Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (1993), on Kipling’s Kim

Source: Edward Said,  Culture and Imperialism (NY: Vintage Books 1994) [1993], pp.162-63.

Two factors must be kept in mind as we interpret Kim. One is that, whether we like it or not, its author is writing not just from the dominating view-point of a white man in a colonial possession but from the perspective of a massive colonial system whose economy, functioning, and history had acquired the status of a virtual fact of nature. Kipling assumes a basically uncontested empire [...]

The second factor is that, no less than India itself, Kipling was a historical being as well as a major artist. Kim was written at a specific moment in his career, at a time when the relationship between the British and Indian people was changing. Kim is central to the quasi-official age of empire and in a way represents it. And even though Kipling resisted this reality, India was already well on its way toward a dynamic of outright opposition to British rule (the Indian National Congress was established in 1885), while among the dominant caste of British colonial officials, military as well as civilian, important changes in attitude were occurring as a result of the 1857 Rebellion. The British and Indians were both evolving, and together. They had a common interdependent history, in which opposition, animosity, and sympathy either kept them apart or brought them together. A remarkable, complex novel like Kim is a very illuminating part of that history, filled with emphases, inflections, deliberate inclusions and exclusions as any great work of art is, and made the more interesting because Kipling was not a neutral figure in the Anglo-Indian situation but a prominent actor in it.

Even though India gained its independence (and was partitioned) in 1947, the question of how to interpret Indian and British history in the period after decolonization is still, like all such dense and highly conflicted encounters, a matter of strenuous, if not always edifying, debate. There is the view, for example, that imperialism permanently scarred and distorted Indian life, so that even after decades of independence, the Indian economy, bled by British needs and practices, continues to suffer. Conversely, there are British intellectuals, political figures, and historians who believe that giving up the empire - whose symbols were Suez, Aden, and India - was bad for Britain and bad for ‘the natives’, who both have declined in all sorts of ways ever since.

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