Our hero Kim is an orphan, but he has about a billion parent figures (and we swear, we're barely exaggerating): the lama, Mahbub Ali, Creighton, Lurgan, the Kulu woman—even the Babu could count as a slightly annoying older-brother-figure. All of these characters are linked together by affection and a sense of responsibility rather than by ties of blood. The novel Kim strongly emphasizes the importance of networks between people who can provide emotional (and financial and professional) support for one another.
At the same time, Kipling's emphasis on personal attachment has some definite political implications. For example, the novel describes the (fictional) rebellion against British authority by the Five Kings in the north of India as treason (15.82)—in other words, as a betrayal of the personal ties between colonial India and the British Empire.
And it is Kipling's assumptions about the moral and emotional rightness of the bonds between India and Britain that has made Kim such a controversial, complicated novel now that India is a strong, independent nation in its own right. (For more on Kipling's pro-imperialist ideas about India, check out our "In a Nutshell" section.)
Even though they are all working secretly for the British Indian government, Kim's relationship with Mahbub Ali is deeply emotional, while his bonds with Creighton and Lurgan are more purely professional. The formal loyalty Kim shares with his Sahib mentors suggests that Kipling associates Creighton and Lurgan more closely with the institutions of government than Mahbub Ali.
By emphasizing close personal ties between characters of all races in the setting of British India, Kipling portrays the colonial relationship between India and the British Empire as a mutually positive and helpful one.
Race is everywhere in Kim. We find out on the first page that, underneath Kim's darkly tanned skin (which is "burned black as any native"), Kim is still "white" (1.2). There is no single character in this book whose race we don't know.
And there's an important historical reason for this attention to race: Rudyard Kipling is writing about India during the period of British colonial domination at the turn of the twentieth century. Kipling's India includes a huge mix of people from different nationalities, ethnic groups, religions—you name the category, it appears in this book. But even though people of many cultures appear in Kim, race still makes a big difference to how much economic and social mobility the different characters have.
Undeniably, Kipling is writing according to a pro-imperial, racist worldview. So even though Kim is very poor, he has the opportunity to make a great profession for himself partly because he is white. Indian characters such as the Babu have some degree of flexibility and power in this book, but there are still limits to what they can achieve because of their race.
However, while Kipling has a lot of biases going into his portrayal of India, he also strongly criticizes white racism and he portrays all of his characters, no matter what their background, with depth and compassion. Kim includes a lot of puzzling contradictions in its representations of race, which is one reason why we keep coming back to read this book even today.
By presenting British India from Kim's unique perspective, Kipling makes the customs of all of the characters—from Mahbub Ali to Lurgan to the Irish Mavericks—appear unfamiliar and intriguing, regardless of their race.
Kipling's negative portrayal of the Maverick drummer-boy's ignorance, and his positive representation of Anglo-Indian characters like Kim and Lurgan, suggest that not all Sahibs in Kim are equal: while Kipling still upholds pro-imperialist racial hierarchies in this novel, he also criticizes white prejudice about Indian customs and values.
Kim seems to spend about 90% of his time watching other people and trying to figure out what their game is. And when Kim isn't watching other people, he's coming up with his own schemes to deliver secret messages or to run away from school and see the world. Except when he's hanging out with his spymaster mentors (Lurgan, Creighton, and Mahbub Ali), Kim is pretty much guaranteed to be the smartest person in the room—and by the end of Kim, we get the idea that he might outpace even Lurgan and Mahbub Ali in his skills with observation and manipulation.
Most of Kim's character development over the course of this book focuses on the turn of his natural cunning and cleverness toward the greater good: Kim is an amazing cheater and liar, but as he continues on his adventures, he learns to manipulate people on behalf of the British Empire. And apparently, that makes all the difference to his moral fiber (at least, according to Kipling).
While the first half of Kim emphasizes the humor of Kim's clever tricks, as when he sneaks out of school after being disguised as a Hindu boy by a prostitute, the second half of Kim takes on a more serious tone toward Kim's adventures. This shift from comedy to drama emphasizes the higher stakes of Kim's later adventures with the Russian agents, as opposed to his earlier childhood schemes.
Kim's cleverness in interacting with people strongly contrasts with the lama's abstract, philosophical wisdom; while both characters are intelligent, the different ways that they apply their knowledge emphasizes their distinct world views.
We've mentioned elsewhere that we are told the races of every single character in Kim. Race really seems to matter for Kipling, since he is portraying the deeply hierarchical, prejudiced society of British colonial India at the turn of the twentieth century. But while we as readers may get a lot of information about the different characters' races, the other characters don't necessarily get this same information.
Kim and the Babu often appear in disguise on their adventures for the Secret Service, as they pretend to be people of different ethnicities, religions, professions—whatever you can imagine. The irony of the importance of appearances in this book is that because these agents know that appearance can totally change a person's social status in this place and time, it can also be another way to manipulate the people around them. In a world where everybody judges other people based on how they look, all they need to do is change their faces to change their fates.
In contrast to characters like Kim, the Babu, or Lurgan, the lama's consistent, unchanging outside appearance indicates his continuing lack of worldliness and understanding of the social contexts around him.
Kim's great skill at assuming other people's appearances and customs demonstrates a lack of consistent, underlying depth to Kim's own character.
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.
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.
Kipling wrote a lot of books for kids that still remain popular to this day, including The Jungle Book, the Just-So Stories, and, of course, Kim. He was really invested in the idea that the boys of his day were going to be the Future of the British Empire, and—obviously—he really wanted the British Empire to continue. So these boys should read books that celebrate adventures and fighting and surviving outdoors—all potentially things that young men might actually have to do in the British Army as imperial soldiers.
We can't think of any better proof of Kipling's focus on healthy youth than his friendship with Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts. Given Kipling's personal focus on education, it doesn't surprise us that Kim portrays youth (and specifically, boyhood—there aren't a lot of girls in Kipling's works) as a really positive part of life, as a time of courage, flexibility, cleverness, and creativity.
By insisting that only young people have the adaptability and creativity to be really successful spies, Kim suggests that all good spies have to continue in a state of arrested development where they remain childlike even into adulthood. This childishness is true not only of Kim, but also of grown spy characters like Lurgan, the Babu, and Mahbub Ali.
By emphasizing Kim's worldly sophistication in spite of his youth and the lama's childlike innocence in spite of his age, Kipling implies that age is a matter of outlook and point of view rather than biological maturity.
If you think about it, a lot of Kim is about acknowledging the duty that all of the characters owe to Kipling's idealized British Indian state. After all, Kim starts out the novel with many of the skills he needs to be a spy already in place. All he has to learn is a sense of duty towards the Empire (this one? Oops, wrong Empire — we mean this one). Once Kim's talents are directed toward information gathering for the British Indian Secret Service, he suddenly feels as though his life has meaning and shape that it was lacking before.
By portraying the sense of duty that the ordinary people of India feel towards Kim and the lama as they travel to look for the lama's River of the Arrow, Kipling depicts Indian society as a whole as both charitable and religious in Kim.
While Kipling is very explicit about the loyalties and duties that he feels the Indian characters owe to the British Empire, the novel remains much more vague about what the British characters owe to India in return.
Kipling spends a lot of time cataloguing the sheer number of kinds of people in India. Every time there's a crowd scene, we see at least a dozen different representatives of different racial and cultural groups. But race, class, and culture aren't the only ways that Kipling divides people up: he also strongly emphasizes religious background. This novel includes Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist characters, all mingling together in the highly diverse social spaces of British India.
Still, for a novel with so many religions mixing together, Kim doesn't seem that invested in religious belief per se. While the lama is obviously a devout Buddhist, Kim's thoroughly secular, non-religious approach to the world seems much more in tune with the attitudes of the book as a whole.
But while the novel itself may not take a stand on religious faith, it does appear to have a lot of respect for what spirituality can do for the moral fiber of its characters. The lama is a good and honest man thanks in part to his religious commitment, and a lot of the charity and generosity that Kim and the lama find on the road arises from the respect the people of India have for the lama's holy status.
While the characters in Kim notice other people's religious differences—for example, Mahbub Ali calls Kim an unbeliever, and the lama makes comments about people who do not follow the Buddhist Middle Way—religion is a source of togetherness rather than conflict in this novel.
Because Kim takes a largely secular approach to spirituality, religion becomes primarily a matter of cultural and ethnic difference rather than a matter of faith in the novel.