A "wHITE BOY ⋯ WHO IS NOT A WHITE BOY": RUDYARD KIPLING'S KIM, WHITENESS, and BRITISH IDENTITY

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Rudyard Kipling's final novel, Kim (1901), begins with an intriguing - if paradoxical - description of the eponymous Kim, or Kimball O'Hara: he is an English boy with an Irish name and Irish parentage who speaks the [Indian] vernacular by preference (1). While the narrator hastens to reassure the reader that Kim is both white and English, Kim is also burned black as any native and speaks his supposed mother tongue, English, in an uncertain sing-song (1). If we are to take Kipling's assertion at face value, that Kim is, indeed, English, then certainly this is a kind of Englishness that is divorced completely from the racially pure ideals of Anglo-Saxon whiteness that were privileged by many racial theorists earlier in the nineteenth century. As an Irish Celt, Kipling's protagonist is always already at a layer of remove from ideals of pure Englishness, but Kipling renders Kim's racial identity even more complicated in the text. The manuscript of Kim gives us some telling clues about the contexts that inform Kipling's peculiar descriptions of burned black whiteness in his finished novel. While the published text baldly declares that Kim was English ⋯ Kim was white (1; ch. 1; emphasis mine), parts of the manuscript are much less certain of this fact, as that document asserts that Kim looked like a half caste (Kipling, Kim o' the 'Rishti n. 3). And while Kipling ultimately removed this explicit link between Kim and Eurasian bodies in the opening of his published text, this disavowal is neither complete nor convincing throughout Kim. For instance, in the novel, the narrator later describes a half-caste woman who looked after [Kim⋯ and] told the missionaries that she was Kim's mother's sister (1; ch. 1). While this woman is not, in fact, the boy's aunt, Kim's near-familial tie with her underlines the intimate connection between him and the hybridized subjects of empire. Indeed, Kim demonstrates ideological and affective links to non-white Others and to people of mixed race, and this connection between whiteness and racial hybridity is of central importance to Kipling. If Kim is tenuously white, then he can only perform this whiteness in immediate proximity to racial hybridity, with which whiteness is ideologically contiguous in this text. As I contend in this paper, Kim reveals the under-examined links between early twentieth-century ideas of white British identity and descriptions of imperial miscegenation. In Kim, White and English emerge as a vexed pair of signifiers that reveal unprecedented traces of racial and national hybridization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)331-346
Number of pages16
JournalVictorian Literature and Culture
Volume46
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Jun 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'A "wHITE BOY ⋯ WHO IS NOT A WHITE BOY": RUDYARD KIPLING'S KIM, WHITENESS, and BRITISH IDENTITY'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

  • Cite this