by Rudyard Kipling
Physical appearance is really important to the characters in Kim, but it can also be a double-edged sword if you are trying to figure out who these characters really are underneath the surface. So, for example, when the Mahratta (now spelled Maratha) stumbles onto Kim's train in Chapter Eleven, he looks like a "mean, lean little person" (11.117) who has cuts on his face, torn clothes, and a bandaged leg.
He claims to have been in a cart accident, but as Kim looks more closely, he realizes that this Mahratta's story doesn't add up: his cuts are all too clean to have been caused by rolling around in gravel. What's more, Kim spots the Mahratta's silver amulet—a twin to the one that Kim wears—proving his identity as a spy. Kim has to look through the Mahratta's first layer of outward appearances to figure out that he is a fellow agent.
So if appearances are so deceptive in this novel, then why are we including this as a characterization tool? It's true that the first layer of the Mahratta's appearance is tricky, but Kim is capable of reading the more detailed, smaller clues of the Mahratta's clothes and injuries to see who he really is underneath it all. Appearances may lie to a degree in this book, but to a great observer like Kim, Lurgan, or Creighton—or the narrator—the truth of each character's identity still becomes apparent to the trained, suspicious eye.
This book teaches you that, if you just look closely enough and if you refuse to take anything at face value, physical appearances can still tell you a lot about even the most cleverly disguised person.
Speech And Dialogue
Even more important in this novel than whatyou say is how you say it. Consider the differences between the lama and the Babu's ways of speaking. The lama tells the curator of the Wonder-House:
The books of my lamassery I read, and they were dried pith; and the later ritual with which we of the Reformed Law have cumbered ourselves—that, too, had no worth to these old eyes. Even the followers of the Excellent One are at feud on feud with one another. It is all illusion. (1.58)
The content of what the lama is saying is pretty simple: today's believers in Buddha are too caught up in rituals and arguments to follow the real truth of their faith. They have lost track of what matters about the religious life. But the way that the lama expresses himself tells us more about who he is as a person than about Buddhism as a religion. First, the lama's grammar is strange, formal, and old-fashioned: he tells the curator, "The books of my lamassery I read," rather than "I read the books in my lamassery."
The lama also speaks with a lot of figurative language, which means that he uses figures of speech instead of focusing on literal meaning. He describes the later rituals of his sect of Buddhism as "[having] no worth to these old eyes." Now, we are sure that eyes don't have any strong feelings about the worth—or otherwise—of religious ritual. It's the lama who finds that these rituals have no worth. But instead of coming out and saying so, he uses a more poetic expression. All of these verbal clues indicate that the lama is serious, learned, literary, and a little bit out of this contemporary world.
By contrast, we have the Babu. When he gives Kim a box of medicines to bring with him on the road as a disguise, the Babu says:
I hope some day to enjoy your offeecial acquaintance. Ad interim, if I may be pardoned that expression, I shall give you this betel-box which is highly valuable article and cost me two rupees only four years ago. (9.136)
The Babu's way of expressing himself is incredibly self-important. He throws in the Latin expression ad interim (meaning in the meantime) and then draws attention to it by adding, "if I may be pardoned that expression." So he is verbally underlining the fact that he used Latin in conversation, so please take note of how smart he is. Kipling also tries to portray the Babu's accented English by using unusual spellings for common words such as "offeecial" instead of "official."
Yet, in spite of the Babu's almost overly formal speaking, his English is still a bit clumsy. He drops the article a in front of "highly valuable article," and the end of his sentence runs on without total logical sense or relevance. Kipling uses the Babu's dialogue to make him seem a bit ridiculous and incompetent. Now, Kipling's portrayal of the Babu's speech also happens to be completely consistent with racist caricatures of Indian speakers of English common in Britain during the colonial period. (For more on the racism of Kipling's portrayal of the Babu, check out our "Character Analysis" of him. It's pretty intense, really.)
So each character in Kim has his or her own distinctive style of speech, which tells us a lot about who they are as people. But we have to remember that, as with physical appearances, these modes of speech can be tricky. After all, the book often repeats the fact that Kim can speak many languages with the specific tones of different classes and castes of people. Kim's dialogue shifts according to his audience, so it doesn't reveal too much about his essential character (except, as always, that he is a social chameleon).
The India that Kipling presents in Kim is totally subdivided according to the class, religion, and ethnic background of its residents. Even though we see a mix of many different people milling around together on the train or the Grand Trunk Road, there are still obvious divisions among people that can make a big difference to their characters.
The first, worst divide is between Sahibs (white people) and natives (Indian people). It's only once Father Victor and Reverend Bennett pull aside Kim's shirt and see the untanned, white skin underneath his clothes that they actually start to listen to him and take him seriously. Kim has the freedom to go to school and to continue hanging around with local people because he belongs to an elite group: the Sahibs. If Kim were actually the Indian child that he so often appears to be, he probably wouldn't have the social mobility—and certainly not the money—to go to St. Xavier's.
So race is a big factor in determining social status in Kim. Other major categories for assessing social status include gender, religion, and caste. (We discuss what caste is in more detail in the "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section.)
For instance, the Amritzar prostitute has no identity beyond (1) her gender, (2) her place of origin (the city of Amritzar), and (3) her job. It's all of these categories that allow Kim to judge what kind of a person she is: "Ladies of that persuasion [in other words, courtesans—high-class prostitutes], he knew, were generous" (2.55). Kim can guess that the Amritzar woman will give him money because he knows that she is a prostitute who associates with wealthy men, and he knows that such women are (apparently) generous to the poor.
This novel judges everybody according to social status. Consider the power differences between Sahibs Creighton and Lurgan and their employees/friends the Babu and the little Hindu boy. There is no question that either of these Indian characters will have the power, authority, or respect that Creighton and Lurgan command (heck—they're barely even given names). But if the book judges everyone, including the main characters, according to Kipling's racist and biased logics, these methods of characterization are nonetheless especially apparent for the minor characters.
People like the Punjabi farmer or the Kulu woman have individual concerns in the novel, certainly, but they are also social types who represent the kinds of people Kipling believes you might expect to meet on the Grand Trunk Road in India. In attempting to give us this really big, all-encompassing image of British India and its people, Kipling often lets the minor characters's social statuses speak for who they are as people. It's only Kim who really has the power and the personality to adapt and to manipulate his social status to get what he wants.