On the borderland
between two epochs.

 Autothematic issues in Rudyard Kipling’s short stories

Joanna Kokot (Warmia and Mazury University)

Rupert Croft-Crooke opens his 1948 study of Rudyard Kipling with an introductory chapter, which – unconventionally enough – is not devoted to a general discussion of the writer’s life and art, but concentrates on one particular story, namely ” ‘The Finest Story in the World’ ” (Many Inventions). Conventional or unconventional, such a strategy appears to be a perfect choice to introduce the works of Kipling to the reader – it foregrounds the motif of story-telling and story-making in the writer’s literary output; or, in more general terms, the motif of creation, also in the broader sense of the word. Indeed, it is the theme which runs through the majority of Kipling’s prose works, presenting a whole spectrum of activities that might be defined as creative – from the purely artistic ones to those which result in changing the material aspect of the surrounding world.

The autothematic issues thus introduced result in centering the reader’s attention not merely on the course of action or on the presented reality but on how a tale “is made” and what are the consequences of its organization for the ultimate world model presented there – a problem not uncommon in the literary texts at the turn of the 19th century, no matter whether they undertake it directly, as the subject of the characters’ discussions, or indirectly, via the imposing constructional patterns of the text.

Already the inserted tales, so numerous in Kipling’s stories, reveal their creative aspect, even if they are apparently common speech and not artistic ones: they do not serve merely as messages about facts, but also as the means of communicating a unique world, revealed in the teller’s words. But on many occasions the problem of artistic creation is one of the central thematic issues. ” ‘The Finest Story in the World’ ” is a text devoted to a process of writing a story, whereas the theme of ” ‘Wireless’ ” (Traffics and Discoveries) is a reconstruction of Keats writing “The Eve of St. Agnes” by a medium. “Dayspring Mishandled” (Limits and Renewals) tells the story of a literary forgery, and the pseudo-Chaucerian text produced by one of the characters is quoted in full in the story. Beetle, the protagonist of Stalky & Co. is a school poet and satirist, one of whose works is quoted in both parts of “Slaves of the Lamp”.

Not only the creative activities of the characters are commented upon, though. Kipling makes his own activities the object of direct or indirect commentaries, too. Such is the role of the preface to Life’s Handicap, where the “Author” commenting upon the choice of the tales, defining their sources, revealing the uniqueness and oddity of each of them is to be identified with the narrator of the stories, thus the act of the artistic creation is shown as taking place already on the level of the narrator’s tale. The same can be said about other tales, where the narrator – directly, even if rather discreetly – reveals his role as a writer, turning facts into literature. Such is the case in “A Matter of Fact” where the final words (‘And a lie it has become’) evidently refer to the story itself, being an incredible (from the point of view of the characters) tale about a sea serpent, or in “Slaves of the Lamp II” (the last story in Stalky & Co.) where Beetle-narrator declares having proved his responsibility ‘for the whole thing’, the Present Perfect Tense used there endowing the story itself (or rather the whole collection) with the function of the proof. Thus already on the level of narration the author reveals his self-consciousness as to the creative dimension of his own narrative. (7) [One can find some analogies to Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes, where Watson-narrator often comments upon the way of telling the story and the literary tradition alluded to (Kokot Kronikarz 90-92).]

Kipling’s stories do not speak merely about creation, but above all about its personal dimension. The reader, led towards the understanding of the uniqueness of every utterance, is also led towards the personal aspect of reality consisting in creating.

Most of the characters from Kipling’s stories are engaged in their work to such an extent that they identify themselves with it. Such is Findlayson’s attitude towards the bridge he builds (“The Bridge-Builders”), or the attitude of Mrs Hauksbee, blind to the effects of her activities, towards the young man she “raises” (“The Education of Otis Yeere”). Mr Pyecroft is engaged in his masquerades as an artist creating an exceptional work of art (” ‘Their Lawful Occasions’ “, “The Horse Marines”). Olaf from “The Bold ’Prentice” treats his apprentice, Ottley, almost like his own son, and the young man’s success is at the same time the success of his tutor. The person of the creator is “present” in the creation. Such an understanding of the relation between the creator and the creation is perhaps most obvious in Puck of Pook’s Hill, where it is one of the main thematic issues. England, it appears, is a value because it has been created by whole generations. The values professed by her makers, their effort and sacrifice constitute an inconspicuous and yet ever-present aspect of this country. That presence is the theme of the two frame poems – “Puck’s Song” and “The Children’s Song”.

The personal dimension of Kipling’s texts is also asserted by the very fact of the use by the author of many voices and many utterances by various people. Each utterance, each voice, is at the same time somebody’s voice, communicating a personal vision of reality, more or less subjective. One of the richest spectrums of such tales the reader can find in Puck of Pook’s Hill and its sequel, the collections ostensibly addressed to children. The phrases referring to the passing of time reveal Sir Richard as an old man conscious of the transitoriness of all things, whereas abusing the present tense by Parnesius denies the distance between the time of events and the time of the narrative situation, thus asserting the centurion’s faith in the invincible and eternal set of values represented by the equally invincible and eternal Roman Empire. Moreover, the young Roman’s tale is dominated by the lyrical mode, the descriptions are full of poetic devices, thus enabling the listener to share the speaker’s experience through the order of the tale, making the presented reality an unusual and astounding one. Hal’s jocular distance towards himself and to his engagement in his job, his appreciation of the audacity of the Sussex people reveal his own character, in the same way as the language used by Kadmiel discloses the teller’s bitterness and hatred. Thus none of the tellers merely presents facts, but they re-create reality into their own subjective visions.

The secondary narratives in Kipling’s stories often enjoy a special and rather unexpected status, which stresses their autotelic function – as a means of interpersonal contact rather than as a means of communication about the external reality. Whereas the beginning of a story often suggests that the inserted tale would be open to the frame reality, the further development reveals the autonomy of the tale in relation to the external world. Against the initial expectations the world of the secondary narrative proves to be a closed world. The narrative itself becomes an event, a fact in the frame reality, thus it is important that the fact has occurred at all and not merely what information it carries. Even if the tale does not lose its qualities as an utterance, a message about some events, it is not subordinated to the immediate demands of the frame reality. It is perhaps most obvious in Puck of Pook’s Hill. and its sequel where the children, Dan and Una, forget the tales of the guests from the past immediately after having parted with them. What is important is the participation in the process of communication and not gaining information about the surrounding world.

Exactly the same can be said about Kipling’s texts themselves. The experience of the text as a pattern of words would be an equivalent to the contact with the author himself (one is immediately reminded of Henry James’ “The Figure in the Carpet”, where the ultimate understanding by a short story by the characters puts an end to their efforts to meet its author).

Thus Kipling’s stories combine a constructor’s self-consciousness with a very strong sense of the personal and social dimension of the process of telling. It is not incidental that the motif of creation is so important in his stories, and so is the motif of human community built by the act or the process of creation (including artistic creation and the process of engaging the reader in the story itself). However, as far as Kipling’s stories are concerned, the community is not based on conforming to the common conventions of reading literature. On the contrary. What is important are those strategies which concentrate the reader’s attention on the constructional aspect of the text – being unique and unexpected.

While commenting upon Rudyard Kipling’s short stories, Sandra Kemp (29-50) mentions the baffling and surprising nature of Kipling’s worlds. Exactly the same can be said about the nature of Kipling’s texts – what initially seems to be obvious eventually turns out to be only a false appearance; the truth lies in the unexpected. A story, just like the presented reality, is an ordered entity, however the rules which underlie this order are not always evident at the first sight or in concord with the reader’s expectations.
And indeed it is the constant play with expectations and conventional styles of reading that underlies most of Kipling’s short stories. The writer often utilizes the simplest and most automatized style of reading from among those functioning in the potential readers’ literary consciousness – that is to perceive a literary text merely as a source of information about the fictional reality, or as a simple realization of a given literary convention, and thus to ignore its “phenomenal” nature as a unique pattern of signs, which constitutes the essence of literariness. The play with the reader is in fact a play with the reading habits: a story pretends that it conforms to them and subordinates to them all its meanings, only to frustrate the expectations by some twist forcing the reader to revise their stance.

Perhaps the best examples of such manipulating the reader’s expectations are those stories which start with a short introductory passage announcing the events, setting and the theme of the whole story. Obviously such an announcement provokes certain anticipations concerning the further development of the tale. Thus “My Own True Ghost Story” starts with a rather longish – and perfectly serious – enumeration of the types of ghosts haunting India. When confronted with the title as well as with the epigraph (a fragment of J. Thompson’s A City of Dreadful Night) such an introductory passage suggests that the story would be a report on the protagonist-narrator’s encounter with one of such ghosts, blood-curling and dreadful. A similar introduction precedes the action proper in “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”. Here the third person narrator announces a tale about “a town where the Dead who did not die but may not live” dwell, thus setting the story in the tradition of the occult fiction. At first both stories develop according to the model suggested at the beginning. The reporter from “My Own True Ghost Story” spins a tale about a haunted bungalow, quoting the keeper’s apparent explanation of the horrible night, whereas the delirious and half-conscious Jukes rides into the night with the accompaniment of howling dogs, the setting being a standard one in the Gothic fiction. And yet eventually the bungalow ghost appears to be a mere noisy rat, whereas the city of the living dead turns out to be a dirty and stinking settlement of ex-cataleptics imprisoned there by Hindu superstitions.

The authoritative tone of the introductory passages asserts the credibility of the plot models they announce. But they do not merely provoke false expectations – they also reveal the mechanism of the reader’s mistake. The reader recognizes a given model, whereas the story demands something more than mere recognition, namely the reconstruction of the unique patterns and the unique meanings communicated by it. It is not an incident that the expectations are sometimes fulfilled in a most perverse way – after all “My Own True Ghost Story” eventually appears to be the reporter’s “own true story”, as it is based on his experience, and a “true ghost story” as well, as no ghost appeared. The teller’s humorous distance towards his own reactions to the night frights covers also the literary or paraliterary conventions that are alluded to – it is a code that is commented upon and not mere course of action. Or the reader’s attention is shifted from the seemingly obvious to what is “hidden” in the unique patterns of the story – as it is in the case of “The Gardener” (Debits and Credits), an ostensibly simple tale about an unmarried mother where the reader is provoked to play a detective and gather all the clues which might suggest the real relationship between Helen and Michael. Here the final scene, when the woman never notices Michael being called her son by the mysterious Gardener, changes the text into a lyrical story about the truth as a liberating factor (Kokot Preteritions 139, 143-144), thus foregrounding what seemed to be one of the subordinated motifs.

[By “lyrical” we mean a text which communicates meanings mainly indirectly, due to expressing or suggesting, and not to telling (the epical mode) or presenting (the dramatic); Zgorzelski, 78 et passim (14)]

In the case of this particular story the reader’s attention is shifted from the fictional reality (the question of Helen’s motherhood) to the model of the world proposed by the text, whereas the questions concerning the facts are suspended due to the final preterition (the explanation why Helen does not react to the Gardener’s revealing of the truth so long concealed is never provided and proves to be inessential).

Thus on the one hand a story provokes the reader to expect what they are familiar with, on the other it denies the provoked expectations by introducing elements surprising from the perspective of the initially assumed interpretative model. The play with the conventionalized patterns and the exposing of them as insufficient for grasping the ultimate meanings of a text fulfills a “didactic” role in Kipling’s stories. It imposes distance towards the conventionalized styles of reading, thus defining the initially assumed stance as false not only in relation to Kipling’s texts but to literature in general. At the same time it proposes a proper way of reading and interpreting literary works of art that results from the way a given story develops, which is always unique. Thus not only is the reader made to experience the constructional patterns but such an experience appears to be also the metatheme of the text. The reader is “led” by the story itself towards the proper style of reading, towards the proper attitude to a literary work of art. Being “lost in the text” they are forced to correct their interpretative errors and to discover the mechanisms underlying them, thus actively participating in the process of literary communication.

Yet the metatextual issues in Kipling’s stories – introduced by the writer’s manipulating the process of reception – are not the aim in itself. In other words, a story not only makes the reader observe particular constructional peculiarities, but these peculiarities appear to be significant for the ultimate world model which is communicated there. The text’s dominant aspect is not the reader’s mistake (provoked by the author) but the consequences of correcting it. The process or reading is therefore not reduced to mere play with the text – on the contrary, denying the unifying interpretations the writer “opens” the reader to the unique meanings communicated by a given story. “How” something has been said appears to be essential for “what” has been said.

What are the effects of such educating the reader? Above all they are made to experience a literary text as an utterance autonomous in relation to all the extratextual contexts. Obviously this is a feature of all the artistic texts, however Kipling makes it the theme of his stories. Such an autonomy is suggested by making the reader experience a literary text as a semiotic object, a pattern of signs, a phenomenon, and not a mere representation of anything beyond it. It is the construction of a given text that defines the way of reading and interpreting it – whereas the world model communicated by the text appears to result from the intratextual relations experienced by the reader. Moreover, such an experience – of the textual patterns and of the world order they constitute – appears to be the main purpose here; the world model communicated by a given story is in the story’s unique order. Any “utilization” of a literary work of art would assume its simplification, an act denied among others by the plays with the reader’s expectations.

The peculiarities of Kipling’s short stories signalled here and the type of thematic issues communicated by them seem to reflect the tendencies typical of the turn of the century prose. One may say that Kipling’s output can be thus interpreted as an intermediary stage between the 19th century literature and the self-centred Modernist prose in the 20’s of the 20th century (6) [Of course we are only talking about similarities, or analogies to many various literary schools, trends or writers. Kipling himself evidently did not identify with any literary group, as is confirmed by his remarks in Something of Myself (51-52)]. Here is what Douwe W. Fokkema writes about the latter:

…it is a Modernist convention to resort to metalingual comment, that is to discuss the codes used either in the text itself, or on other occasions … This type of self reflexivity also occurred before the Modernist period. It acquires, however, considerable importance in the Modernist code (3) .

Both in the literary texts of this period and in the artes poeticae and literary theories there appear attempts to formulate a new attitude towards literature – stressing its artistic aspect. Already the fin de siècle movements do away with the utilitarian tendencies of the epoch. One can also risk a claim that the fascination of the late 19th century writers with the French and Russian prose (not without an influence on the English short story and its development) concerned rather the narrative techniques than the thematic issues – thus a certain way of literary communication was consciously imitated and adopted. The considerations of the theoreticians contemporary to the Modernists (like Roger Fry), dealing among others with the possibility of grasping the truth about reality by literature (or art in general), concentrate mainly on the artistic ways of creating or modeling the world (Gloversmith 158-163). The Modernist prose writers exposed the constructional rules of their texts (Gloversmith on Virginia Woolf 163-165, 169, 173-179; cf also Fletcher and Bradbury 394), whereas already the stories and novels by Joseph Conrad – Kipling’s contemporary – reveal a strong consciousness of the literary and cultural systems and codes used by the writer (Modrzewski (11) passim). E.M. Forster not only makes art the subject of discussion of his prose texts, but he also introduces the theme of artistic creation into his short stories by the very way the world is modeled there (Lubich Pyrzowska (9)7-17).

On the other hand the metatextual issues in Kipling’s short stories do not eliminate the traditional themes – rather they endow the latter with a new dimension. Neither is a question posed concerning the nature of art (also literary art) understood in general terms. The self-conscious Modernist prose – on the contrary – placed the problem of art as an abstract and universal problem in the centre of its interest, whereas a Modernist artist modelled his/her text after the principles professed. Kipling’s texts seem rather to illustrate the possibilities of artistic creation than to delve into its nature. His short stories never function as abstract, “artificially” worked out and imposed patterns, as it happens in the Modernist texts. [Maybe the most obvious text of this type would be James Joyce’s Ulysses where the presented reality is ordered according to the model of Homer’s Odyssey. ] Virginia Woolf’s novels are interpreted as “novels of pattern rather than plot” (Fletcher and Bradbury (2) ; cf also Gloversmith (4) passim). One can generalize the comments concerning André Gide’s Les Faux-Monnayeurs, “literature is tidying up after life’s chaotic burgling” [Fletcher and Bradbury 409-410) (2) ]. The order of art is not presented there as opposed to the chaos of reality – but rather as a personal reconstruction of the surrounding world or its aspects.
The way of introducing the autothematic issues in Kipling’s texts – the play with the reader’s expectations and habits – seems to be closer to the 19th century prose, too, in which the reader’s attention might be centred upon the text patterns due to provoking the eventually frustrated expectations.

…its main effect was to draw attention to the narratorial role itself, to inculpate the reader with the narrative voice which claimed – and frequently exercised – ostentatious tyranny over the reader, anticipating and often cheating his expectations, frequently for comic effects ((2) Fletcher and Bradbury 395).
The difference between Kipling’s short stories and the earlier prose consists mainly in the fact that in the latter the metatextual patterns are to be recognized on the level of the narrator’s utterance (often commenting upon his own tale). In Kipling’s texts the play with the reader’s expectations does not take place on the communcative level of narrator-narratee, but on that of implied author-reader. Thus the question “why” a given device has been utilized, what is its function in the text’s structure, what is its relation to other textual elements is not the theme of the narrator’s divagations, but part of the task that the implied author – a hidden holder of the text’s rules – gives to the assumed reader.

Beside the autothematic motifs and the self consciousness as to the textual patterns, Kipling’s texts show still other affinities with the Modernist prose. For example the subjective and personal presentation of reality is close to the breach with the convention of an omniscient narrator – the convention being typical of the mimetic prose of the Victorian fiction, concentrating on the “copying” of reality, thus on the message about the “objective” world (see Lodge 481) (8)

One might say that similar conventions are already present in the Victorian novel, especially in those text which depart from the mainstream, such as for example the novels by Wilkie Collins. However, one has to remember that in Collins’s novels (The Woman in White, The Moonstone) the main function of the subsequent narratives is to complete the addressee’s knowledge of the facts, only their secondary role is to reveal the narrators’ personalities and their unique (or stereotypical) world visions.
[Thus the witnesses’ evidence is not important in itself except as evidence. Even Jonathan’s journal in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the initial part of the novel), where the narrator-protagonist is less quick than the reader in grasping the implications of particular facts, is more important as a report upon those facts than as a testimony of a given world vision. The narrator’s ignorance is simply one more source of the suspense here. In Kipling’s stories the inserted tales are always essential in themselves and for their own sake, whereas the information about reality is not always complete and it does not have to be such.].

In the Modernist prose this effect is acquired with the manipulation of points of view, the stream of consciousness technique, the introduction of many temporal planes and the like. In Kipling’s stories the subjective view of reality is acquired due to more traditional techniques which do not split up with the 19th century narration – thus we have here inserted tales, texts beside texts, conventions and codes whose stereotypical nature is revealed, and the like.

Not only the techniques of acquiring the subjective world vision differentiate Kipling from the Modernists. The effect is different, too. In the Modernist prose the extreme subjectivism may lead to the questioning or even partial elimination of any “objective” reality – the object of observation is the perceiving mind:

In Modernism the relation between text and represented world is characterized by the convention of epistemological doubt. There is no pretension that the text indeed describes the world it aims to describe, nor that the explanations it gives are more than an approximation of truth. With regard to the organization of the text this implies a preference for the continuing flow of the stream-of-consciousness, which never aims at a definite result and even less at general validity ((3) Fokkema 46).

In Kipling’s stories the “objective” reality is never annihilated nor is the possibility of its perception questioned. They create the illusion of the presented reality much more strongly than the Modernist texts, the reader can “enter” the fictional world, identifying with the characters or the addressee of the narration (which results mainly from the traditional narrative techniques adopted by the writer). From the perspective of the narrative situation a tale reveals its referential function, so the reader never loses from sight the persons and events told by the narrator, thus the existence of the “objective” reality is never questioned. [(2) To paraphrase Ortega y Gasset’s statement, the artist still claims that he is telling the world and not that he is creating it (cf. Fletcher and Bradbury 394).]

A “subjective” world vision is not connected with any conscious “deformation” or even elimination of the external reality, which is often the purpose of the avant garde techniques of the Modernists. It is rather a demonstration of the possibilities to communicate one’s own, unique world vision – the possibilities offered by language (used in literary or common speech) [(2) The references to the mimetic fiction of the 19th century and frequent make believe techniques (the first person narrator in the role of an author, the initial remarks confirming the authenticity of the events, references to known places or facts from the extratextual reality, elements of satire) provoke the reader to search for the meanings on the level of the fictional reality. These techniques thus participate in the game leading the reader towards those meanings which result from the constructional patterns, being imposed on the generalizations resulting from the shape of the presented reality.].

What is closer to the poetics of Modernism than to that of Victorian fiction is the impression of the incompleteness of the reality presented in Kipling’s stories. The stories do not fulfil the principles so far underlying the traditional fiction – that is that the reader should not face riddles unexplained, questions unanswered, facts never elucidated. The incompleteness is suggested in Kipling’s fiction at least in three ways. Firstly, his stories are characterized by preteritions which ostensibly constitute an obstacle in their full understanding (like “The Gardener” already mentioned here, “The Bridge Builders” with its riddle of the gods, or “At the End of the Passage”, where the results of Spurstow’s experiment are never communicated to the reader or to other characters; see also an interpretation of “Mrs Bathurst” in Waterhouse – esp. 199). Secondly, the subjectiveness dominating in the world vision presented in the stories suggests an infinite number of versions of reality proposed by individual observers. Finally, the tales can be supplemented, or continued in other stories, which not only deal with other aspects of reality, but often present them form a completely different angle (for example “In the Rukh” with Mowgli as one of the characters, but presented from the point of view of a white traveller and the stories from the Jungle Books, adopting a completely different perspective), or even communicate them in a different code (a poem or an illustration accompanying a story).

Such a convention of presenting the fictional reality as incomplete seems to foreshadow the tendency which in Modernism manifested itself in the idea of the unfinished or uncompleted nature of an artistic text. This tendency has been discussed for example by Douve W. Fokkema (3) who also mentions the relative nature of an ending – understood rather as a suspension of the text. An example of such a technique may be the ending of André Gide’s Les Faux-Monnayeurs) or The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by Joyce. Frank Kermode notices some gaps in the course of the plot of Conrad’s The Secret Agent (thus also incompleteness of the text), perceiving Conrad as a forerunner of the techniques used later by the nouveau roman writers:

“Most would agree that the best novel of 1907 was The Secret Agent, a story with an enormous hole in the plot: so this particular kind of invitation to exceptionally hermeneutic activity on the part of the reader must be attributed to Conrad and not to Alain Robbe-Grillet, who has admittedly more difficult hole in Le Voyeur”.

It is perhaps worth noting that a similar sense of textual incompleteness (which was often a subject of the narrator’s divagations) characterized also the Polish prose at the beginning of the 20th century [Lebkowska 15-34, Nycz passim (10)]. Yet in the case of Kipling’s stories that incompleteness of the presented reality does not suggest an analogous incompleteness of the text. On the contrary – the reader is provoked to look for meanings on the level of the text. The world vision presented in a given story is always complete (no matter how subjective, understated or full of preteritions the narrative is), and if a given story leads to another then the later text is not merely a continuation of the plot (as it was in the 19th century prose) or a supplementation of the extant story with a new, indispensable element. It is simply a creation of a new pattern, which may grow from another text but is at same time independent of it as a meaningful structure.

Kipling’s short stories evidently testify to the experimental tendencies present in the prose at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries (mainly in short fiction), foreshadowing the self-conscious Modernism. The autothematic issues present in so many other short stories of this period (sometimes even rather astonishingly in the output of those writers who are usually associated with popular prose – as Conan Doyle), even if they do not result in any special complication of meanings, are of crucial importance for the communicative situation assumed in the text. The reader’s role is not only to follow the plot, but also to notice the way the story “is made”, the conventions which are alluded to, the role of the cultural and literary codes adopted by the author to create the ultimate model of reality communicated by the text.
Kipling provokes his readers to participate actively and consciously in the process of communication, to reject the cultural and literary stereotypes, to concentrate not only on what the story is about, but also on how it is made. Being still rooted in the Victorian fiction (as the traditional themes are never eliminated), Kipling’s stories in many ways refer to those tendencies which will become the hallmark of the later Modernist fiction.



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