Mark Lachniet A22034364
March 11th, 1996
"Kipling's parallel between women and the Empire"
In Kipling's later works, we are given a topic that seems strangely
missing in his earlier writing - women. In his earlier years, women
were mentioned very little, and when they were mentioned, it was
mostly without any real depth. Why then did Kipling choose to
revisit the female characters in his later work? It could be that it was
simply coincidence, but perhaps changing social values in his later
years allowed him to reconsider his opinion of women within
society. In any event, it is certain that Kipling revisits women in a
specific and focused manner. His late works give us an up close and
personal view of several women. I believe that it is through this
in-depth treatment of the lives of women that he is able to express
his understanding of both their plight, and that of the colonies.
In the late works, particularly The Wish House, The Gardener, and
Friendly Brook, women are portrayed in a manner strongly linked to
the colonies. They are, in various ways, subjugated and robbed
from. They seem to be almost "brainwashed" in the same ways that
the colonies have been, in that they consistently follow the lead of
their masters. Just as the Indians have been made to perpetuate the
power of the English by in-fighting for their favor, the women in
Kipling's stories also seem to serve the men of their own volition.
However, these women are far from ignorant, and far from helpless.
In many situations, they willingly take these burdens upon
themselves. It is in this way that the women are linked to the
colonies. Indeed, just like the colonies, these women are not without
a "sting of their own." Although they serve, they are not without
power to rebel or choose their destiny when necessary.
In Friendly Brook, we see this rebellious power in response to the
culmination of injustice laid upon Jim's mother. In the story, Jim and
his mother adopt a young girl named Mary. Eventually, Mary's father
returns to ask for money in exchange for not forcing Mary to leave
their family. In this case, Jim's mother personifies the colony /
woman parallel in Kipling's work. She is mute, and hence cannot
speak out against the forces at work against her. This muteness is
very much like that which is forced upon the colonies by the empire.
Mary's father, a drunk, is, himself, somewhat symbolic of the
empire. He is overbearing and exploitive, and returns time and time
again to pillage Jim's coffers just as the empire returns time and time
again to extract valuable resources from the colonies.
Eventually, however, the power of the colony is shown when Jim's mute mother is
given an opportunity to fight back. When Mary's father
coincidentally arrives on a day that Jim is gone, she takes her
revenge and somehow murders him. In this murder, we can see that
the idea of a colonial "ironic backlash" is in use metaphorically in
the actions of Jim's mother.
Not all of the women in the stories take such a drastic opposition to
the empire, however. In The Wish House, we can see evidence of
this contrary view. In this story, the protagonist, Mrs. Ashcroft,
regularly visits a gypsy "wish house" in order to take the pain of a
man she loves upon herself. The magic of the wish house is that it
allows a person to absorb the illness of another, and manifest it
within themselves. It is exactly this that Mrs. Ashcroft does for her
Harry. Just like a colony keeps the empire going, so also does her
sacrifice allow Harry to keep going. Indeed, she feels that it is her
duty to do so. In a sense, she gives up her health (as paralleled by
colonial resources) for him. However, this sacrifice is not without a
price. In return for her sacrifice, she receives an ever worsening
sore on her leg. This sore, which eventually becomes cancerous, is
very much like the mar that might be left upon an exploited and razed
The strange thing about this relationship is that she seems very
willing to serve. When she met Harry, she exclaimed that "...it came
over me that I'd found me master" (p493). This statement could have
easily been made by an Indian sahib in Kipling's earlier works.
Unfortunately, true to the colonial spirit, Harry left Mrs. Ashcroft,
despite her sacrifice without ever truly knowing what she had done
for him. He left her when it was no longer convenient, just as
England might pull out of a colony that had nothing more to offer.
In The Gardener, we are given a closer view of the loss associated
with empire. In this story, loss is both metaphorical and literal. In
the literal sense, Helen loses her nephew Michael to a war. In the
metaphorical sense, however, we are shown the great depth of
suffering and loss that the entire colonial system perpetuates. The
graveyard in which she looks for Michael's grave is indeed vast, and
represents the lives of countless soldiers who have died for the ends
of the empire. The protagonist seems to be the embodiment of the
reality of the colonial situation. She has faced personal loss, and
understands how little the rhetoric and propaganda truly mean.
To contrast her, we are given the character of Mrs. Scarsworth. Mrs.
Scarsworth is a woman who goes to the graveyards on many
occasions, allegedly on account of others. However, it quickly
becomes known that she is there for a personal and secret reason - to
visit the grave of someone very close to her. However, she seems
unable to accept or admit the real reason for her visits. Is it then
normal to belittle loss? To hide it? Or is it in fact expected of her,
by means of social tradition, to act this way. It is as if she feels
required not to show how the empire has failed her. Just as a colony
might minimize the visibility of it's suffering in order to please the
empire, so also does Mrs. Scarsworth minimize her own suffering.
In a sense, she buys into the system. But she never totally gives
herself over to the ideology. When she states that she is ".. so tired
of lying - always lying - year in and year out" (p532) we can see that
her service to the empire weighs heavily upon her. So much so does
it weigh upon her that she at some point engages in self-mutilation by
cutting her wrists. As in the example of Mrs. Ashcroft, she bears a
very tangible wound upon her that is paralleled by the damage done
in the colonies by the empire.
In all of these stories, Kipling draws a parallel between the plight of
women, and the plight of the colonies. He shows us how the system,
be it a male dominated society, or a colonial empire, serves to
subjugate others. However, as in his earlier works, we can see that
this subjugation is not quite complete. It fails to succeed, because it
fails to truly overpower. Propaganda and social tradition are not
enough to ensure compliance, and eventually is proven fallible. The
women of the stories have a power, as do the colonies, to work in
their own best interests, despite what is forced upon them. Kipling
shows us this power, and the injustice of both systems, by writing
his later stories. Perhaps it represents a newfound awareness of
their situations on his part, or perhaps it is just an accurate reflection
of his time which we can anachronistically look at and draw
assumptions from. In any case, it is clear that there is a message here