Sorrow and the Redemptive Role of Fate: Kipling's "On Greenhow Hill"
Dillingham, William B., Papers on Language & Literature
In the complicated mosaic of Rudyard Kipling's belief system, sorrow and fate are prominent motifs. At times he appeared to be almost obsessed with the subject of grief, which he considered to be one of the exquisite torments that make human existence a living hell. (1) From early in his life to late, belief in fate was for him something of a substitute for belief in God. On one occasion, in 1908, he called himself "a Godfearing Christian atheist," a peculiar confession of faith if there ever was one (Kipling, letter to Lady Edward Cecil). I think what he meant was that he respected, even cherished, the standard of behavior and the long traditions of Christianity so important to his beloved England but that he could not accept its theology. Despite poems like "Recessional" (1897) and "Cold Iron" (1910), in which he seems to be speaking from a Christian perspective, he declared as late as 1925, "I'm no Christian" (Cohen 164). His writings covering a span of many years are saturated with proofs of that statement.
Fate he considered an inexplicable force haphazardly destroying and preserving. There was no order or reason to it; but it was, and most of the time that was more than he could say about God. He called fate the "big Machine." It took countless lives without mercy; it coldly brought untold physical suffering; it cast dark clouds of despair over the lives of millions. It was in control and it did not give a damn, but sometimes it was the instrument of retributive justice, and periodically it could save as well as maim and destroy. Feeling that it was in control sometimes gave him a sense of relief, as if what happened was not his fault. When his friend H. Rider Haggard was about to undergo a serious operation, Kipling wrote him in May of 1925 what were supposed to be words of comfort:
But there is this--just this to be said--when the big Machine of Fate is felt and realized to have us in its hold, one gets a blessed incuriousness and content on the matter--on all matters: and the odd feeling that somewhere at sometime the self-same thing has happened before and that, try as one may, one can't put a foot wrong. I know that that will come over you as you go up to the table--if you've got to, and it beats any known anesthetic. (Cohen 177)
These two strands of thought--the depth of distress caused by losing a loved one and the dual nature of fate (especially its redemptive role)--are intricately woven together in Kipling's story of a soldier's lost love, "On Greenhow Hill" (1890), which has the odd distinction of being highly regarded but little written about except in fairly brief comments. Unlike some of Kipling's other stories of bereavement, "On Greenhow Hill" does not concentrate on the immediate impact of loss as does, say, "Without Benefit of Clergy," published just a couple of months earlier, but delineates the complex effects of what might be termed retrospective mourning. It is Kipling's brilliant refutation of the widely accepted saw that time heals all wounds. Two time schemes are at work in the story as three soldiers, Mulvaney, Ortheris, and Learoyd, recurrent characters in several of Kipling's military tales, sit on a hill in northwestern India waiting to shoot the deserter from a native regiment when he eventually appears below. During these moments, Learoyd recounts events from his past, the story of how he met Liza Roantree, fell in love with her, vied with a young minister for her affection, attended the church where she and her family were active, failed to win the approval of her father, learned of her fatal illness, and joined the British army in despair as she was close to death. Occasionally Learoyd's two companions interrupt his narrative of the past with remarks, juxtaposing the two time periods, and Learoyd himself sometimes comments on the difference between what he was then and is now. The story ends with the same setting in which it began, with the three friends in India. …