Most of the story of Kim unfolds through dialogue. The novel features a big range of characters who are constantly talking to each other with their own personal, unique accents and modes of expression. Since there is so much darn talking in this book, the tone of Kim has to be lively—all of these characters just keep chatting together in surprising, often funny ways. But when the text takes a step back from its characters to discuss landscape or action, the tone of Kim changes a bit. Let's take a look at this description of the Kashmir Serai where Mahbub Ali lives in Lahore for example:
Here were all manner of Northern folk, tending tethered ponies and kneeling camels; loading and unloading bales and bundles; drawing water for the evening meal at the creaking well-windlasses; piling grass before the shrieking, wild-eyed stallions; cuffing the surly caravan dogs; paying off camel-drivers, taking on new grooms; swearing, shouting, arguing, and chaffering in the packed square. The cloisters, reached by three or four masonry steps, made a haven of refuge around this turbulent sea. (1.147)
Check out the sense of constant activity in this passage—there's a lot in here, what with all the ponies, camels, dogs, and people doing various things, all in the space of one paragraph. Even in this description where no one is talking, we get the sense of the vitality of Kipling's overall tone: there is always a lot of stuff happening all at once in Kipling's prose.
In fact, this sense of quantity is the reason why we find the tone of this book epic. One meaning of the word epic is something big or grand. Kipling's descriptions of India often emphasize the large scale of the country, with its many inhabitants, all living out their lives in ways that Kipling describes in great detail.
In addition to the sheer number of things taking place in this paragraph, we also have to notice what Kipling is taking the time to describe. By pointing out all of the work involved in setting up camp among horse traders at the Kashmir Serai, Kipling is assuming that the readers do not know how a caravan works or what it looks like. The details that he includes makes this place seem intriguing and unfamiliar to us, and this slice of life in the Kashmir Serai is only one of many similar descriptions throughout Kim, of people living their lives in different parts of British India. All of these descriptions combine to give Kim an exotic, epic, and definitely lively tone.
Everything about Kim screams adventure—from the stylized, exotic setting to the spy-heavy subject matter to the unpredictable and dramatic characters. What is more, this is a specific kind of adventure: it features not just one but two characters searching for something. The lama wants to find his River of the Arrow—which symbolizes ultimate wisdom for him—and Kim wants to find a job with the British Indian Secret Service.
Since the book structures its plot around these two journeys (instead of around adventure for adventure's sake), we think that it is fair to call Kim a quest story. And because Kim starts out the novel as a young teenager without any particular discipline or direction in life and then ends the novel knowing for sure that he wants to be a British Indian spy, we think that it is also fair to call Kim a coming-of-age novel.
We want to throw in one, last, much less common genre type for Kim: the picaresque. Picaresque novels focus on the adventures of a lovable rogue—think Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean.
This central character might do some pretty bad stuff, but he won't physically hurt people, and he's so gosh-darned charming that all of the lying, cheating, and stealing never seems to matter all that much to how much we like him. Picaresque novels also tend to be episodic, since they emphasize their anti-hero's funny encounters and adventures rather than an overall plot arc.
As with most picaresque heroes, Kim has a somewhat flexible sense of morality, and he is perfectly willing to lie and manipulate to get what he wants while he is out on the road. The novel Kim also includes a lot of smaller episodes of Kim and his friends outwitting assassins or leeching money from passersby. Between Kim's often-roguish nature and the episodic sections of the book as a whole, we are definitely going to call Kim a solid entry into the picaresque genre.
We've got to say, it's a pretty straightforward, common choice to name your book after its main character. Charles Dickens did it with David Copperfield. Charlotte Brontë did it with Jane Eyre. Rick Riordan did it with Percy Jackson and the Olympians (though Mr. Riordan gets extra credit for the exciting Greek mythology reference, there). Anyway, what we are saying is that by titling Kim after, well, Kim, Kipling is not alone.
But there is a difference between Kim and other, earlier nineteenth-century novels like, say, David Copperfield. Even though we may have no clue who this guy David Copperfield is, we can guess a few things from the name. First off, with a name like David, he's probably a guy. There could be a twist, but we are still probably supposed to assume that David is a boy. What's more, David has a supremely English last name: Copperfield. Again, we can't say for sure that he is living in an English-speaking place without reading the book, but it's a pretty fair guess.
Of course, "boy" and "probably English" are not much to go on in guessing the plot of David Copperfield. But at least it's something, right? Whereas Kim, well, that could be anything. In fact, in this day and age, when Kim is usually short for Kimberly, we would probably assume incorrectly that Kim is about a girl. And without a last name, we really can't guess anything about who this person is or where he is from.
So Kipling may name Kim after his main character, but he does it with a twist. The ambiguity of the name Kim makes this title more mysterious than anything else. The character of Kim is a chameleon, adapting to each unique situation he finds himself in, so it makes sense that his name—and the title of the book—is as vague and obscure as he is.
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'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.
We mentioned in our "In a Nutshell" section that not only was Rudyard Kipling born and raised in India (until he turned six and had to move to England against his will), but he also moved back to India as a journalist at age seventeen. So he knew British India really well—knew it and loved it. Kipling writes about India with the same passion that fellow adventure writer J.R.R. Tolkien writes about his (admittedly fictional) Middle-Earth: he uses that same epic attention to the landscapes and different peoples of the land to tell the story of his main characters's quests.
We're drawing this parallel between Kipling and Tolkien because, frankly, while Kipling's portrayal of India is based on his lived experiences there, he also includes a lot of almost mythic elements when he evokes the great age and exoticism of the country for his English readers. Kipling's India is both realistic, in the sense that he describes actual religious and ethnic tensions in the region during Britain's imperial domination of the country, and fairytale-like, in the sense that Kipling turns India into a unified, colorful, positive backdrop for Kim's journey in this novel.
We get into some of the ways in which Kipling avoids realism in his depictions of India in our "Character Analysis" of the Old Man Who Fought in '57 and elsewhere in this learning guide, but for now, we will focus on the epic scope of his portrayal of the country.
There is a lot of complexity to the way that Kipling portrays the landscape of colonial India: he is of English descent, and he accepts without question the rightness of British rule in India. At the same time, he criticizes English people who remain ignorant about India, and he truly appears to admire India's vitality and complexity, as a place where "there were new people and new sites at every stride—castes [Kim] knew and castes that were altogether out of his experience" (4.26).
To give us a sense of how enormous British India truly is, the plot of Kim covers an enormous amount of territory, from the Himalayas in the North down to Benares (now Varanasi) and Lucknow in the South. We definitely recommend that you read this novel with a handy map of British India on hand—otherwise, the setting of the novel can quickly become overwhelming.
While Kim may cover a big section of British Indian terrain, it's also set in a really narrow stretch of time. Not only does Kim meet an old man who fought against the Indian rebels in the great Revolt of 1857 (so it can't be too far away from that historical event), but the story also has to take place in the aftermath of the Second Afghan War of 1881-2.
The Second Afghan War gave Britain control over Afghanistan's foreign affairs, even if Afghanistan wasn't an official colony of the British Empire the way that India was. So the whole conflict in the novel with the Russian agents and the Five Kings in the North only makes sense if these kings are signing illegal agreements with the Russians against the foreign policies of the British Empire.
Finally, we get one more clue about when Kim is taking place: Kim mentions that he was born at the time of the "great earthquake in Srinagar which is in Kashmir" (2.167). This famous earthquake happened on May 30, 1885. So if Kim is around thirteen or fourteen when the book starts and seventeen when it ends, the events of Kim must take place between roughly 1898 and 1902—making it exactly contemporary with the book's publication in 1901.
Kim still gets marketed as a children's book, which tells you one thing: it's easy to read. Even though this novel is over a hundred years old, most of the language is pretty modern, and the plot is fast-paced and surprising.
What can make Kim a little tough for today's readers is the unfamiliar setting and political situation of the book. After all, Kipling is writing about a country that doesn't exist anymore: British colonial India. He describes a time when you could walk between what is now Pakistan and what is now India without crossing any national borders or military zones. So even though the language of Kim is straightforward and the plot line is thrilling (spies! secret identities! boarding school!), this book isn't simple. But it's worth plowing through anyway.
In our section on "Tone," we mentioned that there is a good mixture of conversation and description in this book. We never go too long without two characters talking to each other, but we also never get so lost in dialogue that we forget where the novel is set or what is going on at any given time. At the level of the book's style, let's take a look at how this balance between conversation and description works.
Here's a sample passage from Kim and the lama's travel into the Himalayas:
"Certainly, since we know the way to Freedom, the question [of whether the world would last forever] were unprofitable, but—look, and know illusion, chela! These are the true Hills! They are like my hills by Suchzen. Never were such hills!"
Above them, still enormously above them, earth towered away towards the snow-line, where from east to west across hundreds of miles, ruled as with a ruler, the last of the bold birches stopped. Above that, in scarps and blocks upheaved, the rocks strove to fight their heads above the white smother. Above these again, changeless since the world's beginning, but changing to every mood of sun and cloud, lay out the eternal snow. (13.21-22)
First off, in terms of content, the lama is telling Kim that the mountains of the Himalayas are not really eternal, since according to his Buddhist faith, nothing in this human life goes on forever. But even if the mountains aren't everlasting, they sure as heck look as though they aren't going anywhere any time soon. (That is the illusion that the lama is talking about: even though the mountains may not go on forever, they certainly look like they are going to.)
And then, to back up the lama's admiration of the Himalayas's massive beauty, the third-person narrator gives us this amazing description of the mountains's huge size as the peaks project above the cloud line (the "white smother"). Kipling does a fabulous job of portraying the mountains as both unchanging ("changeless since the world's beginning") and constantly changing according to the weather ("changing to every mood of sun and cloud").
There is poetry to the narrator's description of these mountains that really reinforces the lama's speech. And in other passages of the book, where the dialogue is more ironic or funny, the narrator appears to echo those tones as well. Kipling's style is really dynamic, in the sense that it constantly shifts back and forth between character conversation and narration and between serious and funny moods.
The book is always moving, both in terms of plot and in terms of style. And you can see this sense of stylistic energy in the active verbs that Kipling uses, as the mountains "tower," the bold birches "stop," and the rocks "[strive] to fight their heads above the white smother." Not even the rocks are sitting still in this passage. Both the word choice and the content of Kim gives the reader a sense of constant, jostling movement, which keeps us reading along as fast as we can.
The gun Zam-Zammah is a real cannon that actually does stand in front of the Lahore Museum. It was made in 1757 on the orders of Ahmed Shah Durrani, a.k.a. the Conqueror of Thrones (we wish that was our nickname—it sounds so George R.R. Martin-y…). Kipling writes that "the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror's loot" (1.1), which is historically true: it has been seized many times by different armies.
But beyond Kipling's historical accuracy, there is a symbolic value to the gun Zam-Zammah in the book. When the novel first opens, the narrator announces that Kim is sitting "astride the gun Zam-Zammah," and that, "who hold[s] Zam-Zammah […] hold[s] the Punjab" (1.1). Kim is literally holding the gun—with his legs, at least, since he is sitting on the thing—and so, symbolically, Kim holds the Punjab (a state in British India; it's now been sub-divided with the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947).
Kim may not have a part in the administration of British India, but he knows and loves India so thoroughly that he can travel unnoticed through it in any number of disguises (all the while watching the people around him to see how he can make them work to his advantage… which is kind of creepy). So in a way, Kim does control India through his supreme understanding of its people. Kim's association with Zam-Zammah proves that Kim is or will be an authority figure in India.
(Kipling also makes Kim's authority over Zam-Zammah, and thus, the Punjab, a proof of his race as an Englishman. He writes: "There was some justification for Kim [… holding Zam-Zammah] since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English" (1.2). For more on Kipling's racial politics, check out our "In a Nutshell" section.)
The book pretty much hands us this symbol: the Red Bull on a green field is the design on the late Kimball O'Hara, Sr.'s regimental flag. The woman who looks after Kim (sort of—she mostly lets him run wild) gets confused by Kim, Sr.'s opium-fueled ramblings, and she assumes that the Red Bull is a mystical sign that can help Kim. But no, for once Kim, Sr. speaks literally: if Kim needs help, he should go to Kim, Sr.'s regiment. And eventually, Kim does.
There is one more thing we want to say about the Red Bull, though. When Kim first slips into the regimental camp, he sees all of the officers toasting a little golden statue of a Red Bull. They are all a bit drunk, and this bull statue is clearly a kind of mascot. It symbolizes the unity and importance of the Irish Mavericks regiment to its soldiers. The novel presents this whole scene from Kim's point of view:
The Sahibs prayed to their God; for in the centre of the mess-table—its sole ornament when they were on the line of march—stood a golden bull fashioned from oldtime loot of the Summer Palace at Pekin—a red-gold bull with lowered head, ramping upon a field of Irish Green. (5.55)
By showing this toast through Kim's perspective, Kipling takes something that would have seemed very familiar to his audience—a portrayal of British army bonding—and makes it weird. Kipling shows that it's not just the Indians in the book who have strange social rituals and practices; the British absolutely do, too. Yes, Kim's misunderstanding of this golden statue as the British soldiers's god is supposed to be funny—it shows how unfamiliar Kim is with the British culture he is about to join—but it also indicates that we all have cultural practices and rituals that may seem totally normal when we do them, but that might seem truly bizarre to an outsider (like cow-tipping).
We'd like to start with a bit of an aside. It feels important to say that the mere fact that the lama calls the Lahore Museum the "Wonder House" (as do all of the local people in the book) and that he keeps referring to the museum curator as the "Keeper of the Images" or as the "Fountain of Wisdom" is kind of significant.
The lama shows such extreme respect to the curator as a fellow "craftsman" (1.88) of knowledge, that we can't help but wonder why might Kipling want to emphasize the lama's respect for this British curator's knowledge. What does this admiration on the part of the lama imply about the superiority of British art history and social science?
Now for our regularly scheduled programming. Do any of you out there wear glasses? Some of us certainly do. We spend a lot of hours peering at computer screens, guys—of course we're totally nearsighted. Anyway, have you ever traded your glasses with someone else? Or tried on someone else's lenses? Doesn't it make the world look bizarre and, sometimes kind of nauseating? That's why we find this whole scene in the Lahore Wonder House—when the curator of the museum trades his light, well-made glasses for the lama's clunky old ones—to be a little strange.
We guess that, back in the day, the technology for making glasses wasn't good enough to make the prescriptions really precise, so maybe it was easier to use someone else's? That's our only explanation, because Kipling was totally nearsighted—he should know better than to think that just giving your glasses to another shortsighted person would make them see better.
Anyway, the fact that trading your glasses with someone else is such a weird thing to do is not the only reason why we find this exchange so significant. The wise Lahore Museum curator hears all about the lama's quest and gives him three things: (1) some paper, (2) some pens, and (3) some glasses to see more clearly. So, literally, the curator sends the lama on his quest with sharper eyes. The lama says later that the curator has "acquired merit" (11.65) by giving him the glasses that have shown him the Way.
Symbolically, the lama seems to make this association between the eyeglasses the curator gives him and the curator's great wisdom himself, as when he tells Kim, "May be thou wilt be such a Sahib as he who gave me these spectacles […] in the Wonder House at Lahore. That is my hope, for he was a Fountain of Wisdom—wiser than many abbots" (7.68).
The great literary critic and theorist Edward Said makes a great case for the idea that Kim's emphasis on the British curator's strong sympathy for the Buddhist lama reinforces Kipling's overall political message about the positive, beneficial qualities of British colonial India. If you want to read a fantastic, thorough analysis of Kim and the symbolic importance of the Wonder House, check out Said's chapter on Kim called "The Pleasures of Imperialism," in his book Culture and Imperialism.
The Teshoo lama starts out from the very first chapter of Kim on a personal quest. He explains to the curator of the Wonder House that the Buddha once took part in a test of his archery skill. His arrow flew so far that it passed the furthest target, and where it landed, a river sprung up. If the lama can bathe in that River of the Arrow, it will cleanse him of sin and he will be Enlightened.
But here's the thing: there is no River of the Arrow. Or at least, there are tons of archery contests in folktales and popular culture (heck, we just saw one in Brave). And the Buddha also preaches a Parable of the Arrow: he gives an example of a man who, having just been shot by a poisoned arrow, wants to stop before he gets any treatment for his horrible wound to find out who shot the arrow, what clan he belongs to, and all of these details.
But none of these answers are going to heal the giant, bleeding arrow wound in his body. Similarly (for the Buddha), skeptics who demand answers to questions like, "what happens after we die?" and "what is the nature of the human soul?" are missing the point—no one will learn the answers to these questions before they die. The point of Buddhist practice is to reduce suffering—to treat the arrow wound, instead of figuring out all of these less immediate details about how it happened in the first place.
So, there are archery contests and there are Buddhist teachings that involve arrows, but there is no test of strength for the historical Buddha, and there is no River of the Arrow in popular Buddhist belief. Since Kipling actually bothers to mention the real live Four Holy Sites of Buddhism in India by name (1.54), we know that he is capable of decent research. So why did he make up this story of the River of the Arrow for his extremely learned and faithful lama?
We think that Kipling invented this holy object for the lama's quest precisely because it is so individual and personal. The lama goes to all of the sites sacred to Buddhism in India during the novel, but even though he talks with many learned people—the Jain monks in Benares and the curator of the Wonder House, to give some examples—they can never help him find precisely what he is looking for.
The lama's holy pilgrimage is not for something that's important to all Buddhists—the River represents his personal Enlightenment. And because it's personal, the River of the Arrow does not need to be a popularly recognized sacred river like the Ganges or the River Jordan. It just has to be significant to the lama.
The River of the Arrow turns out to be an apparently insignificant brook near the Kulu woman's home. The lama stumbles into this River while he is in a trance brought on by intense fasting. So the River is sacred to the lama because it was in the right place at the right time for him to fall into it just as he was reaching Enlightenment. The River appears just as the lama's quest comes to an end, so it is the proof of his religious and spiritual achievement.
Kim is full of opposites that actually complement each other: the lama and Kim; Kim's dual influences from India and formal English education; and even the Babu and Creighton. Kipling seems to be trying to say that these opposites in the book—like, say, England and India themselves—go together like peanut butter and jelly. The train and the Grand Trunk Road provide another example of this kind of equal-but-opposite imagery.
The Grand Trunk Road is an ancient highway from Kabul in Afghanistan, through the Punjab, and on east to the Ganges Plain; it's been in use as a track, even before it was officially paved, for over three thousand years.
On the Grand Trunk Road, Kim sees a real cross-section of Indian society: there is the old man who fought against the "Mutiny" in 1857 and his younger soldier son; there is the Kulu woman and her southern Orissa ("Oorya") and northern hill folk servants; and there is that Englishman who flirts with the Kulu woman and who also turns out in Chapter 12 to be yet another secret agent in the Great Game. As the Old Man Who Fought in '57 (that's what we like to call him) puts it:
All castes and kinds of men move here. Look! Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnias, pilgrims and potters—all the world going and coming. It is to me as a river from which I am withdrawn like a log after a flood. (3.177)
Since castes tend to keep to themselves, it's a big deal to have a place that mixes people of many castes together, as the Old Man Who Fought in '57 says that the Grand Trunk Road does.
(By the way, we should mention: the caste system in India is a hierarchical social order, where individual families belong to one of four general groups. These main groups are the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaishyas (traders), and the Shudras (laborers). Within these large categories, there are literally thousands of subdivisions. Traditionally, castes could determine the kind of work you do and who you might marry.)
And then there's the train. Its origins are certainly very different from the ancient highway of the Grand Trunk Road. As the Sikh artisan (an artisan is a skilled craftsman) tells us when the lama first boards the crowded train car, "This thing is the work of the Government" (2.13). The train is so ultra-modern (well, for 1901) and fast that it almost frightens the lama away from using it. But like the Grand Trunk Road, it brings the people of India together despite their cultural differences.
When the lama and Kim first board that train out of Lahore in Chapter 2, they meet a bunch of people, many of whom have disagreements with one another. The wife of the farmer hates the Amritzar prostitute for being "most outrageously shameless" (2.25) while the Dogra soldier gets annoyed at the suggestion that there are Sikhs who fight alongside his people, because a Dogra is "of another caste than a Sikh" (2.38). But despite the personal and cultural differences among these people on the train car, they are all going to the same place on the same train.
The technology of the train provides an updated, modern version of the Grand Trunk Road, but both function equally to unite diverse groups in a common space. Every time Kim enters a train or walks the Grand Trunk Road, we see a cross section of the British Indian nation as Kipling wants to portray it: maybe there are small points of conflict, but everybody is really unified despite these differences.
Kim has not just one, but two amulets. The first one is a little bag put together by the woman who looks after Kim when his parents die. It has three documents, all of which belonged to Kimball O'Hara, Sr. The first is Kim, Sr.'s "ne varietur" (1.2) as he calls it. Ne varietur is a Latin legal term meaning, "Not to be changed." Masons would put this phrase underneath their handwritten signatures to verify the handwriting of individual Masonic brothers. So Kim, Sr.'s ne varietur is a document proving that he is a Mason. (The Freemasons are a mysterious fraternal organization that claim to go back to the time of Solomon.)
The second document in Kim's first amulet is his father's clearance-certificate, which provides legal proof that Kimball O'Hara, Sr.'s debts have all been paid and that his estate is settled. This is great—Kim doesn't owe anyone money on behalf of his father. Last but not least is Kim's birth certificate, giving the legal names of his mother, Annie Shott, and his father. When Kim meets up with Reverend Bennett and Father Victor, these documents prove who Kim is, even though Kim doesn't really seem to know himself.
Kim's second amulet comes from the Babu. Like Kim himself, the look of this amulet is deceptive: It looks like a cheap silver sign that he is part of the extinct Sat Bhai cult, but really, this amulet proves that Kim is part of the Secret Service. And this amulet comes in handy right away, as Kim is on his first train trip after leaving school—his knowledge of the amulet's meaning allows him to help Agent E.23 to escape his pursuers.
Both of Kim's amulets tell us something about who he is: the first one proves his British origins, even though he is dressed as an Indian child and speaks Urdu fluently. The second one demonstrates that Kim is and always will be the Son of the Charm—a member of this vast, secret network of government spies who keep British India under watch. In both cases, Kim can only be identified by this one thing he wears around his neck. After all, he changes everything else about himself so fast and so often. The amulets are the only constants about Kim.
Have you guys ever played Risk? It's a great game (pun totally intended). There is a board with a world map on it, each player gets a certain number of armies, and your goal is to take over the entire globe. This game was first invented in 1957, when the Cold War was really warming up. But even though Risk appeared after the height of global European competition over new colonies before World War I, it could still work as a great metaphor for that period of eager, active domination of other places on the part of the European states.
Indeed, Risk may be the best real-life game that we can think of to describe colonial competition among European nations, but the imperialists themselves were using the idea of a game to describe what they were doing long before we got here.
The inventor of the term the Great Game was a British intelligence officer named Arthur Conolly. He used this phrase to describe the struggle between Czarist Russia and Great Britain for control of India as a colony. This Great Game only ended in 1907, when Russia and Britain signed an agreement to end their struggles in favor of forming a united front against the increasingly powerful German Empire.
Kim is a player in the Great Game on the literal level, because his first real task for the Secret Service is stealing secrets from two agents of the Russian Empire in the Himalayas. But he is also a symbolic player in the Great Game, in the sense that he approaches the whole idea of imperial maintenance and British colonial power in India as a kind of game. Think about it: even his training exercises with Lurgan, where he learns to improve his memory and to imitate other people's speech more exactly, are basically just games of Memory and charades.
Kim is very serious about becoming a spy, but he plays around a lot to get there. Indeed, the Great Game, both as Kipling uses the phrase and in real life, makes colonization sound like fun—even though, of course, it's deadly serious and it costs innocent people their lives. But Kipling's whole portrayal of the Secret Service as a rich and exciting entertainment is probably the best recruitment pitch we can imagine for young British boys wanting to go abroad to play on the side of England while having a grand old time.
The lama often refers to the Great Wheel when he is talking about this world—the world of the everyday. According to Buddhist belief, every soul in creation is caught up in an endless cycle of repetition and rebirth. We all die and then return to the world over and over again, with no change, and the only way to free ourselves from this Great Wheel of existence is by letting go of attachment and desire, and by recognizing the impermanence of all things.
The lama's Great Wheel also has a visual side to it, since he sketches out the Tibetan Wheel of Life to educate the people he meets about Buddhist religious belief. This Wheel introduces the Buddhist hells as well as the concepts of karma and worldly attachment through symbolic illustration.
When the Russian grabs at the lama's painting of the Wheel and tears it through the middle, his carelessness provokes the lama's anger and desire for revenge. The Russian's ripping of the Wheel indicates his disrespect for, and misunderstanding of, the lama's religious belief. It is only Kim—the well-established English kid, as opposed to this upstart Russian agent—who really understands the lama's use of his drawing to teach people about Buddhism.
The tear also represents the damage that this whole trip into the Himalayas has done to the lama's true religious practice. He has let his pride get away from him, since he keeps bragging about how well he knows the mountains. He has misjudged his loyal Kim: when he sees Kim skillfully disguising E.23 as a Saddhu, he assumes that Kim is giving in to his arrogant desire to show off, and he scolds Kim for his use of magic charms to satisfy his ego. And obviously, the worst example of the lama's brief crisis in his religious belief is the killing rage he feels toward the Russian agents for raising a hand against him.
The tear in the lama's illustration of the Great Wheel is both the cause of their fight with the Russian agents and the symbolic result of the lama's personal struggles with sin in the later parts of the novel.
The narrator of Kim is your average all-knowing third-person narrator: it reports on the feelings of the characters, and it seems to know pretty much everything about pretty much everybody. Of course, like everyone else on this book, it's really focused on Kim. But it gives us access to Mahbub Ali and Creighton from time to time, so it is clear that the emphasis on Kim is a choice rather than a necessary limitation on the narrator's perspective.
One thing we do find interesting about this otherwise run-of-the-mill narrator is the distant, detailed perspective that it sometimes assumes. So, to use film terms, there are moments when the narrator's eye zooms out to take in incredible amounts of visual information. Whenever Kim stops to watch the crowds on the train or the Grand Trunk Road, or when he encounters the different cities of India or the landscapes of the Himalayas for the first time, the narrator will give us these spectacular snapshots of the range of people or the beauty of the landscape, drawing attention to the size and diversity in front of Kim.
As a more specific example, here's a passage from Lurgan's house in Simla describing the guests that come in and out every day:
There were small Rajahs, escorts coughing in the veranda, who came to buy curiosities—such as phonographs and mechanical toys. There were ladies in search of necklaces, and men, it seemed to Kim—but his mind may have been vitiated by early training—in search of the ladies; natives from independent and feudatory courts whose ostensible business was the repair of broken necklaces—rivers of light poured upong the table—but whose true end seemed to be to raise money for angry Maharanees or young Rajahs. (9.107)
And the description goes on for almost a page from here. The narrator gives us a sense of the variety of people pouring in and out of Lurgan's house while at the same time suggesting the sheer number of different kinds of people that you can find in India as a whole. Lurgan's house gives a cross-section of Indian society itself, and the narrator piles on detail after detail to emphasize the scale and scope of that society. Everything about India is huge, and these epic descriptions in Kim really draw attention to that fact.
At the start of Kipling's Kim, we find this young guy who has a ton of imperialist potential: he belongs by blood to the ruling class dominating British India in the late nineteenth century, but he doesn't always show his elite status. In fact, he's really good at pretending to be anyone he needs to be in order to make the crowd around him comfortable.
He's also good at gathering information and at keeping secrets until it seems like the right time to tell them. He was born to be a spy—he just needs some more formal training and discipline to develop his loyalty to the British Indian State. As Mahbub Ali says poetically a bit later on in the novel, "Only once in a thousand years is a horse born so well fitted for the game as this our colt. And we need men" (9.151).
So to get the ball rolling in the first chapter, and to bring Kim to the attention of the British Secret Service, the novel gives Kim an unofficial mission—delivering a secret message from Mahbub Ali to Colonel Creighton—while he is traveling as his new friend the lama's disciple. It's this first outing that brings Kim into the world of official English education and future employment as a British Indian Secret Service agent.
(Another FYI: as we have said in our "In a Nutshell" section, the premise of Kim is totally, unapologetically pro-colonial in its portrayal of race in India. We're being as blunt as we can be about the book's imperialist politics, even as we explore the ways in which the novel presents its characters and plot in surprisingly complex and sympathetic terms. So—just putting this all out there.)
Once Kim connects with his father's regiment in Chapter Five, stuff gets real. He's no longer just a young guy doing whatever he wants because it pleases him. He has to learn math, map-making, and measurements; he has to study with Lurgan to improve his memory and to assess the characters of the people around him. Even though he is already super-talented at disguise, he has to keep perfecting his art in his travels with Mahbub Ali.
Apparently, these are all the skills you need to become a spy. It's funny—watching James Bond movies, we would have thought there would be more marksmanship, spectacular-sports-car-driving, and explosives training involved. But we guess this was the 1890s, so there were probably fewer gadgets and more actual, literal spying on other people. In all, Kim spends three years, from age fourteen-ish to age seventeen, getting ready to become a real, live Son of the Charm—a member of the British Indian Secret Service.
And at last, the day comes (before he actually graduates from school, incidentally) when Creighton finally declares that Kim is ready to go back out on the road for a six-month trial of his skills.
So now it's Chapter Eleven, and Kim leaves school once and for all and meets up with his lama in Benares to help him find the River of the Arrow. Kim is back on the road, he's getting a (very small) salary from the British Government to support his six-month trial run as an agent, and all should be right with the world.
Except it's not: Kim feels confused about who he really is and what he is doing with himself. Not only does he literally ask himself, "Who is Kim—Kim—Kim?" (11.4), but he also feels defensive and annoyed when the lama criticizes him for his "pride" (11.194) in helping to disguise Agent E.23 to escape his enemies. Even though Kim is finally free to pursue his chosen career as a grown man, he finds that he has lost some certainty about what it means to participate in the Great Game.
Kim may feel anxious about his travels with the lama, but that doesn't stop him from pushing north to the Himalayas when the Babu tells him about two upstart Russian agents making trouble with the northern kings Hilas and Bunar. This mission with the Babu is the final proof of Kim's ability to be an effective spy: he has to capture the papers of these two guys to prove that Hilas and Bunar have betrayed their agreements with the British government.
In fact, this mission also brings Kim's two roles in the novel—as the lama's almost-grandson and as a secret agent for the British Indian government—together at last. After all, the Russian agent's violent confrontation with the lama over the lama's painting of the Great Wheel causes the highly religious people of this village to kick both Russian agents out of the hills, leaving their baggage—and their politically important papers—behind for Kim to collect.
This encounter between the lama and the Russian agent leaves both Kim and the lama shaken. The lama feels guilty over his rage at the Russian agent; he thinks that if he were really a good student of Buddhism, he would have been able to respond to the agent's physical attack with calm and peace. And Kim feels bad about the lama's moral struggles; he thinks that his divided loyalties between his mission and the lama may have made him careless with the lama's safety.
But in Chapter Fifteen, both Kim and the lama put their worries to bed. The lama has a vision of his Enlightenment, which he decides to stay on this earth to share with his beloved almost-grandson, Kim. And Kim realizes that his purpose on this earth is to gather information and to travel across India: that's what he does. He has not neglected the lama at all, and he has exceeded expectations in his first genuine mission for the Secret Service.
Over the course of the novel, Kim has become an official spy and the lama has become the best Buddhist that he can be—both of them have succeeded in their quests and can live happily ever after.
The first chapter of Kim introduces us to, well, Kim—the probably-about-thirteen-year-old orphaned son of British parents who lives in Lahore more-or-less on his own. Yes, Kim has a woman to look after him, but we get the sense that she has basically no control over him, and that Kim is allowed to do whatever he pleases. And what Kim likes to do is to get into other people's business.
He runs around in local clothing playing with the children of Lahore and delivering secret messages for the famous horse trader Mahbub Ali. All the while, as he is scampering around the city, Kim is learning the languages and patterns of speech for the different kinds of people living there so that he can imitate them with pitch-perfect accuracy. So even though Kim's parents were British, Kim has gotten to know India so well that he can blend in to any crowd and say the right thing to any person whom he meets.
Surely, someone with this kind of talent for disguise and surveillance should be able to find a useful career path? (*cough* Her Majesty's Secret Service *cough*)
One day, when Kim is playing in front of the Lahore Museum, he spots someone standing in front of the building dressed in robes that Kim does not recognize. This unfamiliarity really hits Kim hard, since he "thought he knew all castes" (1.11)—Kim believes, apparently incorrectly, that he knows all the peoples and cultures of India… and here is someone new.
Since Kim is as curious as a cat, he quickly attaches himself to this man, who turns out to be a Tibetan lama on a quest for Enlightenment. Kim reminds the lama that, as a holy man who has taken a vow of poverty, he will need someone clever to beg food for him from the local people—someone like Kim, perhaps?
The introduction of the lama into Kim's life story changes it in two major ways: first, Kim finally finds a mentor figure. Sure, Kim does not actually follow the lama's moral teachings (like, at all), and he does not share the lama's Buddhist faith, but the lama's simple virtue and religious conviction inspires something new in Kim: a desire to find something other than himself that he can use his particular set of skills to support.
Kim is a great mischief-maker, but the lama gives him someone to be tricky for, as Kim enjoys finding food and money to help this old man who has trouble thinking of worldly matters.
Of course (and we have to be frank about this), Kim may really love the lama, but he is totally using the guy as well. Traveling as a disciple to a holy man is a great cover for Kim to deliver a message from British-Indian-Secret-Service-Agent Mahbub Ali to an Englishman living in the city of Umballa, south of Lahore. This trip with the lama introduces Kim to the most important emotional relationship he enjoys over the course of the novel, but it also prepares Kim for his new potential career as a spy.
We take a brief break from all of these adventures while Kim goes to school at St. Xavier's from Chapters Six through Ten. Oh sure, a lot still happens: Kim goes roaming with Mahbub Ali on his school breaks; he also gets to play a bunch of learning games with legendary spy Lurgan in the city of Simla (for more on the Jewel Game, check out our "Character Analysis" of Lurgan).
Kim grows up a bit, learns to get along with other European boys, studies how to make maps and measure terrain, and continues to perfect his abilities in imitating the manners of other people. At last, Mahbub Ali goes to Creighton and says, listen, Kim has enough schooling—if he gets much more, he won't be a good spy any longer. So Creighton allows Kim to leave school at seventeen.
Starting in Chapter Eleven, Kim goes back on the road with his beloved lama. Mahbub Ali suggests that he go for six months to get used to living rough again; after that, Kim can start working full-time for the Secret Service. Now this all seems like a great idea on paper, but of course nothing works quite like Creighton and Mahbub Ali planned.
The Babu, another spy and agent for Creighton, quietly asks Kim for some help in northern hill country. (We say hill, but we mean most-gigantic-mountains-on-earth-country—the Babu wants Kim to travel to the Himalayas with him.) There are two Russian agents there (technically, one is French and one is Russian, but they are both working for the Czar) who are carrying papers proving that two of the northern kings are planning to switch their loyalties from the British Empire to the Russian Empire. The Babu wants Kim to steal those papers while he is walking with the lama.
So finally we have a crisis between Kim and the lama. While Kim is traveling with the lama, begging for him, and generally making him comfortable, he is also doing his work as a soon-to-be-fully-fledged British spy. And the lama sees Kim doing at least some of his spy work, and he doesn't like it—the lama criticizes Kim's sense of pride and arrogance in his work. The lama wants both of them to focus on his quest, the search for the River of the Arrow that will be his Salvation
This new trip offers a lot of possibility, as Kim and the lama rejoin forces, Kim is about to start on his new super-spy career, and the lama is on the edge of spiritual Enlightenment. However, it also presents a lot of risk: the relationship between Kim and the lama seems a little rocky after all of this time, Kim is about to start out on a dangerous mission against foreign agents, and the lama appears to be losing track of some of his religious goals.
And then—the resolution happens… and it's really simple. (At least, it seems that way at first.) As the lama is showing Kim his painting of the Great Wheel of Things at the side of the road in the village where the Russian agents are staying, the Russian tells the lama he wants to buy it. The lama says he won't sell it—not for any price. It's a religious teaching tool, for crying out loud.
The Russian agent reaches out, tearing the painting; he then hits the lama in the face for refusing him. (Whoa, anger management problems, much?) As soon as his porters see that this agent has actually hit a holy man on the face, they immediately turn on him and his colleague and drive the two men out of town. Kim rescues their papers, concluding his quest… and yet, things are still up in the air.
First off, we have traveled into the lama's home territory of the Himalayas, but we still haven't found his River of the Arrow. What is more, when the Russian agent hit the lama, the lama felt a moment of absolute, overpowering rage—he wanted to kill the Russian. What kind of a holy man can he be if he can be overcome by this murderous anger? So the lama's soul feels sick.
As for Kim, he starts lugging this locked box of the Russian agents' papers down out of the Himalayas on his own; he is also trying to take care of the lama as best he can, since he sees how sad and guilty the lama feels. All of this stress makes Kim physically sick. This whole spy business isn't turning out to be much fun so far.
Kim and the lama wind up at the Kulu woman's house, where Kim promptly falls into bed sick and sleeps for a full day and a half. When he wakes up, it is like he just gets it: why he is wandering around India, why he is making connections with people whom he meets on the road, all of it. Kim understands at last that this is what he is for: to travel the country finding information and conducting missions.
All of Kim's doubts and anxieties over his place in the world have been unnecessary—he has found the work that he was born to do. As soon as Kim feels better physically after his whole ordeal with the Russian agents, he starts to feel better spiritually as well.
Similarly, the lama has found all of his answers. While Kim is ill in bed and sleeping, the lama goes on a long fast—he doesn't eat or drink for two days. This fast gives him a vision of the universal Soul that he has been trying to find all of this time, but when the lama sees his Salvation right in front of his eyes, he realizes that he doesn't want to take it right now. He doesn't want to leave Kim on his own, and he wants to bring Kim to the Enlightenment he has found. The lama sees the rightness of things: he is Kim's mentor and Kim has become a wise man.
So by the end of Kim, both our boy hero and his grandfather-figure have reaffirmed their places in this mad, mad world of ours. They have found the meaning, maybe not of Life as a general philosophical category, but of their individual lives, for sure.
In Chapter One, we meet Kim and his complete, total opposite, the Teshoo lama; together, the unlikely duo hits the road and their whole roundabout journey begins.
On the one hand, we have a kid named Kim who is mostly out alone, doing his own thing… which mostly involves teasing and mischief-making; Kim is a great manipulator and imitator, and he uses his skills to get things that he wants. But on the other hand, we have the Teshoo lama.
Where Kim is great at blending into crowds, the Teshoo lama stands out as unique in this novel. No one dresses like him, no one looks quite like him, and no one else can participate in the quest that he has chosen: finding the River of the Arrow (for more on the lama's quest, check out our analysis of the River of the Arrow in the "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section). Yet even though these two people should go together about as well as orange juice and toothpaste (and trust us, if you've never brushed your teeth and then had OJ, don't) they actually really work together as a duo.
The lama is too spiritual to notice much of what's going on around him. Without Kim's care, who knows what would happen to him—he would starve or be robbed or something—and without the lama's presence, Kim might not learn how valuable and sustaining it can be to look after someone else for a change. And of course, without the lama, Kim might never have left Lahore in the first place or found the tuition to go to St. Xavier's. He might never have run his first, fateful unofficial mission for Mahbub Ali, thus winning the attention of Creighton the Englishman.
They both help each other, is our point.
In Chapter Six, Kim goes off to start his formal English education at St. Xavier's. The lama decides to visit various Buddhist holy sites in India and to continue his study of Buddhist manuscripts—he believes that he can't find the River of the Arrow until his faithful follower, Kim, comes back to him.
Kim doesn't exactly love his new school, St. Xavier's (though he doesn't hate it, the way he loathed the regimental school that was going to transform him into a disciplined soldier). Sometimes he gets bored with the rules and regulations of institutional life, but he recognizes the long-term value of learning to make maps and charts and of studying the habits and manners of British men, since he wants an official job someday.
What's more, thanks to Kim's entry into formal education, Colonel Creighton can start thinking about hiring Kim as a Secret Service agent for the British Indian government. Kim has all of the talent he could ever want for this job—he's got no problem forming connections with people and finding information.
What he needs is a sense of the larger picture, of what all of his information gathering could contribute to. Once Kim can combine the skills he has been learning with Lurgan, Mahbub Ali, and the Babu with everything that he has gained at St. Xavier's, he will be a perfect field agent—a proper James Bond (or Austin Powers) in the making.
In Chapter 11, Kim rejoins the lama to find the lama's River of the Arrow and to undergo a six-month test run for his employment with the British Indian Secret Service.
Kim may be thrilled finally to escape School, but he seems to be struggling a bit throughout the last third of the novel with his new adult life. Honestly, we can sympathize—it's like how when you graduate from high school or college, you often feel a slight sense of anxiety about going on to the next stage of life. Like, what's it going to be like? Will it be as good as (or better than) what you just left behind? As Kim sits in the Benares train station, about to meet the lama, he suddenly wonders, "Who is Kim—Kim—Kim?" (11.4)… and he can't answer. He feels that post-school existential crisis with which we are all too familiar.
So, Act Three of this book is about getting Kim an answer to that question of "Who is Kim?" As he looks after the lama, fights off Russian agents, falls sick in the Himalayas and recovers at the Kulu woman's house, Kim realizes that he suddenly understands what his place is in the world. His job is to wander India finding information—that's what he is good at, what he likes, and what he was born to do. And once he realizes that, Kim feels a freedom similar to what the lama experiences when he finds his Salvation.