Top critical review
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Still worth reading
on January 12, 2003
This is a very entertaining novel, though not as good as the best of Kipling's short stories. As an adventure-oriented bildungsroman, Kim is well constructed with its gradual exposure of the ethnic and religous diversity of India, its engaging characters, and good quality of writing. While written as an adventure novel, Kim is also Kipling's prediction of the British Raj would become. The hero, Kim O'Hara, is in many ways an idealization of what saw as the logical conclusion of British India; a hybrid composed of both Indian and British elements. In an ironic way, this is how things turned out in British India. But where Kim is ethnically British with a largely Indian cultural background, the real inheritors of the British Raj were ethnic Indians (of a variety of ethnicities, castes, and faiths) whose outlook is colored strongly by Western influences.
How this book is read in a 'post-colonial' era is an interesting question. It would be easy, and wrong, to dismiss this book merely as an Imperialist tract, though Kipling clearly supported British Imperial control. It is even wronger to attack Kipling's racism, though there are unquestionably stereotyped elements present. In many ways, Kim is a celebration of India's ethnic and religous diversity. Probably the most unsympathetic characters in the book are not Indian, but Britishers with provincial outlooks. Kipling's support of the Empire is rather more subtle. It is clear that he viewed the existence of the huge and relatively tolerant polyglot society that was the Raj as the result of relatively benign British rule and protection. This is probably true. Without British overlordship, India is likely to have been a congeries of competing states riven by ethnic and religous divisions. Where Kipling is profoundly misleading is what he leaves out, particularly the economic exploitation India and crucial role India played in the Imperial economy.