Kim Theme of Foreignness And "The Other"
There are a couple of different levels of foreignness in this novel. First you've got the outsider status of certain characters within the book, of whom the lama is the best example: when Kim first spots him outside the Lahore Museum, Kim admits that he has never seen anyone like the lama before. And for Kim—a kid who prides himself on knowing everyone and everything—this is a real surprise.
The lama's gentle holiness, his commitment to his Buddhist faith, and his unworldy, spiritual manner makes him totally different from the other characters in Kim. In fact, the lama's unfamiliarity with this world of British colonial India mirrors our own, so that when Kim introduces the lama to the ways of the people around him, Kim is introducing us to the social structures of British India as well.
Okay, so the lama represents foreignness within the novel. But we can't ignore the foreignness of the setting of the novel as a whole to its supposed reading audience in early twentieth-century Britain. Kipling includes all of these affectionate, admiring descriptions of the life and vitality of India partly because India is a country that he loved since his early childhood there.
But at the same time, Kipling works hard to make India seem exotic and exciting, as though he cannot take for granted that his readers will either (1) be interested in India for its own sake, or (2) be familiar with the different segments of Indian society portrayed in the novel without some explanation. Therefore, there are characters who are foreign to British India within the novel of Kim, but the book itself also might have appeared foreign to the English readership of Kipling's day.
Questions About Foreignness And "The Other"
- Which characters might represent "The Other" within the novel? How do the other characters in Kim react to these foreign figures? What tools of characterization does Kipling use to convey the foreignness of these characters?
- How does Kipling portray British India as a specifically foreign place? What tones does Kipling use when he describes the scenery and cultures of India?
- Which characters in Kim cannot handle the foreignness and unfamiliarity of Kipling's portrayal of India? Which characters seem to benefit from India's constant changes? What do these characters' differing responses to Kipling's British India seem to indicate about their personalities and world views?
Chew on This
Even though Kipling is writing for an English-speaking audience and on behalf of the British Empire, the most alienated, foreign-seeming character in Kim is actually the Irish Mavericks' fourteen-year old English drummer boy, who has no interest in India because he misses his home in Liverpool too much.
By presenting an epic cross section of different types of people living in British India at the turn of the twentieth century rather than focusing on individual character development or depth, Kipling makes all of the characters in Kim, no matter their ethnic, religious, or national background, appear flat and one-dimensional.