Identity is a key, recurring theme in the bibliography of Rudyard Kipling. Identity formation has many facets and Kipling focuses on geography, naming, and behaviour. Some critics have explained Kipling’s focus on identity and how it can be formed and moulded by way of his own upbringing. Phillip Mason believes that Kipling’s own fragmented upbringing between India and England created in him a desire to discover where the essential truth of identity lies. Kipling questions whether it is something we are all born with or if is it something that can be formed through learning behavioural conventions. In this way, Kipling’s definition of identity would amount to identity being a certain way of acting, of thinking, and of apprehending the world; a worldview that shapes all actions and thought. By studying closely some of Kipling’s work, The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, Kim, and ‘Gunga Din’, and looking at critical responses to these texts, the evolution of these concepts will become clear.
Kipling’s focus on the importance of identity and its formation has left him vulnerable to claims of racism and jingoism. This is a simplistic response to Kipling as the respect he shows to other cultures and races shines through in his work. If one considers the formulation of identity in Kipling to correspond with psychological theories, then much of this criticism in Kipling is negated, and the reader is presented with another means of engaging with Kipling’s text.
One of the psychological theories which can provide this is the work of Erik Erikson. Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development offer an opportunity to study how characters such as Mowgli and Kim create and transform their identities. Erikson defined identity as ‘a constant reproduction of images of self’. These images of self are attained through completion of psychological stages. It is these stages which will be applied to Kipling’s work to unlock meaning with a close reading of Kim through Erikson.
Though Kipling was writing before Erikson, this does not render an Eriksonian examination meaningless. Erikson’s stages of development are intended to be capable of being applied retroactively as he himself does in an examination of the youth of Adolf Hitler. The modern reader of Kipling should be allowed the freedom to utilise Erikson’s work as part of their dialogising background to extract meaning from the text as Pope argues,
‘Inferred textuality refers to all those texts which actual readers draw on to help their understanding of the text in hand. These need not have been in the writer’s mind or even existed at the time. It is their status in the reader’s mind that matters’.
While the novel’s great achievement in the history of literature was to grant readers privileged access to the motivations of characters and give a clue to psychological states through what David Lodge terms ‘the interiority of experience’, they are still works of fiction and all authors, even those striving for the realest of realism, employ a degree of artistic license to their characters. The point is not to hold Kipling up to a scientific standard and to consider how well he realistically portrays identity development, it is to determine what, if any, enhancement to a reading of a text can be achieved through an intertextual, interdisciplinary approach to his work.
The current discourse on the importance of identity in Kipling’s work is clear in its consensus on the fact that identity plays a very important role in unlocking meaning in the texts. One of the prominent contemporary voices, Sue Walsh, traces this theme through the Mowgli stories, Just So Stories, and Kimand she concludes that Kipling’s texts are ‘engaging with questions of identity’.
Walsh compares how Kipling utilises identity formation and confusion in these texts and illustrates the various, sometimes conflicting concept of identity he shows. Walsh acknowledges that the Mowgli stories are now understood to concern a white boy in India with the various animals representing the ‘different peoples of India’. The critics Walsh references, Randall & McBratney and Hutchkiss, establish that there are essential racial identities exhibited by the animals. In these stories the difference between the identities of the various communities in India are as intrinsic as the snake’s biological differences the bear.
Walsh suggests that Kipling refines this concept of identity in ‘The Tabu Tale’ as he recognises that there are behavioural conventions that go some way to creating identity and that these can be learned. Further, Kipling says through his text that learning these conventions is indicative of civilised, human adults.
Walsh demonstrates how, in Kim, there is a synthesis of the essential and the learned. Kipling presents identity as something that can be learned and this learned identity is something which can be engaged with at any time as Kim treats his identity formed at the military academy as ‘ a set of clothes he can put on and put off’. Juxtaposed with his unfixed British identity is the ‘foundational’ Indian identity he owns. This identity is primary and is his real persona. However, even within one text Kipling demonstrates an ambivalence towards identity for as Walsh notes, a large part of the novel is devoted to mimicking others to such a point as to be able to pass unnoticed amongst those intrinsically different to oneself, so even these primary, foundational identities can be learned for ‘if languages and behaviours can be successfully mimicked, they are not after all exclusively inherent characteristics’.
The importance of identity elsewhere in Kipling’s bibliography is highlighted by Sandra Kemp with regards to Plain Tales. Kemp says that Kipling in Plain Tales shows a ‘desire both to maintain and to abandon a fixed identity’. This equivocation to identity leads to confusion and discomfort in characters showing how important the formation of identity is to well being. Kemp believes that these stories show huge differences between Indian and European identities which appear to be innate as she states that Kipling shows Indian culture to be ‘emotionally alien’ to the West. Yet Kim again shows a more advanced conception of identity as ‘in Kim the express search for identity structures the action’. This search for identity is the reason for the story to take place and if one must search for identity, then presumably one is not born with it.
Phillip Mason sees this search for identity as being located within a poetic tradition and the quest for identity. In this manner, Kipling is working within a tradition including Vaughan, Traherne, and Wordsworth albeit against an Indian landscape as opposed to the English countryside. Perhaps as an example of differing cultural traditions, Mason notes that while Kim is attempting to find his identity as Wordsworth et al. were, the Lama is trying to rid himself of identity; a clue it would seem to Kim’s biological English identity being stronger than his cultural Indian identity. This links back to Walsh’s belief that there are primary identities and then others which act as an ‘addition or supplement’.
An early example of the importance of identity in Kipling is his poem of 1892 ‘Gunga Din’. Two characters are used to explore identity. The first is the narrative voice, a cockney soldier who reveals his identity through vocabulary choice and pronunciation. The dropped ‘h’ sound, the th-fronting (line 20) and the elongated ‘o’ in ‘Gawd’ (line 84) demonstrate this. By utilising the cockney voice, Kipling is showing identity as a group characteristic. There are groups of people who share similarities based on geography of birth, in this case within the sound of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow. These are cultural signifiers to identity and so are learned; no-one is born with a cockney accent. To focus on the theme of identity as learned behaviour, Kipling has his soldier use Indian terms, ‘bhisti’ (line 12), ‘Panee lao’ (line 16), ‘juldee’ (32), showing further adaptation and development of identity within the soldier.
The second character within the poem is the eponymous Gunga Din. The reader is only exposed to this character through the narrator as focalizer and so we see a very subjective description of Din’s identity. The narrator displays a respectful attitude towards Din from the outset. Din’s name is first used to end the first stanza with the cadence rising in line 10 and then dropping to fall on ‘Gunga Din’ (line 12) lending gravity to this introduction. Din’s name is also used to rhyme with ‘Queen’ (line 9) here, linking the two people and so raising Din’s stature.
The rhyming of Din unlocks greater meaning to his identity. Din is rhymed twice with ‘green’ (lines 48 and 60), the only word used more than once in this manner. Both times the word displays noble aspects of Din’s character. The first time demonstrates Din’s courage as he helps ‘the wounded under fire’ with ‘bullets kickin’ dust-spots on the green’ (line 48), and secondly his compassion as he offers green water, all that is available, to the narrator.
How to rhyme Din in the poem has long caused a problem for readers. In the main, Din is mistakenly read to rhyme with pin despite the rhyme scheme clearly showing the ‘i’ has a long ‘ee’ sound. By pronouncing it in this way, the reader takes part in denying Din an aspect of his fundamental identity, his name. The pronunciation of his name is vital to his identity because it reveals his courage, compassion, status, and even gives meaning to his death through rhyme as he is ‘drilled…clean’ (line 71), the rhyme stylistically linking his death to these noble traits.
While Kipling spells cockney English phonetically to assist the reader, the Indian terms and Din’s name are not. This is to play on the reader’s assumed impoverished repertoire and create a sense of de-familiarisation, establishing identity as something closed off. Certain groups have specific identities and these are separate from other groups.
Confirmation of fundamental identity is found in lines 44–46, ‘An’ for all ‘is dirty ‘ide,/‘E was white, clear white, inside’. This passage suggests a nativist identity, one living beneath the surface, something essential to the individual, although it is contrasted with stereotypes. Gunga Din is said by the narrator to be effectively European through action despite being Indian in appearance.
The Jungle Book is a series of short stories, linked by characters. The creation of identity in The Jungle Book is initially centred on group actions and codes of behaviour. In ‘Mowgli’s Brothers’, the ‘Law of the Jungle’ is introduced. This governs behaviour for the animals and ensures that the different animals obey the same laws as their species. It is suggested that behaviour and customs are more important than appearance in identifying the animals as although the wolves all look different, ‘below him sat forty or more wolves of every colour’ (p. 10), they all know the law and are expected to obey it. Their leader, Akela, declares to them ‘“Ye know the law — ye know the law”’, (p. 10). This repetition becomes a mantra reinforcing the importance of behaviour to group identity.
Kipling also shows the essential aspect of geography to group identity. It is shown to be very important that Shea Khan is moving beyond his area to hunt, “By the Law of the Jungle he has no right to change his quarters without due warning” (p. 5). This transgression of the animal code becomes the inciting action of the plot. A breakdown in a key aspect of identity governance is at the heart of the narrative.
The nativist interpretation of identity is also present as Bagheena reveals that he was born in captivity and then one day ‘“felt that [he] was Bagheena — the Panther”’ (p. 17).Yet to Mowgli, identity is something that can be discarded and assimilation into a group identity is possible, ‘“Ye have told me so often tonight that I am a man (and indeed I would have been a wolf with you to my life’s end)”’ (p. 24).
‘Mowgli’s Brother’ is about the discovery of identity as one grows. Mowgli makes a decision to change his identity from wolf to man and to go to live with a different group in a different location. He carries the ‘Red Flower’ (p. 18) and acts differently than before, aggressively wielding fire as the reader is shown only a human can do (pp. 24–25). Immediately after this change in behaviour, Mowgli becomes a grown man as noted by Bagheena, “thou art a man, and a man’s cub no longer” (pp. 25–26). Kipling is saying that while group identity features learned customs, there is also an innate group identity, specific to different groups of people.
Another collection of short stories, linked thematically, is Just So Stories. One of the stories which demonstrates much of Kipling’s focus on identity is ‘The Tabu Tale’, a story missing from the early editions. The narrative of ‘The Tabu Tale’ follows a young girl, Taffy, being taught how to hunt effectively by her father through cultural norms explained to her by her mother and the chief of her tribe. Its sub text concerns identity formation and transformation and expands upon some of the points that Kipling raised in ‘Gunga Din’.
One of these issues is over the importance of name to identity. In ‘Gunga Din’ this importance was emphasised through the poem’s rhyme scheme, but in ‘The Tabu Tale’ it is more explicit. The young girl of the story is named Taffy but is referred to differently after she begins wearing the necklace that codes her as an adult. ‘Instead of saying, ‘Where have you been, Taffy?’ said, ‘O daughter of Tegumas…’ same as if she were a grown-up person. That was because she saw the tabu-necklace on Taffy’s neck’. This passage also demonstrates another signifier of identity, appearance. The tabu-necklace signifies an important change in Taffy’s character to her mother, although the reader infers that she had been forewarned of this to aid in Taffy’s behaviour modification. Also, when the Head Chief is introduced, special importance is given to the status-signifiers he wears, ‘the Head Chief of the Tribe of Tegumai came through the woods all in his eagle-feathers’, (para. 6). Another connection to the earlier poem is this importance of appearance as an indication of identity and can be compared to Gunga Din’s ramshackle, scavenged army uniform denoting him as regarded as being like the British soldiers in character, some of whom were missing breastplates.
Identity is also demonstrated through actions. Taffy is shown to be a child at the beginning of the story as she ‘[dances] among dead leaves’ (para. 3) and makes ‘a horrible noise’ (para. 3). She is then taught the cultural norms of her group by her elders and correctly modifies her behaviour to the accepted level, ‘he made the Still Tabu sign, and Taffy stopped as if she had been all turned into one solid stone’, (para. 71). As part of this process, Taffy witnesses the Head Chief abiding by the same rules as he remains trapped in her rose garden. This example of the chief being constrained by the same rules as Taffy emphasises the importance of the group to individual identity. Everybody must respect the same rules. This is again comparable to ‘Gunga Din’ with the link between Queen Victoria and Gunga Din referenced above.
During the narrative of ‘The Tabu Tale’, Kipling defines identity as a three-fold process. A person’s identity is defined by what they are called; how they appear; and how they act. These are all informed by a person’s group allegiance. Appearance had previously been dismissed as irrelevant to identity, as seen in the wolves in ‘Mowgli’s Brothers’ but Kipling has made it an important part of identity here, replacing geographic locale.
It is now clear to see the ways in which Kipling utilised identity and narratives of discovering identity in his work. Kipling presents many different modes of forming identity and presents them as an intersectional means of creating the self. One informs another which in turn informs further means for characters to discover who they are.
Now the critical and textual evidence of identity has been discussed, it will be beneficial to see exactly what Erikson’s theory says and then to apply this to Kim. Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development demonstrate that an individual’s life is made up of numerous stages dependent on age ranges. At each stage a person attains a virtue that enables them to develop healthily. This virtue is gained through the interplay of a psychological crisis, which is constructed as a battle between two opposite abstracts, and a significant relationship. These culminate in an existential question which, when answered, facilitates personal growth and healthy development.
Of these stages, the one applicable to Kim is the adolescent stage. Erikson defines the adolescent stage as occurring between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. This is the stage which is most concerned with identity formation and an individual discovering who they are and is typically labelled ‘identity vs role confusion’. The existential questions raised during this stage are ‘who am I?’ and ‘who can I be?’ and the questions create an ‘identity crisis’. The crisis manifests itself in confused behaviour and a ‘bewildering combination’ of actions; an individual may demonstrate conflicting and contradictory behaviours as they find their path through the crisis. These questions are satisfactorily answered through attaining the virtue of fidelity, defined by Erikson as ‘something or somebody to be true to’ and resulting from a ‘cohesive ego identity’. Often the fidelity is measured against the relationships formed during this stage, namely peers and role models. Finally, Erikson says that with the onset of youth, young men are faced with ‘tangible, adult tasks’ which causes them to compare how they are seen ‘in the eyes of others’ with ‘what they feel they are’.
The work which most clearly shows Erikson’s theories operating is the novel Kim with Identity and the realisation of the self as the central concept. The character Kim is entirely motivated by finding his place in a world in which group or national identity is paramount. His exploration of who he is and what it means to be him is played out against a panorama of India in which identity is constantly challenged and threatened.
As already noted, the psychosocial stage that Kim occupies during the course of the novel is the adolescent stage (p. 173). In Erikson’s theory, this is the stage that is most concerned with identity and an individual leaning who they are. Part of this process relies upon significant relationships that are developed during this stage, these relationships are those of peers and role models. Kim finds meaning in his relationship with others his age as he ‘[measures] himself against his self-reliant mates’ (p. 133) at the academy, even though it is sometimes expressed as Kim identifying himself as different to them as in the drummer boy of the regiment whom Kim ‘loathed… from the soles of his feet to his cap ribbons’ (p. 113). The other significant relationship is that of the role model. Kim’s main role models are the Lama and Colonel Creighton. These represent the Indian, spiritual side of Kim’s personality in the Lama, and the British, active side in Creighton.
The key to this stage is the psychological crisis which takes the form ‘identity vs role confusion’. In this confusion, identity and role are linked and we see Kim continually wonder over what role he should take, “what am I? Mussalman, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist?” (p. 149). He adopts different masks frequently and plays many different roles; being chela, student, and sahib at various stages and confirming to himself that these are transitory ‘He would be a sahib again for a while’ (p. 153)
Whenever Kim is alone in the novel he invariably falls to questioning his identity. This happens frequently during the novel, notably on page 128, Kim has a moment to reflect solitarily and ruminates over questions of identity. ‘“I am a Sahib… No; I am Kim… Who is Kim?”’. This represents the first-time Kim has questioned his identity, ‘a thing he had never done before’ and he finds no answer forthcoming, ‘letting the mind go free upon speculation as to what is called personal identity… “Who is Kim-Kim-Kim?”’ (p. 184). The question remains unanswered throughout the novel as without the significant relationships to guide him by giving him a role to perform, Kim is lost.
The main conflict for Kim as he tries to define his identity is uncovered in the various roles set out for him. The first role we see Kim take on is that of chela to the Lama. It is a role Kim takes in an effort to help someone, “give me the bowl… and I will bring it back filled”; (p. 40). Kim’s act of charity then becomes a role he desires as he tells the Lama he is ‘“they chela”’ (p. 43). Kim’s desire to learn the ‘Law upon the road’ (p. 43) shows his quest for identity. He can learn this from a man who intrigues him and so bolsters his desire to discover the ‘Red bull on a green field’ (p. 43), a symbol Kim believes is central to his identity as Kim actively acquires roles to discover this lost identity.
The second role Kim takes on for himself is that of trainee British spy in the Great Game. The role is the white European role as described by Father Victor, ‘“They’ll make a man o’ you… a white man an’ I hope a good man”’ (p. 128). The role is important to both Kim and also the British for in recognising in Kim the growth of an individual within their system, Kim will come to recognise their society and so reaffirm it, synthesising the importance of individual and group identity. This particular role is interesting because Kim’s success here is dependent on his being able to tap into other roles he has performed by mimicking them.
The conflict between the two roles is explored during Kim’s first holiday at the school. He ‘had been diligent… as the Colonel advised” (p. 134), fulfilling the role adequately but he ‘yearned’ (p. 134) for another role, that of traveller on the road. To feel ‘the caress of soft mud squishing between the toes’ (p. 134), showing Kim’s bare feet and a change in appearance denoting a change in identity. It is during these periods of isolation from peers and role models that Kim makes decisions on the role he wants to pursue, always switching between the two as he balances them against each other.
Kim displays the virtue of fidelity to all his role models although sometimes in conflicting ways, befitting the identity crisis he is experiencing. Kim’s fidelity to the Lama is demonstrated in his never forgetting him during his time at the academy. Upon leaving the academy and reconnecting with the Lama, he refers to himself as “chela to Teshoo Lama”’ (p.186) and he forgets ‘his white blood’ and ‘the Great Game’ (p. 188). This fidelity is demonstrated more dramatically towards the end of the novel when Kim puts his life at risk to save the Lama (p. 256).
Fidelity to Creighton is shown in Kim’s repeated sojourns back to the Game. The conflicting obligations that Kim feels are presented when the Lama asks Kim if he ever wanted to leave him. ‘Kim thought of the oilskin packets and the books in the food bag… “No.” He said almost sternly,’ (p. 254) The dramatic irony of Kim’s contradictory fidelities and the Lama’s lack of awareness over this, “Thou hast never stepped a hair’s breadth from the way of obedience,” (p. 255), demonstrate how one is able to keep different people happy by being different things to them. Kim is very close to realising this fact and coming closer to identity formation. The use of the present tense during this passage ‘the bearer rubs his shoulder’, ‘Kim — his face is drawn and tired’, ‘the lama raises a hand’ (p. 253) during this passage shows the urgency of the situation, Kim is close to resolving his identity crisis, but without the satisfying resolution of the past tense, showing the reader what has happened, Kim’s resolution remains unforthcoming.
Erikson says that with the onset of youth, adolescents are faced with ‘tangible, adult tasks’ that causes them to compare how they are seen ‘in the eyes of others’ with how ‘they feel they are’. This one brief summary neatly sums up Kim’s driving force during his time at the academy. The adult task of espionage and Kim’s aptitude to it compared with his experience of life in India. The inner conflict between how he is viewed by others and who he believes he is culminates in the episode detailing his brief escape from the academy in Chapter 7. Kim disguises himself, asking for “a little dyestuff and three yards of cloth” (p. 135), literally changing how he is externally viewed by others, to match how he views himself internally drawing connotations with Gunga Din’s ‘filthy ‘ide’. At the same time, Kim is successful at the escape because of the skills that make him so good at espionage. This suggests an eventual reconciliation between the two sides of his identity crisis, albeit one the reader is never shown.
Further evidence for Kim’s occupation of this psychosocial stage of development is the sometimes-antagonistic relationship Kim feels towards Creighton (p. 152). In Erikson’s words, Kim is ‘artificially [appointing a] perfectly well meaning [person] to play the role of adversary. The fact that Kim only uses white British authority figures to fulfil this function evidences much of where Kim’s group identity loyalty lies. Yet he still moving towards a ‘sense of ego identity’ that is promised by a career, something that Erikson says is a culmination of the stage.
Erikson identifies the need to settle on an occupational identity as being crucial to well-adjusted development. Issues here can lead to a breakdown of identity and the need to protect one’s ego-image onto someone else, in order to see it clarified. Erikson calls this falling in love and indeed we see Kim strike up an intense emotional relationship with a female peer during one of his bouts of identity crisis (p. 240). It is especially note-worthy that Erikson says that ‘much of young love is conversation’ as that is exactly the extent of Kim’s brief but powerful relationship with the girl.
Erikson’s work has been examined and tested since he first published his theories. One of the most prominent researchers to have performed further research on Erikson’s themes was Marcia. Interestingly, Marcia’s work helps to further unlock meaning in Kim. Marcia identified four types of identity found during the adolescent stage. The first is ‘identity diffusion’ in which a young person has no fixed identity, analogous to when the reader first meets Kim. Next is ‘identity foreclosure’ when someone becomes committed to goals and beliefs trough the decisions of others. This is Kim throughout the middle of the novel as he takes on the roles supplied by the Lama and Creighton. Third is the ‘moratorium’ stage. This is the crisis stage as an individual is ‘actively searching for an identity within a range of alternatives’. This is the conflicted Kim that manifests towards the end of the novel. The final type of identity, ‘identity achievement’, is never demonstrated in Kim. This lack of resolution reinforces the novel’s themes of the ambiguity of identity. It is not something ever fully achieved in the novel, suggesting a mutability of identity and an ever-changing self.
Having studied what identity means in the work of Kipling, namely a multi-fold manifestation of the self, it is apparent that there lies in his oeuvre a realistic psychological development. As an individual associates himself with a geographic area, names himself, dresses himself and acts in a determined manner, he aligns himself with a group and formalises an identity. This personal identity is deeply rooted in a group or tribal concept. By defining himself, he actively counter defines those who are different to him. This occurs in The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, and Kim.
During the identity crisis that Erikson defines and the one that the reader experiences through Kim’s narration, greater meaning is imparted onto the text and explanations for Kim’s behaviour are revealed. Kim was forming identity along the same lines as Mowgli in The Jungle Book and Taffy in ‘The Tabu Tale’, but his was also more dramatically linked to psychosocial development. He demonstrates every aspect of this crisis that Erikson would expect an adolescent to and he also demonstrates the three-fold aspect of development that a reader would expect from reading Kipling. To an extent, Kipling is exonerated of claims of racialism, he was simply depicting a young man searching for belonging and one of the ways he which he found this belonging was in group identity.
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