in Henry James. … He became at last so far acclimatised that – height of praise – one would hardly know he wasn’t English.

But all this came to a sudden end. One day he sent his butler to wave a red flag and stop a train, just because he wanted to catch it; the railway company, after some exchange of letters, assumed that he must be a lunatic. When they learnt at last that he was not mad but American, they were appeased – but he found this so insulting that he went back to America by the next sailing. It is an offensive story, heavy with an arrogance about the advantages of being English that it is slightly self-mocking, but no less wounding for that. Edmund Wilson apparently supposed that this story was written after Kipling’s flight from Vermont and that its hostility to American ways was due to that defeat. But he is wrong; it was written on a visit to England …, while his home was still at Brattleboro. (To be absolutely accurate, although its genesis was in England – see the letter cited above- the tale was written in America; Ed.) Wilson never allowed enough for Kipling’s ability to love and hate at the same time.

In a series of essays edited by John Gross, Louis Cornell writes (pp. 71-80):

A long visit to England in the summer of 1894 produced two relevant stories. Not precisely anti-American, ‘An Error in the Fourth Dimension’ and ‘My Sunday at Home’ show the widening rift between Kipling and his adopted countrymen. Their significance lies partly in the handling of the American protagonists, but even more in the insistence on the Englishness of the narrator. He is on his native heath, looking on while the alien Americans make fools of themselves. If any of Kipling’s American public were deluding themselves that he might take out citizenship papers, if they chose to ignore the tone and message of ‘A Song of the English’ (1893), these stories could serve to enlighten them. Kipling’s imagination was turning to the old country with a longing he had never felt before.

Another Wilson, Angus Wilson wrote of this tale:

The Vermont episode is very strange and, in some ways very illuminating about Kipling as an artist as well as a man. It is possible to sympathise a lot with him over his desire for privacy and his distaste for small-town life, yet it must be said that he lived in a fantasy world when he supposed that he could set up a fortress … in such a house as Naulakha … yet it is peculiarly ironic in Rudyard Kipling because of the teaching of his writings. For some of his earliest Indian stories onwards characters who try to make their own law, to live for themselves are surely punished.

I think that Kipling was gnawingly aware of the irony, but managed to suppress it by all the cunning in his possession (and he was a man who trained himself all his life to cunning). This, I think, is the explanation of ‘An Error in the Fourth Dimension’ … This story has been much disliked as cruel. And at first sight, it does seem a needlessly ruthless crushing of a pleasant butterfly. The story tells of a cultivated young New York millionaire’s son, Wilton Sargent, who ‘set out to be a little more English than the English. He succeeded to admiration.’ … Everything goes well until, wanting suddenly to go to London, he flags the Express train that runs near the edge of his estate.. Nemesis overtakes him in the form of British law and order that knows nothing of millionaire’s whims. … But England knows no such millionaire mateyness, no fraternities above the law. And Wilton is driven out. He returns to the plushy, gadgety millionaire world of the Hudson River which was the Golden Age America Kipling had an especial love-hate for …

It’s a beta-plus story in the measure of Kipling’s art. But it surely throws light on Kipling’s disquietude at his own position in America.

Three years later, Martin Fido also discussed the tale in some detail:

The story ‘An Error in the Fourth Dimension … has often been taken as a vicious slap at the country which had rejected him. It tells of a millionaire who has settled in England, and, for his own convenience upon an unimportant occasion, flags down an express-train from the end of his garden, expecting to be able to board it and travel quickly to London. The railway company tries to persuade him to accept a legally binding commitment never to interfere with their traffic; he assumes that he need only have a private word with their president to sort everything out, and, by his insistence that he is riche enough to buy the entire company, persuades them that he is mad. When it is revealed that he is an American … what had seemed to be insanity is instantly recognised as a typical national foible.

Now this story does contain a few moments of black bile … There is a nasty description of Wilton Sargent, the millionaire, as unmistakeably American:
‘It was a lawful son of the Youngest People, whose predecessors were the Red Indian. His voice had risen to the high throaty crow of his breed when they labour under excitement. His close set eyes showed by turns unnecessary fear, annoyance beyond reason, rapid and purposeless flight of thoughts, the child’s lust for immediate revenge, and the child’s pathetic bewilderment, who knocks his head against the bad wicked table.’

There is a silly suggestion that all Americans like cheap cigars, and smoke them in lurid dives. There is a deeply-felt reference to the screaming headlines of the New York press, and their merciless treatment of the famous.

But the total impression created by the story is not anti-American. Quite the contrary; it is the work of a man who perceives, understands and admires aspects of both British and American society, but feels that they are, as it were dimensionally, incapable of appreciating each other. It is the work of an Anglo-Indian with an American wife who has spent more contented years of Adult life in Vermont than anywhere else.

Wilton Sargent is – and it is an essential point – a millionaire’s son and heir, not a self-made man. He represents a group which reasonably alarmed Kipling: men of immense wealth, who had not earned their own position, yet believed they were fuly entitled to all its privileges. And Kipling knew full well that America was even more suspicious of such men than England, and on better grounds. England wondered about the unsettling effect of quite so much wealth: America challenged their enjoyment of indolence. Wilton Sargent’s ‘country wanted to know why he did not go the office daily as his father had before him’. He behaves rather like Kipling in America, shutting himself up in a private country house, and keeping himself to himself. And Kipling shows himself in sympathy with the ordinary Americans who expect their rich men to work for their money. Wilton learns his lesson; stops trying to use his money to buy class in England, and goes back to work in America. Kipling can understand his view that England is hidebound and parochial, and quite approves of him once he goes back to being a useful business man. The historical certitude with which the English treat their own mores as divine laws amuses Kipling quite as much as does American brashness. The narrator of the story retains Wilton’s friendship; but takes a rise out of the doctor who has come to certify the man who stopped the train.

Writing 24 years later, Andrew Lycett expands further:

But this was typical Rudyard camouflage: his fiction ideas show that he was grappling with two very different themes – the insidious attraction of the English countryside and the phenomenon of the American at large in the wider world. Both topics were touched on in ‘My Sunday at Home’, completed at Tisbury, and more clearly delineated in ‘An Error in the Fourth Dimension’, written on his return to Brattleboro in October. This latter story tells of an American plutocrat, Wilton Sargent (after Wilton House, the nearby house of the Earl of Pembroke, and John Sargent, the American artist patronised by the Wyndhams) who, having decamped to England, thinks his wealth allows him to flag down an express train running through his estate. Such New World chutzpah was not acceptable in Rudyard’s newly romanticised view of Britain, with its ‘fourth dimension’ of customs and traditions, impenetrable to the outsider, but so essential to the ordering of society.

It may be noted that, vide Carrington, Kipling’s parents seem to have been accepted by ‘feudal Wiltshire’, in the way they had been in India by Lord Dufferin when he was Viceroy; so Wilton House and the Wyndhams’ house ‘Clouds’ would have been in their ‘calling circle’.

At much the same time, Harry Ricketts wrote of the tale:

He was busy too writing up ‘An Error in the Fourth Dimension’, one of the notions he had sent to Barr in the summer. By fourth dimension he meant, as he later explained to a correspondent, the dimension in every country ‘in which no one except a lawful native of the land can move without violent collisions.’ In the story Wilton Sargent, the son of a railway magnate, bored with his American lifestyle, went to live in England with the aim of being ‘just a little more English than the English’. As Kipling told his correspondent, Sargent knew his three dimensions perfectly. It was only when he tried to put a thing through on hereditary lines that he came to grief.’ Sargent’s ‘error’ was to flag down a train passing through his property when he wanted to get up to London quickly, and his failure to understand that such cavalier behaviour was unacceptable in England.

This tale, and “My Sunday at Home” are Kipling’s first attempts to write seriously about English country life, and his grasp of specialised detail was not so good as it later became – there are a number of inconsistencies in the tale as written. As usual, they are not greatly material to the tale as it is told, but none the less they are there.


©Alastair Wilson 2007 All rights reserved