Rudyard Kipling and Orientalism

Kipling (1865-1936) is often seen as an Orientalist writer, a branch of arts and literature condemned for its imitation of Eastern life in order to fulfil a western agenda.[1] Orientalism, in essence, is the portrayal of the ‘East’ (specifically: The Indian region) under a stereotypical narrative. This narrative has been described by the likes of Moore-Gilbert (2002) as seeing the ‘Orient’ as, “Mysterious,” “Unchanging” and Fanatical.”[2] Said (2001) described Orientalism as a mantra of dehumanizing the Eastern discourse through dogma and stereotypes.[3] Ultimately, according to Said, it was used to justify colonialism.[4]

Kipling wrote from the perspective of an “Anglo-Indian.” Moore-Gilbert argued that the Ango-Indian Orientalism differed from that of the “Metropolitan Orientalism.”[5] While the latter romanticized India to the point of obscurity, the likes of Kipling did not. As residents of India, many of whom lived through the trauma of the Indian Mutiny (1857), they did not romanticize their homeland.[6]

Kipling’s ‘On the City Wall’ (1888) has elements of an Orientalist discourse, but also possesses aspects which show it to be much more critical of the British. This essay will be examining how the story attempts to justify colonialism, describe the Orient and how it portrays a twin phenomenon of a romanticized Oriental past tied with a British-wrought future.

Ultimately, Kipling’s story will be found to be promoting an Orientalist perspective but with much more complexity than simply perceived.

From the first paragraph, the story affirms ‘evidence’ of the “inability of the East to manage its own affairs.”[7] This statement is one of the more blatant assertions of British superiority. In context, the passage is being used in reference to the Orient’s lack of aversion to prostitution and the immorality of said policy. Further in the story, the English authorities are portrayed as strained and well-meaning. They are described as effectively self-sacrificing their own people and resources to attempt to help an India, which is quoted as being unable to ever be fully helped.[8] This idea of British control in India is perpetuated throughout the story as they are seen as the responsible caretaker overseeing raucous children,[9] the bringers of civilization,[10] and ultimately the cause of progress and order in India.[11]

The characters of Eastern origin are often described as exotic, cosmopolitan and sensual. The character of Wali Dad, from his introduction, is given life as a cross between British intellectualism and Islam.[12] This contrast of West and East is meant to contrast the two opposing sides. Wali is used as the narrative tool to expand upon the dual-nature of the new India.[13] Lalun, on the other hand, is described along the lines of a sensual-peak.[14] Her scent, actions, music and characteristics all purvey a sense of vice and exoticism. She is the romanticist view of the Orient, beautiful, care-free and, eventually, manipulative.[15] In the latter half of the story, the Orient are seen as religious fanatics ruled by passion rather than reason.[16]

Kipling’s complexity comes to the fore with the character of Khem Singh. First described as an Old Man viewed from a window, Khem Singh was a resistance leader against the British in many prior conflicts.[17] Now he is a captive, too old for people to be genuinely scared of.[18] Khem is a symbol of the old and barbaric India, one which Wali laments that British progress has overtaken.[19] He hates the British and eventually escapes with the intent of reviving resistance to the Empire. This fails. As much as people respect his past greatness, the benefits of British control are too great.[20] Khem is an antique of an Orientalist narrative. He is the noble warrior, who has been overtaken by the all-consuming “supreme government” of the Empire.[21]

This essay, unfortunately, could not delve into the further complexities of Kipling’s subtle anti-British sentiments, but this does not detract from the Orientalist narrative conveyed. India has been portrayed as a land of exoticism and past-barbarism. Britain has been portrayed as the bringer of order and civilization. The story seems to mourn the death of past Oriental glories, but spreads the power of the Empire. Ultimately, Kipling’s story stands as an example of Orientalist work, creating a narrative in which Britain dominates the East.

Bibliography

Kipling, Rudyard “On the city wall.” in Twenty-one tales, 15-39. London: The Reprint Society, 1946. [first published in In Black and White, Indian Railways Library, Calcutta, 1888].

Macfie, Alexander Lyon. Orientalism, 167-171. London: Longman, 2002.

Walia, Shelley. Edward Said and the writing of history, 38-43. Cambridge: Icon Books UK, 2001.

Footnotes

[1] Shelley Walia, Edward Said and the writing of history (Cambridge: Icon Books UK, 2001), 40.

[2] Alexander Lyon Macfie, Orientalism (London: Longman, 2002), 167.

[3] Walia. Edward Said and the writing of history, 38.

[4] Ibid., 41.

[5] Macfie. Orientalism, 167.

[6] Ibid., 168.

[7] Rudyard Kipling “On the city wall” in Rudyard Kipling, Twenty-one tales (London: The Reprint Society, 1946) [first published in In Black and White, Indian Railways Library, Calcutta, 1888], 15.

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Ibid., 29.

[10] Ibid., 22.

[11] Ibid., 23.

[12] Ibid., 16.

[13] Ibid., 21.

[14] Ibid., 21.

[15] Ibid., 38.

[16] Ibid., 25.

[17] Ibid., 23.

[18] Ibid., 26.

[19] Ibid., 23.

[20] Ibid., 38.

[21] Ibid., 17.