Little Tobrah

(notes edited by John Radcliffe and John McGivering)


First published in The Civil and Military Gazette on 17 July 1888 and collected in Life’s Handicap in 1891.

The story

Little Tobrah, whose ‘head did not reach to the top of the dock’, has been brought to court, because his little sister’s body had ben found at the bottom of a well. He is acquitted, but tells his story to the grooms in the compound, after they had fed him.

His parents, oil-pressers, had died of the small-pox and his sister blinded. The three children were too small to manage the heavy press, which had broken, leaving them with no means of earning a living. Little Tobrah’s brother took their remaining money, and left him and his blind sister with nothing. They had set off to beg food, but it was a time of famine, and there was little.

So Little Tobrah had thrust his sister into the well, because ‘it is better to die than to starve’. He would have thrown himself in too, but his sister was not yet dead, and called to him from the bottom of the well, so he was afraid, and ran away. But now ‘I that was empty am now full’, said Little Tobrah.


It has been suggested that this tragic story is Kipling’s tribute to his brother John, born in April 1870, and living only a few days. Kipling was five at the time, and Andrew Lycett (p. 32) observes: ‘For Rudyard, too, this had been a disturbing event: one that he buried deep in his unconscious and never mentioned’.

Critical responses

Lionel Johnson, writing in The Academy in 1891 (R L Green, Kipling, The Critical Heritage, p. 93) offers faint praise, including this story in his list of eight items, which, he says, ‘with certain limitations, are excellent’.

Philip Mason (p.100) calls this a masterpiece of compression:

Like “The Story of Mohammed Din” (Plain Tales from the Hills) it is a grim, compassionate story, free from self-consciousness, the more moving for its restraint, on a tiny scale Kipling at his best.

Alan Sandison (p. 85) takes a robust view:

There is nothing heinous in Little Tobrah’s killing of his sister, here where death is not a Glorious End but a sardonic means: a card, admittedly an ace, to be played in a rather shabby game.

Hart, (p.56) observes that this story is:

…worthy of Maupassant, and has something of Maupassant’s matter-of-fact manner of dealing with heart-rending facts.

[J H McG/J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2006 All rights reserved