Academic journal article Irish Gothic Journal

Kipling's Early Gothic Tales: The Dialogical Consciousness of an Imperialist in India

Academic journal article Irish Gothic Journal

Kipling's Early Gothic Tales: The Dialogical Consciousness of an Imperialist in India

Article excerpt

In his early literary production, Rudyard Kipling wrote a number of gothic tales the intricate ideology of which exceeds his monolithic image as an imperial writer. Founded on a dialogism that simultaneously promotes and defies imperial discourse, these stories, this article argues, can be read as positioning him among those late-Victorian writers, like Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869) or George Eliot in Daniel Deronda (1876), who cultivated a critical distance towards the Other and their own culture. T. S. Eliot read that critical distance as 'universal foreignness', 'detachment and remoteness', characteristics that make Kipling a writer 'impossible wholly to understand'.1 In a similar interpretative line, contemporary critic Stephen Arata reads Strickland - a recurring character in Kipling's stories - as an alter ego of his author, one whose 'detachment' and 'perfect objectivity' allowed Britons to understand Indian culture.2

Both Eliot and Arata employ the word 'detachment' in relation to Kipling's critical distance. Amanda Anderson has described Victorian 'detachment' as a modern attitude associated with criticism, self-reflexive character, ambivalence, uncertainty, cosmopolitanism, disinterestedness, and aspirations toward universality and objectivity.3 Although aspiring to conform to universal values has been frequently considered as a part of hegemonic thinking, or of ethnocentric forms of domination over cultural minorities, Anderson argues that 'detachment' was also a position that encouraged analysis and questioning of traditional norms and conventions.4 Kipling's view of the British Empire in his early gothic tales contain a number of elements that can be seen as aligning with this ambivalent notion. His conscious support of the imperial project was corroded by tensions that arose, potentially from his unstable ideological position. This article is an analysis of that dialectical structure.

The first section of this article focuses on the way that tales like 'The Mark of the Beast', 'The Return of Imray', 'The Sending of Dana Da', 'In the House of Suddhoo', and 'Bubbling Well Road' suggest an attitude that alternatively supports and undermines British imperialism within the framework of religious and supernatural fields. On the one hand, these tales try to explain Indian culture from a British perspective that serves colonial purposes, seeking to degrade and control that culture. However, they also show how Western rationality is defeated by an esoteric otherness. The Other in these stories keeps a mysterious secret, an inaccessible, supernatural, and menacing power that is wielded against British supremacy. In these tales, such a conception affects the imperial discourse in several ways. Firstly, spirituality functions as sort of a battlefield of cultural Indian resistance, where Britishness is vulnerable rather than omnipotent. Secondly, the stories' attitude towards spirituality is framed in Social Darwinist terms, pitting religion against religion in a struggle for power, thereby insinuating that British religious missions, far from being humanitarian in nature, as imperial propaganda insists, are instead an instrument of politics. Finally, civilisation - often presented as a positive outcome of imperialism - is exposed as another form of barbarism involved in a struggle for power.

In the second section, the ideological tension analysed above is read as an ethical problem in 'The Mark of the Beast', 'At the End of the Passage', 'The Broken Link Handicap', 'The Phantom 'Rickshaw', and several journalistic articles. They are critical of what, from the British perspective of Kipling's Protestant work ethic, is depicted as the general disorder of India. Nevertheless, such a position - which reinforces the necessity for imperial tasks - is imploded by a self-critical consciousness of the abusive excesses of that system of values, for both British pioneers and Anglo-Indians who live in adverse conditions. …

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