What’s Up With the Ending?
The River Of The Arrow
The most obvious quest in Kim is probably the Teshoo lama's search for his River of the Arrow (for more on this River, see our section under "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory"). Not only does he mention that River all the darn time, but he is also constantly stopping in the middle of fields and roads to check out every stream, creek, brook, puddle and rivulet to see if this is the one that will bring him Enlightenment. (Hint: It isn't.)
So in Chapter 15, when Kim wakes up after thirty-six solid hours of sleep to hear the news that the lama has "gone roving into the fields for two nights on an empty belly—and [tumbled] into a brook at the end of it" (15.60), we immediately take notice. Does the lama's moistening in brook water mean that the lama has found his sacred River at last?
And, in fact, he has. While Kim is sleeping, the lama refuses food and water for two days. This fast brings him a vision of the Great Soul of all creation. But even as the lama finds himself looking at the universe from a perspective of ultimate freedom, he hears a voice asking him movingly, "What shall come to the boy if thou art dead?" (15.165). The lama comes back to himself at a nearby riverbank, soaking wet (thanks to the Babu, who fishes the lama out of the sacred River before he can drown).
Two things strike us about this resolution to the lama's spiritual quest: first, there is actually a Buddhist religious model for the choice the lama makes at the end of the novel to turn away from Enlightenment to save Kim. According to certain sects of Buddhism, a Bodhisattva is a person who has reached enlightenment, but who remains on this earth to continue teaching other people who to find salvation. When the lama stands at the edge of the Great Soul and chooses to return to Kim to bring him to wisdom rather than leaving this plane of existence, he becomes like a Bodhisattva.
(This is all surprisingly intense spiritual stuff for an exciting spy story about stolen messages, rogue Russian agents, and whatnot.)
But beyond the lama's new spiritual peace, he has finally come to affirm his true and lasting love for one who is as a "grandson" (15.49) to him: Kim. At first, the lama has kind of a religious problem with his fondness for Kim. When he says goodbye to Kim the first time, when he leaves Kim with the regiment, the lama tells Kim: "Do not weep; for, look you, all Desire is illusion and a new binding upon the Wheel" (7.72).
In other words, don't cry, because attachments to other people will just keep you tied to this rotten existence of ours. We get hints that the lama doesn't believe his own line about avoiding affection for other people because this life is illusion. After all, the lama does say that his "heart cracks" (7.72) when he parts with Kim. But his affection for Kim is a religious problem for the lama.
However, by the end of the book, the lama has found a way to bring together his religious faith (which emphasizes breaking attachments) and his love for Kim (which is a strong personal attachment). He does this by realizing that, in fact, his whole purpose in this life is to make sure that Kim reaches wisdom on his own, and to see Kim become a great teacher.
Therefore, in the last chapter, the lama's love for Kim becomes an expression of his religious faith. That's why we think the last line of the book tells us that the lama smiles "as a man may who has won Salvation for himself and his beloved" (15.170). He is no longer thinking of his River of the Arrow on individual terms; it's for him and Kim.
Kim is A Playa (In The Great Game, That Is)
Kim's quest may not be as clear-cut as the lama's search for his River of the Arrow, but he definitely still has one: to become a spy for the British Indian government. Kim has a lot of raw talent for spying; he likes secrets and hidden information, he's great with languages and with disguise, and he knows almost without being taught exactly what people need to hear to do what he wants. (And if it sounds like we're saying that Kim can be a manipulative little imp, you are right and we are.)
But raw talent for spying and influencing other people is not enough to join the "Great Game," the competition for India that took place in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries between Britain and Russia. (For more on this so-called "Game," check out our "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section.) Yes, he's tricky, but Kim still has to learn to put his skills to work for something greater than himself. He starts the book as a selfish little tick, with no one but himself to care for, but by the end, he has learned something about sacrifice.
After all, Kim spends Chapter 15 recovering from exhaustion and illness after working himself to the bone carrying the Russian agents' secret papers out of the Himalayas (and have you gotten a look at those mountains lately? They are tall). He also feels such a load of personal guilt over the lama's injury at the hands of the Russian that he falls to the lama's feet weeping. Kim has learned to care about something other than himself—even though that lesson has really hurt him.
Once Kim wakes up from his thirty six-hour nap, it's like the whole world has just… clicked into place: "Roads were meant to be walked upon, houses to be lived in, cattle to be driven, fields to be tilled, and men and women to be talked to. They were all real and true—solidly planted upon the feet—perfectly comprehensible—clay of his clay, neither more nor less" (15.107).
Kim lives in India as a spy because he was born to: India lies before him "perfectly comprehensible," and those "roads were meant to be walked upon." Like the lama, Kim suddenly understands where he belongs in the larger system of India as a whole—everything is just right as it is (according to Kipling), and Kim will make sure that it stays that way.
The lama is a religious man, so he makes peace with his religion. Kim is a worldly person, so he finds a secure and satisfying way of looking at the world.