The Light that Failed

Notes on Chapter I

These notes by Geoffrey Annis are based on those prepared for Vol. V of the ORG, published in 1970. The page and line numbers below refer to the Macmillan Uniform Edition of The Light that Failed, first published in 1899 and frequently reprinted since.


[The Dedication] These lines clearly illustrate Kipling’s sense of loss at the Southsea separation, when he was left by his parents to live with strangers at the age of five, as described in “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” in Wee Willie Winkie (1888), and at the end of his life in Something of Myself. This is crucial to an understanding both of his own work, and of Dick’s character in the novel. Zorah T Sullivan in Narratives of Empire (Cambridge University Press 1993 Ch. 2, page 29) refers to the repressive effect of: ‘the anguish of maternal … abandonment and loss of self’ in this context.
Angus Wilson, in The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling has suggested that the Dedication may also be an attempt to appease his mother, who must have felt shocked and guilty at the account of Rudyard’s sufferings in “Baa Baa, Black Sheep”, and who was a powerful influence on Kipling’s decision to give the shorter version of the novel a happy ending. (This was also urged on him by his publishers.)

Betty Miller’s essay ‘Kipling’s First Novel’ (Rudyard Kipling; the Man, his Work and his World, Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1973 page 6) reminds us that: ‘a belated echo of The Light that Failed was to make itself heard 20 years later, and from an unexpected quarter’ . She describes the story “The Knife and the Naked Chalk” from Rewards and Fairies (p. 138) in which a neolithic shepherd desires a new powerful weapon, ‘Magic’ iron knives from a neighbouring tribe. The Priestess of the tribe exacts a terrible sacrificial price by putting out his right eye. He wins the knives and returns to his own people, where henceforth he is regarded as a God, but the woman he loves takes advantage of his blindness and leaves him. Alone and despairing he is tended by his mother:

When my spirit came back I heard her whisper in my ear,’Whether you live or die are made different.I am your mother’.

This reinforces ones sense of the novel’s circular structure, linking as it does with Alf’s singing of the music hall song “A Boy’s best Friend is ’is Mother!” (Ch XIV page 234 line 7) and Dick’s final poignant: ‘It’s just before the battle, mother’ (Ch XV page 287 lines 27-29); this is also from a 19th Century music hall song.

[Heading] Eight lines by Kipling ascribed to Big Barn Stories (“The Childhood of Dick and Maisie”). Betty Miller (Page 2 of the essay mentioned above) comments that:

In putting the verse at the head of this opening chapter, Kipling has himself defined the origin of his situation; placed it at a specific moment in his own childhood, when he was five and his sister was only three.

[Page 1, line 7] pin-fire cartridges an early, and dangerous form of small-arms ammunition detonated by a hammer falling on a small brass pin. Cartridges carelessly handled or dropped could be detonated on impact.

[Page 2, lines 9-10] purchases … revolvers today’s restrictions on the sale and possession of fire-arms did not then exist.

[Page 2, line 12] the guardian who was incorrectly supposed to stand in the place of a mother the first of Kipling’s autobiographical references. The opening scene is consistent with what we know of the Kipling’s time in Southsea at the ‘house of desolation’, except that – of course – in reality the little girl was Kipling’s sister.

[Page 2, line 27] Dick Heldar The German for ‘hero’ is held. This surname confirms that Kipling sees Dick as a hero, albeit a tragic one. ’Dick’, too, is a deliberate use of a manly-sounding forename. An interesting similar example of more contemporary naming – possibly influenced by Kipling – is the doctor ‘Dick Diver’ in Scott Fitzgerald’s 1933 novel Tender is the Night, who begins the story handsome, confident, and successful, and then is plunged metaphorically into self-destruction by his mentally-ill wife. The novel is autobiographical in its fictional use of the relationship between Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. like The Light that Failed in its reflection of Kipling’s feelings for Flo Garrard.

[Page 3, line 5] developed into a liar this and much of the rest of the page echoes the account in Something of Myself (p. 6, line 25) where Kipling writes that the bullying and torture he endured at Southsea:

… made me give attention to the lies I soon found it necessary to tell; and this, I presume, is the foundation of literary effort

(Editor’s italics)

This is a coded expression of Kipling’s frequently ambiguous short-story narrative technique. It is one of several early references (see the Introduction) which attempt to explain the negative aspcts of Dick’s adult behaviour.

[Page 4, line 23] grass collar refers to a popular country practice of making such items for animals.

[Page 5, line 17] Fort Keeling Not traced

[Page 6, line 2] breakwater there is no breakwater on the Southsea coast, but a groyne, or wall or jetty built out of a river bank or seashore to control erosion may be intended.

[Page 6, line 19] Marazion Bell Buoy There is no buoy thus named fronting Southsea. Marazion is a Cornish town, the name presumably being chosen here for its nautical-sounding euphony.

[Page 8 line 26] yellow sea-poppy Glaucium flavum found frequently on sea shores, with waxy leaves and large golden-yellow flowers.

[Page 13, line 29] Tophet here meaning Hell. It was a valley south of Jerusalem devoted to the burning of dead bodies, ordure and other unclean things. (see also the note on this [Page 227, line 9] in ”The Adoration of the Mage” in Abaft the Funnel). There is also, perhaps, another link with Something of Myself and the Southsea experience:

I had never heard of Hell, so I was introduced to it in all its terrors.
(p. 6, line 6)

This is contrasted with Kipling’s remembrance of his holidays with the Burne Jones family (p. 11, line 16), which exerted a lasting and positive artistic and literary influence on him:

…for a month each year I possessed a paradise which I verily believe saved me.

[Page 14, final line] ‘Oh , How selfish you are’ this important sub-theme of ‘selfishness’ recurs in later chapters, notably Chapter V, when the adult Maisie has returned, and it helps to explain her contradictory but self-aware character. When Dick wishes them to live, love, and work together and she refuses, she says (Page 69 lines 3 and 31):

‘Dick,don’t be selfish’ and “That’s why I feel so selfish”

Later with Dick out of hearing she says to herself (Page 71 line 23):

‘I’m a wretch, – a horrid, selfish wretch. But it’s Dick and Dick will understand’.

She wants him to be back in her life but on her own terms, and is unable to control her feelings.

©Geoffrey Annis 2006 All rights reserved