by Rudyard Kipling
There are a lot of adventure heroes we can think of right off the tops of our heads: Harry Potter. Katniss Everdeen. Bilbo Baggins. Luke Skywalker. And you know what they all have in common? They are all leading pretty average lives when adventure suddenly comes to find them.
Oh sure, Harry Potter sometimes makes strange things happen around him, and he is certainly not living in a normal household, what with the monstrous, abusive Dursleys. But it isn't until Hagrid comes storming into his life with his giant good nature and his suspiciously wand-like umbrella that Harry's adventures in the wizarding world really take off.
There's also Katniss Everdeen of District Twelve. Obviously, with the Reaping Days and the unfair social organization of the Districts, things are out of whack in Panem long before Katniss joins the seventy-fourth Hunger Games. And yet, it takes Katniss's Reaping, when she finally leaves District Twelve to become a national symbol of resistance to the Capital, to change everything in her life.
In both of these cases—and in most adventure novels—there is a rich set-up for excitement, but the plots only really get going when the main characters leave their familiar environments and start on the next parts of their lives.
Kim is a bit of an exception to this rule. Like Harry Potter, Kimball O'Hara (named after his father; Kim for short) is an orphan. But unlike Harry—or Bilbo, or Katniss, or Luke, for that matter—Kim starts out his story as an adventurer. At the start of the book, he's sitting on a cannon outside the Lahore Museum having the time of his life—how much more exciting can you get? From the first chapter of Kim, we know that Kim is a rascal who lives by his wits, charming people and cheating them all around the city of Lahore.
In an opposite movement from, say, Luke's introduction to the Rebel Alliance and the Force in Star Wars or Bilbo's sudden quest for dwarvish gold and dragon-slaying in The Hobbit, the "adventure" of Kim's life is to get him to go to school (sadly, not a wizarding school) and calm down. He already starts out so free and easy that Kim's main quest over the course of the novel is to learn enough responsibility and discipline to become a British Indian Secret Service agent.
In a way, Kim's quest reminds us a lot more of our own growth into adulthood than, say, Katniss Everdeen's thrilling but highly lethal Hunger Games. While very few of us have had to use our archery skills to defend our lives in highly public fights to the death, a lot of us have had to go to school to gain the skills necessary to perform our chosen jobs. Even though Kim's character is unusual, his life in British India is exciting, and his future job is as Ultra Cool Super Spy, honestly, his narrative arc is a lot more recognizable to us than most adventure stories.
Kimball O'Hara: Perfect Outsider
We have said throughout this learning guide that Kim is a perfect social chameleon—or maybe more like this spectacular camouflaging octopus. (Seriously, watch the whole video; it's amazing and kind of unsettling.) What we are getting at here is that Kim can be anything to anybody; he can blend in to any social situation in the same way that this funky octopus can blend into a coral reef.
So to the lama, Kim is the perfect disciple who has been sent to lead the lama to his River; to the Punjabi farmer, Kim is the skilled priest-doctor and enchanter who saves his son from fever; and to Mahbub Ali, Kim is a promising young horse just waiting to compete in the race that is the British Indian Secret Service (or something like that—honestly, Mahbub Ali's horse comparisons lose us sometimes).
What gives Kim this flexibility of identity is that he doesn't really belong anywhere—he is the perfect outsider in this British Indian social hierarchy portrayed by Kipling. As the desperately poor son of an Irishman, he doesn't fit into high-flying British society. Kim also doesn't have the class status or discipline of an army colonel like Creighton. But as a Sahib underneath his Indian clothing and superb Urdu language skills, he doesn't totally belong in any of the Indian sub-cultures that he imitates, either. Kim can dress as a Hindu holy man or a Muslim or a beggar, but he isn't really any of those things underneath.
All of the other characters in Kim belong somewhere, even the people who join Kim in the Great Game. Creighton has the responsibilities of an army man. Mahbub Ali is both a horse trader and a Muslim Pathan (now written Pashtun—he belongs to a major cultural group in Afghanistan). The lama is obviously a man of belief who follows his own convictions, even when surrounded by people who don't totally recognize what his faith is. The lama makes many friends among the religious communities of India because they recognize a holy man, even one so far from his home.
But among all of these different people who fit in somehow in the social and religious orders of British India, Kim is alone in not having a real place. Many of Kim's acquaintances, especially those he grows up with in Lahore, call him "Little Friend of All the World" (1.5), but Kim can be a friend to all the world because he is not fully on any one person or group's side—at least, not until he learns to take the part of the British Indian government against rebel northern kings and random European agents.
By the end of the novel, we learn that the only thing Kim really belongs to in any real sense is the roads, fields, and peoples of India itself: India is "clay of his clay, neither more nor less" (15.107).
Or Wait, Is It Kimball O'Hara: Perfect Insider?
Okay, so we have just made this long argument for why Kim appears as the perfect outsider in this novel, able to blend into every gathering of people because he does not really belong to any of them. If we're going to sell this argument about Kim's outsider status, how can we also attempt to claim that Kim is the perfect insider?
Yup—we know that we are saying two opposite things at the same time. But the thing is, they both seem to be equally true. Kim may not truly belong to any of the groups with which he hobnobs, in the sense that he was not born to them and does not identify with any of them permanently (except, perhaps, as a Sahib after his schooling at St. Xavier's), but he can join all of the social scenes that he encounters. Kim can socialize with everyone.
When the lama points out to Mahbub Ali that the Kulu woman regards Kim as a son, Mahbub Ali observes that "Half Hind seems that-way disposed" (15.116)—in other words, half of India seems to feel about Kim that he is a kind of son. Kim may be an orphan, but he has many, many adoptive parents, including the Kulu woman, the lama, and maybe even Mahbub Ali and Lurgan. What gives Kim this great mobility among people is his charm, his thoughtfulness—and his thorough knowledge of all of India's social customs and religious orders.
We get into some of the racial politics of Kim's ability to disguise his social position in our analysis of Kim and the Babu as foils in the "Character Roles" section, but for now we will say that—oddly enough—Kim is both the perfect outsider and insider in this novel. He stands just far enough outside of all of India's hierarchies to imitate them beautifully, but he also has enough intimate knowledge of the peoples of India—plus the racial advantage of Sahib status—that he can go up and down India's social ladders with great ease.
Basically, he was born to be a British Indian spy; it's his great luck that Mahbub Ali and Creighton discover him when he is ready to be trained up to the Secret Service.