Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Christ in Flanders?: Another Look at Rudyard Kipling's "The Gardener"

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Christ in Flanders?: Another Look at Rudyard Kipling's "The Gardener"

Article excerpt

One of Kipling's finest and most enigmatic short stories, "The Gardener" (1926), has long teased readers with its ambiguities, especially the cryptic conclusion of the tale. Just who is the shadowy gardener glimpsed on the final page? Is he, as many commentators have assumed, literally Jesus Christ? Or is Martin Seymour-Smith correct in asserting that the gardener, an ordinary mortal, momentarily becomes "a Christ (not necessarily the Christ)" by responding to Helen's "need of truthful maternal grief" (355)? Or, to raise a possibility less frequently addressed, can we interpret the conclusion in a more secular fashion, approaching the gardener as a person (not as Christ, or even as someone necessarily Christ-like) whose own suffering gives him an intuitive understanding of Helen's distress? Here, indeed, the ink-brush that Kipling so liberally applied when editing his work has left us with an intriguing array of possibilities.

My own conclusions regarding the final scene depend upon viewing it within a specific context: namely, the policies and procedures of the Imperial War Graves Commission, an organization whose basic principles Kipling helped to formulate, as a member of its founding committee, and for which he served as chief poet and rhetorician. Before considering this context, however, I should mention that the connections drawn by other critics between Kipling's character and Christ, whom Mary Magdalene mistakes for a gardener in the Gospel of John (20: 11-16), seem to me entirely convincing. (1)

For additional support, we need only turn to a short story, one supposedly based on a medieval folktale, by Honore de Balzac: "Christ in Flanders" (1831). Whether Kipling read Balzac's tale, which recounts the Savior's appearance aboard a Flemish ferry and the rescue of several passengers, is uncertain, but it seems likely, especially given Kipling's familiarity with French literature and the parallels between the two works. For example, in Balzac's narrative, as in "The Gardener," Christ initially conceals his identity:

   Just at that moment a man appeared a few paces from the jetty .... The
   traveler seemed to have sprung up from the earth, like a peasant who had
   laid himself down on the ground to wait till the boat should start, and had
   slept till the sound of the horn awakened him. Was he a thief?, or someone
   belonging to the custom-house or the police? (Balzac 2)

A similar sense of mystery surrounds the man whom Helen "suppos[es] ... to be the gardener" (Kipling 838). Whether literally or symbolically, then, Kipling's story, like Balzac's, evokes a powerful Christian myth--one of compassionate aid suddenly given by a shadowy stranger--and demonstrates, in Seymour-Smith's words, that "[t]here is such a thing as the miraculous" (355). However, if we examine "The Gardener" in light of Kipling's involvement with the Commission, and consider who cemetery gardeners actually were in the 1920s, several additional layers of meaning come into view. In particular, we can see that the story manifests a variety of Christ imagery, as well as a fascination with the uncanny, that pervaded British culture during and immediately after the Great War, and that its spiritual conclusion paradoxically endorses an ideology that perpetuates warfare.

As many critics have pointed out, "The Gardener" represents one of Kipling's most personal works of fiction--but this is true not only because the story reflects Kipling's anguish over the death of his son, John Kipling, at the battle of Loos in 1915. The tale also constitutes, I believe, an homage to the Imperial War Graves Commission. Kipling's ties to this organization extended into several areas. As a member of the founding board, which first met in November 1917, Kipling was instrumental in establishing the Commission's general objectives, and, as a result, much of what his bereaved protagonist experiences in the story. The very fact that Kipling's character must travel all the way to Flanders to see her son's grave is a result of policies that her creator helped to formulate in real life; early on, the Commissioners concluded that the Empire's war dead should remain in the battlefields where they fell, each soldier resting beside men of the same regiment. …

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