(notes edited by John McGivering)


First published in the Civil and Military Gazette on 26 August 1886 and collected in Life’s Handicap in 1891.

The story

The narrator first encounters ‘Naboth’, an emaciated beggar, outside his house, and gives him a rupee. Next he appears, looking a little fatter, declares himself a sweet-meat seller and asks if he can set up nearbye. Gradually Naboth’s business prospers; he encroaches on his benefactor’s shrubbery and establishes his business there, building a house and compound with a mud wall around it. After a time he moves on and his ‘vineyard’ is ploughed over, but the narrator is left with a strong sense of resentment against him.

The Title

In the Old Testament (1 Kings, 21) Ahab, the King of Israel, covets the vineyard of Naboth, which lies next to his land, to make a garden. He makes him a generous offer to buy it, or exchange it for another vineyard, but Naboth refuses, on the grounds that it is his ancestral inheritance. The King is deeply troubled by this, and Jezebel, his wife, arranges to have Naboth stoned to death. Ahab and Jezebel emerge as the villains of the piece, denounced by the prophet Elijah for their wickedness.

Rather curiously, in calling his importunate beggar man ‘Naboth’ Kipling identifies his narrator with King Ahab in the Old Testament, implying that in some way Naboth had been unreasonable to insist on his rights, and saying at the end of the story that Ahab had been ‘misrepresented in the scriptures’.. If one takes literally Kipling’s opening remark in the second line of the story that this is ‘an allegory of Empire’, he is insisting on the rights of the powerful to lay claim to neighbouring territory and take ruthless steps to acquire it; but perhaps he is simply being ironical, as Tompkins has suggested (see below) .

Housekeeping in India

For another glimpse of European housekeeping in India, see the collection of stories called “The Smith Administration” in From Sea to Sea Vol. II; although somewhat facetious in tone, and on first appearance rather slight, they give a first-hand account of domestic life at the time. See also Plain Tales from the Hills and Wee Willie Winkie.

Other reading: Plain Tales from the Raj, Ed. Charles Allen (André Deutsch, 1975); British Life in India Ed. R.V. Vernède,, (OUP, Delhi, 1995); The Raj at Table David Burton, (Faber & Faber, 1993)

Critical comments

An unknown contemporary, writing in The Bookman of October and November 1891 and signing himself “Y.Y.”, says of this and other stories in this volume:

So young a man cannot possibly have studied profoundly and exhaustively every inch of the ground he covers … the dilemma remains, either a creative genius well-nigh incredible, or a very considerable basis of experience. For my own part, inclining to the latter, I would fain combine both views.
[Kipling, The Critical Heritage p. 131]

On the other hand, this is on the list of six stories on which, in the same collection, Lionel Johnson comments: in my sincere and humble opinion, do not deserve publication. (p. 93)

J M S Tompkins observes:

This ambiguous little anecdote can be taken from any end. The ‘allegory’ (line 2) is ironical, since the parties are reversed; it is the Englishman’s estate that is undermined. (p. 98)

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2006 All rights reserved