Kim: A Bildungsroman
Kim is a novel about a young boy named Kim and his maturation into an adult. He goes on many adventures all the while playing the “Great Game” and tying to help the Lama attain “freedom from the Wheel of Things” (Kipling 12). A bildungsroman is a novel that shows the development of a child maturing into an adult where the protagonist identifies their role within the world (Bedford Glossary 39). Rudyard Kipling uses characterization, themes and setting to develop the idea of Kim being a bildungsroman. Though we do see Kim maturing throughout the novel he still questions his place in the world. Therefore, Kim is an incomplete bildungsroman.
The way in which an author “describes and develops” (Bedford Glossary 56) a character is known as characterisation. Kim is an incomplete bildungsroman and Kipling uses characterisation to develop this idea. Kim faces many challenging situations that are “largely adult in their form and significance” (Kaul 427). At the beginning of the novel Kim discusses the Lama with Mahbub Ali stating, “I tell thee he does not know how to lie – as we two know” (Kipling 20). This shows how Kim, though a child at the time, does not possess the innocence that we relate to childhood. He has dealt with difficult and adult situations, forcing him to grow up early. However, he has not reached a level of maturity in the sense that he believes it to be a negative trait that the Lama does not know how to lie. As Kim gets older and matures he begins to question his existence, his role in the world. He says, “I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?” (Kipling 234) This shows how the character of Kim is reaching maturity by posing this deep question to himself. Rather than telling us, Kipling uses indirect characterization to show the development of the character Kim through the things he says, thinks and does.
Kim discusses two key themes, loyalty and race. Kim has loyalties to many people including Mahbub Ali, Lurgan Sahib and most importantly, the Lama. His loyalties are personal, professional and at times are a combination of both. At the beginning of the novel, Kim is really only loyal to himself. This changes as he begins to develop a deeper relationship with the Lama. Kim’s loyalty to the Lama turns into love as can be seen in a conversation between Kim and Mahbub Ali when Kim says, “but that worth do I see, and to him my heart is drawn” (Kipling 122). Kim’s relationship with Mahbub Ali also grows throughout the novel into one of mutual respect and even admiration. As Kim’s loyalties change we see him maturing. Race is another theme discussed in Kim. Kim is white, the Lama is from Tibet, Mahbub Ali is from Afghanistan “that mysterious land beyond the Passes of the North” (Kipling 18) and we also meet characters who are Jat, Hindu and Sikh among many others. It is interesting how Kim treats people from other races compared to how the other characters treat people from other races. Though Kim does differentiate between races, he does not treat people any differently if they are of a different race, hence his nickname “Little Friend of all the World” (Kipling 5). Kim’s acceptance of people from other races shows his maturity, even as a child he was accepting a feat many adults struggle with. Kipling uses themes to develop the bildungsroman of Kim.
Kim is set in colonial India in the 1880’s and 1890’s (Kling 297). The “Great Game” is at the center of the Kim. It involves the struggle between Britain and Russia for control in the Middle East and Central Asia (Kling 302). It was a difficult time to live in India where deception was a constant part of life. This is evident in Kim by all the secrets different people are keeping, though a lot of the time it is out of necessity. Mahbub Ali says to Kim “wilt thou some day sell my head for a few sweetmeats if the fit takes thee?” (Kipling 123). This “Great Game” of deception is an adult situation that Kim, once again, has been thrown into though not altogether unwillingly. It emphasizes Kaul’s statement about Kim having to deal with significant adult situations. Though in the current cultural context we would not find deception a characteristic of a mature person when evaluating the historical context of the novel, deception was a necessary and common tool for most adults to ensure their survival. It is evident through the novel that Kim is exceptional when it comes to deceiving people and he gets better the more he plays the “Great Game”. The Lama is about the only character that does not use deception but rather draws upon his spirituality to get things done. The Lama though has reached a stage past maturity which is self-actualization. Kim says to the Lama “ I am not a Sahib. I am thy chela” (Kipling 225) though afterwards he still questions who he is, making Kim an immature bildungsroman. When the Lama finally reaches the river, Kim must choose to follow in his footsteps or continue playing the “Great Game”. Kim shows maturity in the context of the setting through his actions.
Kim is an incomplete bildungsroman. Kipling uses characterization, theme and setting to show us the journey Kim takes on his way to maturity. Though Kim does become mature in the novel through his actions, he is still immature in that he does not know exactly who he is and what is role is in the world. Therefore, making him incomplete in the terms of a bildungsroman. Kim shows the development of the character Kim into a mature person who lacks a sense of self.
Kaul, Suvir. “Kim, or How to Be Young, Male, and British in Kipling’s India.” Kim. Ed. Zohreh Sullivan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. 426-36. Print.
Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. Ed. Zohreh Sullivan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. Print.
Kling, Blair. “Kim in Historical Context.” Kim. Ed. Zohreh Sullivan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. 297-309. Print.
Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. Print.