The Arrest of Lieutenant Golightly

(notes edited by John McGivering)


The story was published in the Civil and Military Gazette on November 23 1886, in the first Indian edition of Plain Tales from the Hills in 1888, and in subsequent editions of that collection. See David Alan Richards p. 17.

The story

Lieutenant Golightly is a vain man. He prides himself above all as looking like ‘an officer and a gentleman’. At the end of his leave in the Hills he sets out on horseback in a new khaki suit of a delicate olive green, a peacock blue tie, and snowy white collar and helmet, though with no money in his wallet. Unfortunately it rains heavily, destroying his helmet, covering him with dye, and making him look like a tramp. At Pathankote, moneyless, he tries to negotiate for a first class rail ticket, is taken for a deserter, seized forcibly by the station staff, and taken under guard to Umritsar. There he is arrested by the military, who refuse to believe he is an officer. Luckily a fellow officer emerges from a train, recognises Golightly, and rescues him; but too late to save his dignity. [This was before officers had to carry identity cards when out of uniform; Ed.]

Some Critical Comments

Angus Wilson (p. 79) calls this:

The most successful story about an officer … in which a somewhat self-satisfied , extremely dandyish officer falls from his horse in a rainstorm coming down from leave in the hills. Filthy and unrecognisable he is arrested, despite all his protests, as a deserter from the ranks and treated accordingly. Perhaps it is natural that, as in “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”, (Wee Willie Winkie) Kipling seems most in his stride when the Sahib’s role is grimly and comically reversed. His sense of life’s insecurity is fully satisfied.

Elliot L. Gilbert in the Kipling Journal of June 1965 (154/11)  comments that:

…there is never really as much disparity between an author’s early efforts and his late works as may appear on the surface, and indeed, what is so striking about many of Kipling’s first stories is the way in which they mark him out as a serious artist, one quite capable of growing into the author of the mature tales… “The Arrest of Lieutenant Golightly” (is an) intriguing analysis of ‘a slight anecdote’ which turns out to be far richer and more meaningfully composed than might have been guessed from a cursory reading.

For all its slightness, “The Arrest of Lieutenant Golightly” is a wonderfully artful piece of work. Analysis of it shows that Kipling had found not only the subject matter of his later fiction, but also the major themes; and that even at the beginning of his career he was already a quite conscious artist, enormously skilful at embodying an idea in action without sacrificing any of that action’s ability to entertain…every good joke makes somewhere a point that is not wholly funny, and … constructing a joke is quite as serious a business as contructing any other work of art…

His real point is that the universe, in its fortuitousness, is always able to come up with some unexpected challenge for which no amount of planning could have prepared.

Like so much of Kipling’s work, this is a deceptive and complex story: Golightly stresses the point that he is an officer and a gentleman (albeit with a curious taste in ‘plain clothes’) and then goes on to show that while he is an officer, he is certainly no gentleman – a fact that the commentators we have seen have missed.

The N.C.O and private soldiers of the escort, usually pretty good judges, immediately accept him as one of themselves, even admiring his prowess at cursing ‘You an orficer ! It’s the likes o’ you brings disgrace on the likes o’ us’. This may perhaps be seen as the male equivalent of the woman that married Hatt in “In the Pride of his Youth” later in this volume – ‘so nearly of his own caste…’.

Golightly may have had had the money, and a veneer of gentility, that enabled him to get a commission in the army, but seems to have reverted to type when in a tight spot.[Ed.].

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2012 All rights reserved