Feminist and New Historicist Readings of Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King"

By Kelley S. Kent
2015, Vol. 7 No. 03 | pg. 1/3 |

“The Man Who Would Be King” (1888)1 is one of Rudyard Kipling’s most well known and highly acclaimed short stories. Michael Caine, Sean Connery, and Christopher Plummer starred in John Huston’s classic film adaptation (1975), which provided a testament to the story’s enduring popularity (Beckerman 180). Even when Kipling’s critical reputation suffered, “The Man Who Would Be King” continued to garner acclaim. However, because of its unsettling ambiguity, this story “resists classification” (Gilmour 37). Like the rest of misogynistic Anglo-Indian society, Kipling’s male characters stereotype and vilify women as threats to their sexuality (Gilbert and Gubar 14, 31, 34).

Still, the Anglo-Indian culture in which this story was written is important (Guerin, et al 248). Kipling’s thirteen years in India influenced his work as poet and prophet of Empire. So did the Indian Mutiny, which produced imperial rhetoric on Indian independence, negative Anglo-Indian stereotypes of natives, and the Anglo-Indian social taboo of miscegenation. From both feminist and new historicist perspectives, these elements produce conflicting interpretations of “The Man Who Would Be King.”

A Feminist Reading

Male-dominated societies in late nineteenth century England and India subjugated both English and native women. As Elaine Showalter explains in a study of gender and sexuality in fin-de-siècle literature, Joseph Conrad, H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson inaugurated the “male quest romance” genre in order to counteract “female literary dominance” in the 1860s and 1870s; they wrote male-dominated adventure stories and novels that dealt with an explicitly imperial theme (Showalter 1990, 83).

The Man who would be king cover

Kipling celebrates bridge-builders, civil servants, and engineers for doing their duty to India and the Empire. In “The Man Who Would Be King,” however, he uses male characters to stereotype women. Native women are portrayed as arrogant, superstitious, and childlike; they lie, steal, and prostitute themselves in order to sap Englishmen’s strength so that they cannot rule. English women are portrayed as annoyances, with the narrator depicting their lives as insignificant alongside his Anglo-Indian newspaper and the Empire.

Such “male dread of women” produces vilification and domestic violence (Gilbert and Gubar 34). Peachey Carnehan’s experiences with a “Bengali woman . . . kept at Mogul Serai” teach him to vilify native women as liars and thieves who take up with “half-caste[s]” (Kipling 185). He also claims that the Rajah murdered his widowed mother-in-law by “fill[ing] her up with red pepper” before hanging her “from a beam” (164). Instead of seeking justice, Peachey wants “hush-money” to make the state aware of his knowledge (164). The unsympathetic narrator says that “nobody cares” what native states do, “so long as oppression and crime are kept within decent limits,” because they “are the dark places of the earth, full of unimaginable cruelty” (165).

Portrayed as dangerous and seductive, Kipling’s women are themselves violent. When Peachey and Daniel Dravot enter Kafiristan, they end a quarrel between two villages; a woman’s kidnapping had ended in the deaths of eight men (Kipling 177-78). Daniel later decides to take a wife from among the Kafirs, a fearful and violent woman whom Peachey calls “a strapping wench ... covered with silver and turquoises” (187) and who “exist[s] only ... as [a] sensual object” (Gilbert and Gubar 8).

This woman tries to appear innocent and persuades Daniel that she is not dangerous, but she shows her animal-like spirit by biting his neck, proving that Daniel is mortal. His bride is “nameless, divisive, and potentially deadly”; she is one of the “castrating vampire-wom[e]n of other fin-de-siècle stories” (Showalter, Sexual, 94). This woman is also superstitious because she thinks she will die for marrying a god. Billy Fish himself asks, “How can daughters of men marry gods or devils? It’s not proper” (Kipling 186).

Native women were victims of misogyny in nineteenth-century British India because Anglo-Indian males refused to regulate sexist practices against them. Zenana, forcing native women to live in seclusion; suttee, burning Hindu wives on funeral pyres with their husbands2; and child marriage were unregulated but not condoned (Cavaliero 265-66, Gilmour 59). Pre-Mutiny attempts at abolishing such practices were unsuccessful (Keay 429, 445).

Native women also had no voice, among either native or English men. Because of zenana, they were second-class citizens forced to live behind the veil. These women were considered beautiful, exotic, and dangerous, but Kipling privately sympathized with them (Gilmour 59). He thought “the Indian treatment of women” – zenana, suttee, “infant marriage ... enforced widowhood,” and prostitution – was “the main obstacle to closer relations between the natives and their rulers” (59).

Kipling even wrote a poem called “The Song of the Women” to support Lady Dufferin’s Fund, which “provide[d] medical aid ... to Indian women who were denied access to male doctors” (61). In “The Man Who Would Be King,” however, Kipling does not oppose misogyny against native women. “Zenana-mission ladies” ask the narrator to print a story about “Christian prize-giving,” but he does not appear sympathetic with their views (Kipling 166).

Stereotyping of women and both literal and symbolic violence against them silences their discourse. The voice of the Rajah’s mother-in-law is silenced forever through her murder. She is “heard” only by four male voices: the Rajah, Peachey, the narrator, and Kipling. The Bengali woman whom Peachey accuses of lying and stealing also speaks indirectly by teaching him “the lingo” and accusing him of being her husband (Kipling 185). However, Peachey subsumes and silences her voice by speaking for her.

Daniel’s native bride is not allowed to speak for herself either, not even while “crying fit to die” the night before her wedding (186). This woman also has no say in accepting or rejecting the marriage proposal. Nor are most English women in the story given a voice. The narrator’s insistence on preserving the empire destroys their desires to be “heard” in print. However, he does fulfill the demand of one woman who says, “I want a hundred lady’s cards printed at once, please” because he considers it “part of an Editor’s duty” (166). Silencing of women’s voices is a “metaphor of literary paternity”; as “an author both generates and imprisons his fictive creatures, he silences them by depriving them of autonomy, the power of independent speech, even as he gives them life” (Gilbert and Gubar 14).

This Anglo-Indian misogyny explains Daniel’s and Peachey’s desire to flee from women, as seen in their “contrack” (Kipling 169, 171). Wanting “to be Kings of Kafiristan,” the two men agree “that you and me will not . . . look at any Liquor, nor any Woman black, white, or brown, so as to get mixed up with one or the other harmful” (171). Daniel and Peachey consider women dangerous because they interfere with male desires for power; they both “fear and suspect that the docility of the subordinate caste masks rebellious passions” (Gilbert and Gubar 73).

Without prohibiting women, Peachey thinks they will “only bring us harm... .Kings ain’t to waste their strength on women, ‘specially when they’ve got a raw new Kingdom to work over” (Kipling 185). He thinks women want “to threaten male bonds, to create rivalries between men, and to sap masculine strength” (Showalter, Sexual, 94). Colonial rule is also men’s work; “distracting” women “must be shifted to the periphery of men’s vision” (McBratney par. 15). Indian women are an even greater threat to their “homosocial solidarity” (par. 15). Daniel still refuses to honor the contract.

First, he calls Kafir women “very beautiful” (Kipling 169). After becoming a king and then a god, Daniel tells Peachey that he “want[s] a wife ... a Queen to breed a King’s son for the King ... that’ll lie by your side and tell you all the people thinks about you and their own affairs” (184-85). Although Peachey reminds him of the contract, Daniel insists on taking a wife, since “the Contrack only lasted till ... we was Kings, and Kings we have been these months past” (184). His violation of this contract results in his death.

Daniel and Peachey’s contract is the result of not only misogyny but also homosexuality, the ultimate desire to flee women. Showalter considers their contract a “male marriage,” which Daniel violates when he tries to take a wife from among his subjects (Sexual 94). She thinks that Daniel, whose “real crime is ... his emotional betrayal of Peachey,” is executed for “reject[ing] Peachey’s help” in favor of “the sexual lure of the woman” (94-95). The men’s injunctions against women and their plan “to be Kings of Kafiristan” is a desire to escape the confining heterosexuality of India and embrace the homoerotic sphere of Afghanistan (Kipling 171).

Homosexuality was acceptable in some parts of Asia in the nineteenth century. Sir Richard Burton, a Victorian explorer in Africa, “delineated the geography of a transgressive space he called the ‘Sotadic Zone’ in which pederasty and perversion held sway” (Showalter, Sexual, 81). This “zone,” which included “Afghanistan, the Punjab, [and] Kashmir ... became the locus of fin-de-siècle fantasies of the homoerotic ... where marriages are ... usually fatal” (81). Therefore, “The Man Who Would Be King” is part of the genre of “male quest romance,” in which the “yearning for escape from a confining society ... to a mythologized place elsewhere” allows “men [to] be freed from the constraints of Victorian morality” (81). Daniel and Peachey’s “sexual anxieties ... mask the desire to evade heterosexuality altogether” (82).3

However, Daniel’s death is also the result of miscegenation. He wants a wife from among the Kafirs, who are “whiter than you or me,” because he considers them English: “Boil ‘em once or twice in hot water, and they’ll come as fair as chicken and ham” (Kipling 185). These women are acceptable as wives only if they are considered English. However, Daniel’s “bride” is really native; his insistence that the Kafirs are English shows his increasing madness.

A ruler’s desire to unite sexually with ruled natives of Kafiristan was taboo in nineteenth-century British India. The concept of a sexual union between ruler and ruled, English and Indian, white and non-white was unpalatable to many Anglo-Indians: “The assurance of white superiority is part of the syntax used to describe India, and racial ‘contamination’ is completely abhorrent” (Paffard 20-21). Daniel’s violation of this taboo results in his death, since the “sexual and emotional involvement of English men with Indian women usually carries a price” (Roy 74).

Still, another explanation for Daniel’s death is possible. Although the Kafirs believe that women who marry gods will die, they obey Daniel’s request that he take a wife from among them. Therefore, it is Kafiristan’s male society that is laden with misogyny and violence toward women. Daniel’s “ignorance” should have warned “him that he was behaving dangerously in taking a wife from a community which sacrifices women to sate the lust of gods” (Crook 59). His death is a result of his “complicity with women-enslavers and mother-haters” (60).

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