Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"The Mark of the Beast": Rudyard Kipling's Apocalyptic Vision of Empire

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"The Mark of the Beast": Rudyard Kipling's Apocalyptic Vision of Empire

Article excerpt

The past decade has finally laid to rest the stereotype of Kipling the jingoistic poet of Empire. With few exceptions, recent critics of Kipling's work have commented on the ambiguity and multi-voicedness of his fictional portraits of Empire, and have rightly insisted on separating Kipling's public persona from his artistic personae. Of course, no one can deny the sympathy for the project of empire-building--and the admiration for those engaged therein--that runs throughout much of Kipling's Indian fiction, but there are also darker, more cynical visions of Empire in his work. Yet, despite the increasing number of publications on Kipling's relationship to Empire--totaling more than 20 articles and at least three books during the past 15 years--and despite the virtually ubiquitous acknowledgment of the ambivalence that characterizes Kipling's work, few analyses have engaged particular stories in depth to demonstrate how this ambivalence is worked out. This essay will examine "The Mark of the Beast," a work that can shed much fight on Kipling's relationship to Empire, for it represents one of his most forceful critiques of Empire: as an allegory of the relationship of British colonizer and Indian colonized, it deserves a place alongside such stories as "The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes"(1) and "The Man Who Would Be King."

The events related in "The Mark of the Beast" are deceptively simple.(2) Fleete, a landowner newly arrived in India, overindulges in alcohol at a New Year's party, and commits an outrage against the Indian ape-god Hanuman by grinding his cigar into the forehead of a temple-statue in Hanuman's likeness. He then announces drunkenly, "Shee that? `Mark of the B--beasht! I made it. Ishn't it fine?" (218). Abruptly, a naked and leprous "Silver Man" steps out from behind the image and, before the narrator or his friend Strickland can intervene, touches his head to Fleete's chest. Strickland and the narrator carry the still-drunk Fleete home, and now begins the gradual transformation of Fleete into a beast: his sense of smell grows keener, he eats raw meat, his horses shy when around him, he grovels on hands and knees in Strickland's garden, and he finally loses the power of speech and howls like a wolf. At the same time, a mark appears on his chest--presumably where the Silver Man touched him--and it is similar to the spots on a leopard's hide.

Strickland at this point informs the narrator to prepare for trouble, and during that night the Silver Man appears at Strickland's house, walking around the outside while Fleete convulses in his room, reacting to the leper's presence. Strickland concludes that Hanuman has bewritched Fleete to punish him for the desecration and decides to intervene. He and the narrator capture the Silver Man, tie him up, and tell him to cure Fleete. When he does not, they torture him with heated gun-barrels. At dawn, they release the Silver Man and tell him "to take away the evil spirit" (230); he touches Fleete's left breast, and Fleete promptly returns to his normal condition and falls asleep. The Silver Man leaves, and Strickland goes to the temple of Hanuman to consult the priests about atoning for Fleete's desecration of the idol, but is told that the incident he describes never occurred. When Strickland returns, Fleete cannot remember anything about the incident either, but jokes about a dog-like odor in his room. Strickland promptly dissolves into hysterical laughter, as does the narrator, realizing that, in torturing the Silver Man to save Fleete's life, he has forfeited all claims to being a civilized Englishman. The narrative closes with the ironic statement that "it is well known to every right-minded man that the gods of the heathen are stone and brass, and any attempt to deal with them otherwise is justly condemned" (232).

The encounter between Fleete and Hanuman's idol is suggestive of the primal encounter of colonizer and colonized, of Englishman and Indian, of East and West. …

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