Class Inversion in Kipling’s Poetry
Rudyard Kipling was regarded by his peers as a fine satirist. Many of the leading wits of his day, including Mark Twain, met him in person and acknowledged him as a peer. One of the things Kipling subtly criticized through his poetry was the traditional association of higher class with superior knowledge. This essay will examine Gunga Din, Tommy, and Gentlemen-Rankers to show how Kipling inverts the class hierarchy by presenting a character at or near the bottom of the human social ladder as having a superior level of insight, enlightenment, or basic human decency relative to those who are conventionally regarded as being “above” him. Kipling does not present the irony overtly and relies on specific literary techniques to accomplish it. This essay will present examples of the techniques Kipling uses to establish and then undermine conventional class assumptions.
In all three poems, Kipling begins by letting his readers know who is speaking. He does this by narrating in the first person singular and by altering conventional English spelling to reflect the speaker’s accent. This is not a technique unique to Kipling; Dickens used it also in Oliver Twist. When the text is read aloud exactly as it is written, the accent sends a very clear signal to the contemporary reader about the speaker’s class and origins. The reader therefore fills in some unwritten assumptions about the speaker’s education, life experiences, and future prospects. Since Kipling’s time the English language has mutated, and entirely new dialects have developed that are so distinct from one another as to be mutually unintelligible. It is therefore necessary to interpret Kipling’s implied pronunciation and etymology according to the conventions of his times.
In Gunga Din and Tommy, Kipling’s narrator drops the terminal “f”, “g”, and “d” along with many “h” sounds and adjusts the pronunciation of words like “half” and “get”. This is consistent with the Cockney dialect of English which originated in London. So the narrators of Gunga Din and Tommy were not born in India like Kipling himself, nor are they from Scotland, Ireland , nor is he from Scotland or Ireland. Furthermore, they do not have the cultured speech and grammatical precision of the gentleman narrator in Gentlemen-Rankers, who pronounces every letter. So, in the very first line of each poem Kipling establishes the speaker’s origin and hereditary social status. Along with the class signal go some assumptions about the speaker’s life experiences and level of education. All three of the narrators are military men, but their locations and perspectives differ greatly.
Gunga Din tells the story of a former British soldier’s interaction with the regimental bhisti or water-bearer while serving in India during Queen Victoria’s era. The eponymous water-bearer, wearing nothing more than a loincloth and a goatskin water-bag, would run back and forth behind the lines supplying thirsty British troops with water. This was an essential service throughout history especially in India, where the heat and humidity can become so oppressive as to require people to drink more than five liters of water per day even when they are not exerting themselves. The Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-muskets used by most of the British troops in the middle of the 19th century had been mostly phased out and replaced by breech-loading Snider Enfield rifles starting in 1866 and Martini-Henry rifles in the mid-1870’s. Since Kipling was born in 1865, by the time he was able to observe and understand the things and people around him, soldiers no longer had to tear gunpowder cartridges open with their teeth. But the smoke from the gunpowder charges was still a very strong desiccant, so a man who repeatedly fired his rifle would invariably develop a dry mouth. A dry mouth is also a physiological stress response, and since being shot at is stressful, even a soldier who is not breathing gunpowder smoke eventually empties his or her canteen. He or she cannot leave his or her position to get more water without giving up a tactical advantage. Hence the need for water resupply and the regimental bhisti.
Another of Kipling’s strategies to depict a character quickly but vividly is to use a keyword to quickly establish location, time, and setting without the need for lengthy description. The keyword might be an allusion to a specific time or place, or it might carry cultural connotations. The speaker in Gunga Din makes use of the word bhisti, meaning “water-bearer”, however the word has a historical and cultural context.
The Bhisti people are a endogamous community in northern India. They speak Urdu, using the Persian-Arabic script, but are conversant with whatever language is predominant in the region they live. In the present day they can be found in several of India’s major cities working in various professions and trades. Some still carry water for a living. However in Kipling’s day the need for manual water transport was far more urgent, and military water-bearers traveled wherever the regiment did.
Kipling, who was born in India and who returned there as an adult, had an intimate and encyclopedic knowledge of India and its people. Living and working as he did in northern India and in the territory that eventually became Pakistan, Kipling associated with all manner of people in different castes and classes particularly through his military acquaintances and his Masonic connections. Kipling’s first language was Hindi, which is related to Urdu but not identical, although he learned English early and wrote primarily in that tongue. Living as he did in northern India he could not have avoided crossing paths with at least a few ethnic Bhisti, and he had the language skills to speak with them.
According to Bhisti history, the Bhisti were originally of the Rajput Hindu warrior caste. Like many groups within a given caste, they developed a professional specialty over the generations: bringing water to thirsty soldiers. At some point the majority of the Bhisti people accepted Islam, however their career specialty had by this time been elevated to a cultural commitment. Many Bhisti elected to serve whatever soldiers they could find, including the European armies from France and Britain that were fighting for political and economic control of the Indian subcontinent. In Kipling’s era, there was an urgent and constant need for water on the front lines, so each regiment needed at least one designated water-carrier, and the Bhisti people were so successful in this role that their name, lacking its first capital letter, became synonymous with the role of water-carrier. Hence the “regimental bhisti, Gunga Din”. With one word—just one—Kipling establishes Gunga Din as a man who carries water not just as a vocation but as an avocation.
Another technique Kipling uses throughout his writing is pejorative or derogatory language directed by one person toward another to establish differences in relative status. Yet in Gunga Din, as in much of Kipling’s prose including The Man Who Would Be King, characters that indulge in blatantly racist assumptions about the people around them generally turn out to be myopically wrong. The narrator in Gunga Din describes the bhisti as “black-faced”, dirty, and with a “squidgy” nose. Yet when he describes how Gunga Din went to tend the wounded under fire, the narrator describes him as being “white” inside. To a racist (which the narrator assuredly is), the highest possible compliment is to identify another person as behaving like a person of the racist’s own ethnic group. But the narrator does not know Gunga Din well. Although Gunga Din clearly speaks and understands enough English to convey an important and timely thought in a grammatically correct sentence even while dying, the narrator persists in bawling orders at him in bad Anglo-Hindustani. There is no significant friendship or social contact between the men, so overt conversations about deeper subjects such as religious faith or Gunga Din’s city of origin and native tongue cannot occur.
If Gunga Din is Hindu—which could perhaps be deduced given the loincloth he wore and the fact that he serves as a bhisti but is not necessarily an ethnic Bhisti—then carrying water to thirsty soldiers is part of his dharma or his religious duty. Receiving abuse from the troopers he aids is simply an inherent aspect of it, and taking the bad along with the good bothers him very little. When he brings water to the British soldiers and is hit by some of them because he is not physically capable of serving them all at once, he does not complain. Why would he: he is a man performing a divinely appointed sacrament. Indeed, the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 47 says: “Your right is to the duty only, not to the fruits thereof. Do not act for the results of your deeds. Never be attached to not doing the duty.” With Gunga Din’s dying breath, he has no regard for anything except whether he has adequately done his duty. He has: the drink he gives the narrator, who survives only as a direct result of Gunga Din’s actions, is the drink the narrator describes as the sweetest and best he ever drank, despite the poor water quality. Accordingly, the absolute last place the narrator might see a Hindu Gunga Din would be in the Hell he envisions as appropriate for himself: Gunga Din must be reincarnated in a role proportionate to the adequacy of his service, which has been spectacular.
If Gunga Din is not Hindu but Islamic, as are most ethnic Bhisti, then his attire is unusual but his level of linguistic fluency is not. Din is not only fluent in his native tongue, he speaks enough English to say something truly significant at the end of his life. Because most men raised in the Islamic tradition learn Arabic as well as their own native tongue, to better understand the teachings of the Qur’an, if Gunga Din is Islamic he therefore most likely speaks not one, not two, but three languages: his own, Arabic, and enough English to understand the narrator and others. This makes him far more educated than the British soldier, who is blissfully unaware of the discrepancy. Illiteracy in the enlisted ranks was common in Kipling’s India, and although sergeants had to be able to read and write in English the lower-ranked enlisted men did not. As a Sunni Muslim, Gunga Din would be familiar to the principle of submission to the will of Allah and to destiny: if Allah had decided that Gunga Din should be born a Bhisti, then by working as a water-bearer Gunga Din is fulfilling his spiritual destiny and serving Allah as well as the British soldiers. His selfless and tireless devotion to his work, the superb way in which he performs his duties without complaint, and his death in the service of others would therefore have certainly guaranteed him a place in Paradise according to the tenets of Islam. Indeed, even if Gunga Din did as many natives who served the British did, and converted to Christianity, he earned salvation either from that or from risking and even sacrificing his own life in order to save the narrator, which is a very noble, Christ-like act. Why, therefore, would the narrator expect to see Gunga Din in Hell, and still in a servitor capacity? It is because Kipling’s narrator is supposed to be ignorant. That’s part of what creates the pervasive irony.
The narrator in Gunga Din betrays his ignorance repeatedly and ironically throughout the poem. Referring to Gunga Din as an “old idol” is offensive to both Hindus, who regard idols as physical representations and connections to their gods, and to Muslims who are forbidden to worship idols at all. He physically and verbally abuses the heroic water-bearer who routinely rescues wounded troopers under fire, including the narrator. However, at the end of the poem it becomes obvious that time has brought the narrator some perspective. He acknowledges that Gunga Din was in fact made by God, and also states that the bhisti he abused so frequently is actually a better man than himself. Thus the man in the “higher” social position eventually comes to the same conclusion the reader has already reached: it is the man farther down in the social hierarchy who displays a superior level of spirituality, service, courage, education, and service to others.
The narrator in Tommy is also a British soldier, but instead of dishing out the abuse as the narrator in Gunga Din did, he receives it from British civilians. Kipling establishes the narrator’s class and heritage through his patterns of speech, which is similar to that of the narrator in Gunga Din but lacking the Indian words and references. Kipling also uses keywords to establish the setting or location of the poem (England), the approximate time frame, and the narrator’s own profession and relationship to the local civilians. These are radically different from the keywords used in Gunga Din, but the technique Kipling uses is the same.
The first keywords that appear in the poem are “public-house”, “pint”, and “beer”. Beer, the quintessential British refreshment, is sold by the pint to the general public. Most of the establishments who specialize in the sale of beer are therefore called “public-houses” or “pubs”. Many Britons have a preferred pub or “local” where they go to socialize with friends after work. So a pint of beer in a pub is almost stereotypically British. But the narrator is unable to purchase libation because the “publican”, or proprietor, refuses to serve “red-coats”. So in two lines, Kipling establishes the location (England), the profession and gender of the speaker (a soldier, and by definition male in Kipling’s day). Kipling also shows that the publican, a civilian, has the authority to refuse service to the soldier and that the serving-maids think the whole situation is funny.
The keyword “red-coat” refers to the uniform of a soldier in the British Army or Marines. The colors were distinct from the British Navy, which favored blue and white. In India during Kipling’s day, the British army had shifted away from the highly impractical red and white uniforms and issued military men khaki colored uniforms starting in 1948 and increasingly after the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 as an indicator of a major change in British foreign policy. Accordingly, the term “red-coat” identifies the narrator as a Marine or Army soldier, but not someone serving in India.
Kipling establishes the time as between 1861 and 1901 by referring to his military dress as “the Widow’s Uniform”. The word “widow” is capitalized despite not being at the start of a sentence or a line, and since the narrator has already been established as a British soldier, the only head of state he could have been talking about is Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria was not widowed until the death of her first and only husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1861, although she dressed in black for the rest of her life. Her predecessor and successor, William IV and Edward VII respectively, were both male. But, had Kipling used the word “Queen” to refer to her instead, the poem could have been set as early as 1837.
Tommy has an unusual naming convention that illustrates the extent to which the narrator and his fellow soldiers are dehumanized. The narrator is referred to as “Tommy” or “Atkins”, both of which were generic names for a British soldier, but that are most likely not the narrator’s real name. The people speaking to the narrator are strangers whom he most likely has never met. Kipling never uses the soldier’s real name or shows the civilians interacting with him as a human being. In this respect he is shown even less respect by his fellow Englishmen than the narrator of Gunga Din showed to the water-bearer. “Tommy” and his fellow soldiers are either despised or exalted based on whether the nation is at war. Both images are equally unrealistic, particularly when even the positive behaviors of the public treat soldiers like nameless, fungible members of a group instead of as the individual human beings they actually are.
Throughout the poem, the narrator in Tommy relates how he is treated poorly by English civilians during peacetime: he is refused service in a pub, turned away from a theater (while sober) in favor of a drunk civilian, and generally treated like a criminal. But when “the guns begin to shoot”, the narrator and his fellow soldiers are treated like heroes even if they haven’t personally done anything heroic. This situational irony is so blatant that even the low-ranking, poorly educated Tommy recognizes and resents it.
That “Tommy” is an enlisted soldier as opposed to an officer is quite evident even though Kipling does not need to state it overtly: the use of Cockney patois suffices. Officers, in Kipling’s era, were almost always literate, educated men from families wealthy enough to pay for their commission. The higher the officer’s rank, the higher his probable (or assumed) social connections. An officer was assumed to be a gentleman in terms of social conduct, habits, and peer relationships even if he was not descended from a financially independent family. So no publican or theater employee would be inclined to anger one by denying him service.
In Tommy, as in Gunga Din, Kipling drops a bombshell in the last line of the poem. The narrator, who begins by using the first person singular to describe his personal anecdotal experience, expands in the second-last stanza to use the first person plural. It is now “we” who are the soldiers who are most remarkably like the reader. The narrator is gathering strength and is now speaking as representative of a group when he asks that people simply have reasonable expectations of soldiers, and that soldiers be treated “rationally” based on their individual traits and behaviors instead of as representatives of some amorphous red-coated blob. But in the final line, Kipling shifts suddenly into the third person: “An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool—you bet that Tommy sees!” He’s now issuing a direct warning to the civilians and upper-class people whose insistence on interacting with soldiers in unrealistic, exaggerated ways both positive and negative. Their stupidity and hypocrisy are not going unnoticed, and in fact every single “Tommy” in a red uniform is perfectly aware of it.
Generally it is the upper classes that rebuke the lower ones. For an enlisted soldier, treated by many as the lowest of the low, to not only rebuke but subtly threaten the citizens his army serves, is a dramatic inversion of class. By identifying himself, and all other soldiers, as being perfectly capable of seeing and acknowledging the hypocrisy that everybody else seems to miss, the poorly-educated Tommy flips the script intellectually the same way Gunga Din did morally and spiritually: he proves, by his deduction and analysis, to be more intellectually capable than the people who shun and criticize him.
Gentlemen-Rankers describes a different kind of class inversion. In this case, the title describes men who have voluntarily come down in class, and who have placed themselves under the authority of men who under regular circumstances would have been considered beneath them in social status. In Kipling’s day, military officers typically came from the upper class and received a particular education both social and academic. A “gentleman”, in the terminology of the day, was a man who was well off enough to live off of his land and invested assets, who did not have to perform manual labor in order to feed himself or his family. Originally the term implied landed gentry, but after the agricultural depression in the 1870s the British economy shifted away from land as a means of production and toward industry. Accordingly, merchants, bankers, and other business owners became wealthy enough to raise their children and grandchildren in a privileged environment so that by the third generation their values, behaviors, and life experiences were virtually indistinguishable from those of the landed gentry, with whom they frequently intermarried. Military service was considered an appropriate pursuit for a young gentleman, but he generally entered it as an officer by buying a commission.
The British military of Kipling’s era was characterized by a vast social gulf between the officer and enlisted classes, however there was also a great deal of mutual respect. The officers respected the skills, toughness, and raw courage of the men they commanded; the enlisted men who came from the working class respected their officers for their education, intelligence, wisdom, and kindness. This mutual respect and trust helped build the military discipline that made Britain into a dominant colonial power. However the respect was not automatic and it was not conferred on a man simply for having a specific rank. When a man didn’t belong and was noticeably different from his peers, despite his competence in other matters he was frequently denied respect from men above, below, and equal to him in rank.
Although there were means by which an enlisted man could be promoted to lieutenant, it was not a process deemed universally good. The Duke of Wellington and General Redvers Buller, writing nearly half a century apart, asserted that officers promoted from the enlisted ranks were seldom good or effective even if men so promoted had been officers in the past. The enlisted men preferred officers who were gentlemen, believing them to be better educated in matters of military strategy and also less cruel.
Gentlemen typically only joined the enlisted ranks if they were somehow disgraced and needed to hide overseas, far away from creditors, family, or law enforcement. In exchange for the anonymity of the uniform, a man sacrificed his social standing not just for the moment, but permanently. In Gentlemen-Rankers, Kipling uses specific literary techniques to show the implications of the young man’s decision and the sense of alienation he experiences as a result.
As always, Kipling uses a speaking style as evidence of the narrator’s class. The gentleman-ranker speaks without dropping letters or using slang. His use of compound sentences and his references to the Bible and to Shakespeare’s Hamlet mark him as an educated man. Although he is now a lowly trooper, he “has run his own six horses”: that is to say, he was once wealthy enough to own half a dozen prize racehorses, and skilled enough to ride them himself. The implication is that the narrator has lost all his wealth, perhaps through gambling or some other disgraceful action, and has accordingly enlisted to serve overseas. The fact his uniform includes a spur, sewn onto his jacket in worsted as evidence of his outstanding riding skills, now embarrasses him. Every time someone calls him a “Rider” (ordinarily a title of respect) or sends him on an errand on horseback, it reminds him of what he has lost. He therefore feels himself “branded” by what to most enlisted men would be a coveted insignia.
The Shakespearean reference “a little more than kin, and less than kind” is Hamlet’s cutting remark about his uncle Claudius, who becomes Hamlet’s stepfather by marrying his late brother’s wife. The world was “more than kin” while the narrator had money enough to indulge himself and everybody else, but now the Sergeant is “less than kind” in two ways: he is fundamentally unlike the narrator, having been born to a class appropriate to the enlisted ranks, and he also fails to show the narrator the deference, and courtesy he is used to receiving from such men in his former life.
The habits that mark a gentleman—riding well, waltzing well, and lacking the unlamblike aggression valued among the men of the working class—now set the narrator up as a target of ridicule. He lacks the natural aptitude and early training of his enlisted peers, but he finds himself absorbing some of their values: literally thrashing somebody for remarking on his dancing skills, and figuratively drowning himself in beer. Yet the extent to which the soldier now feels trapped by his circumstances only becomes clear because of Kipling’s use of sarcasm. Kipling repeatedly uses the word “sweet” to sarcastically describe things about which the young gentleman now feels bitter: mucking out stalls, emptying kitchen slops, and socializing with enlisted men and servants. Whereas the men around him accept occasional duties as a normal part of their routine, the narrator has been raised to believe the work is offensive and shameful. He feels himself degraded permanently as a result of having done it. That is one reason he envies the simple man who blacks his boots and sometimes accidentally calls him “sir”.
To the narrator in Gentlemen-Rankers, his class inversion—though voluntary—has been a grotesque mistake. He feels himself degraded by having to share a whitewashed room with a man who snores or mutters drunkenly. The guilt he experiences as a result of not writing home or of not keeping various unspecified oaths he swore is not sufficient to make him actually pick up a pen or follow through on his promises, but it is enough to wake him up at night. To relieve his self-inflicted pain, he drugs himself and considers it a justifiable behavior. Kipling’s narrator makes allusion to the Curse of Reuben, a Biblical character who was disinherited for having had sexual relations with one of his father’s concubines. Reuben was not exiled, but was deprived of his birthright as eldest in favor of one of his younger brothers. Disinherited perhaps, and certainly shamed, the narrator feels as though he can never come home. The extreme shame he experiences is something he views as more than ample punishment for whatever crime preceded his enlistment.
Unlike the gentleman-ranker who has fallen from his former station in life, the other soldiers do not believe that they have lost all form of hope, honor, love, and truth. They have no problem dancing with the “blowzy housemaids” the narrator regards with such scorn, and they do not regard themselves as sheep of any sort—lost lambs, black sheep, or otherwise. Whereas the enlisted people surrounding the narrator appear to function perfectly in their surroundings without bleating over what they do not have, the narrator is nearly paralyzed with a combination of guilt, shame, disgust, and bitterness. Despite his perceived advantages of birth and early education, and despite having been taught from birth to display stoicism and the “stiff upper lip” so prized in British tradition, the narrator is not functioning as an adult. His work does not tax him to the point of exhaustion, nor is it beyond his intellectual capability. He is simply a prisoner of his own negative emotions and is self-medicating with alcohol and possibly other substances as well.
Finally, Kipling uses irony to illustrate how sometimes people don’t appreciate what they have until they lose it permanently. Until the gentleman-ranker actually experiences the loss of his privileged social position, and with it any meaningful form of connection to the people around him, he does not appreciate it. His more accurate perspective, and his ability to experience actual remorse for his actions, is possible only after he is stripped of all his pride and everything he holds dear. Had he remained a gentleman and found some other way to atone for whatever he did wrong, he may never have achieved the same level of insight he has now.
Kipling’s use of class inversion subtly undermines the notion that people higher up in social hierarchy are better, smarter, or more spiritually advanced than the people “beneath” them. By using specific literary techniques such as dialect and keywords to establish the narrator’s class, and to contrast the narrator’s experiences and perspectives with the other people in the poem, Kipling creates an ironic contrast between the speaker’s level of enlightenment and his perceived social worth relative to others.
The Bible, Genesis 49:4 (NIV)
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Act I, Scene II.
Shaw, James A. Officers and Gentlemen: Gentlemanly Mystique and Military Effectiveness in the Nineteenth-Century British Army. Copyright 2011 by James A. Shaw, published May 14, 2011. MilitaryHistoryOnline.com
Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 47
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