Edition: Kim (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)
Kim was published serially in American magazine McClure's from December 1900 to October 1901, and then in the British Cassell's from January to November 1901. Kipling's work aimed at a broad base for an audience; both McClure's and Cassell's were known as late-century publications which incorporated techniques of the "new journalism" like muckracking, as well as sensationalism and "pulp" in stories to attract larger audiences. Both magazines published the work digestibly as one chapter at a time.
Contemporary reception of Kim on both sides of the Atlantic were favorable. Many reviews, including one in the New York Times, indicate that Kipling's novel was not your typical colonialist novel of the time. Unlike, for example, Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, Kipling's Kim is no imperialist adventure story in which the white colonial adventurer's understanding is always up to the challenge of puzziling out and subduing native lands and populations. Kipling's India is one which produces an impact on the Western subjectivity in the character of Kim.
Set after the second Afghan war (1880) but before the third, the novel reflects a growing "orientalist" movement in India, the notion in the West that one must know in order to rule, and that perhaps, it might then be better for Indians to rule India.
Kim is a young Irish orphan who grew up in the multi-cultural and colorful Lahore. At ease with his surroundings in a way that only someone who grew up in Lahore could be, acquaintances of Kim refer to him affectionately as Friend of All the World. At the beginning of the story, Kim makes the acquaintance of a Tibetan lama who has come to India to find a holy river which, according to Buddhist beliefs, promised enlightenment. Kim observes the rather naive seeming lama, and decides to become his new servant, or chela. When Kim tells Mahbub Ali, a horse-trader and one of the adults who has contributed to Kim's upbringing, that he will accompany the lama on his quest, Mahbub asks Kim if he will carry some documents to an Englishman in Umballa. Kim readily agrees. Later in the night, Kim sees two strange men rifling through Ali's belongings and on a hunch, Kim decides to leave with the lama earlier, feeling his errand to be a sensitive one.
Kim proves a necessary guide to the lama, seeing as how he does not know basic necessities of getting around, including getting a ticket and taking the train (the te-rain). Upon reaching Umballa, Kim seeks out the Englishman. The Englishman turns out to be Colonel Creighton, who speaks with his peers about an upcoming war which as it turns out, the documents make reference to. In Umballa, the lama and Kim search for the river and accidentally trespass in a farmer's garden. The farmer is angry with them, but Kim manages to turn everything around, pointing out to the farmer that he has insulted a holy man. The lama is uncomfortable with Kim's scolding, but they are received kindly by the farmer subsequently. Kim is an instant favorite amongst the residents of this village outside of Umballa, and in the midst of entertaining everyone, Kim pretends that he is a prophet who knows that there will be a great war on the northern border, having overheard information from the colonel.
Accompanied by an old soldier, Kim and the lama set off the next day along the Grand Trunk Road (constructed by the East India Company connecting Calcutta, East Bengal, and Agra), which differs from the train in that class hierarchies are much more evident (whereas in the train, everyone mixes together in the railway cars). On their way to the road, the lama preaches to the soldier about detachment from worldly materialisms and emotions, but the soldier is skeptical when he sees the lama entertaining a small child with a song. On the Grand Trunk Road, Kim is fascinated and delighted by the spectacle of the many different travelers. Kim makes the acquaintance of the widow Kulu, who is traveling to her daughter in the south. Kim's charm gets her to agree to care for them in exchange for the lama's prayers which would bring her future grandsons. Again, Kipling's narrative makes the point that it is Kim's useful knowledge of human nature and the ways of the world that keeps the lama alive.
In another adventure along the road, Kim meets an English army regiment distinguished by a green flag with a red bull. Kim had heard before that this symbol related to his father, and that this symbol would be his "salvation." Kim sneaks into the camp to find out more and is unfortunately apprehended. His apprehenders discover the documents that Kim carries with him in an amulet which indicate that he is the son of Kimball O'Hara, who was a former member of the regiment. The soldiers believe that he should not continue with the lama, and Kim is detained. The lama takes his leave after hearing of this news, believing Kim to be in good hands and thinking that he must continue his search for the river. Later, the lama sends a letter saying that he will pay for Kim's education at a Catholic school called St. Xavier for Sahibs (white men). Kim is devastated, and secretly sends a letter to Mahbub Ali telling him where he was.
Sadly for Kim, Mahbub Ali arrives and also tells him that he should go to school in order to take his place as a Sahib. The Colonel (Creighton) whom Kim met in Umballa also arrives and seems more sympathetic to Kim; he goes with Kim to St. Xavier in Lucknow and determines on their journey that Kim would make a good spy. At St. Xavier, Kim is rather miserable, but in the summer, he decides to go to on the road again, disguising himself and meeting up again with Mahbub Ali. Kim and Mahbub Ali converse and they demonstrate an implied understanding between them that Mahbub Ali is a spy for the British Army in what is called the Great Game, a historical term for the system of British espionage aiming to protect against invasions from Russia in British India. Mahbub Ali allows Kim to be his assistant and Kim soon proves useful, overhearing a plot against Mahbub's life and warning him.
In this next part of the novel, Kim, through Colonel Creighton, comes under the directive of Lurgan Sahin, a dealer in antiques and jewels and also a spy. He prepares Kim through games designed to train his powers of observation. Kim also makes the acquaintance of Babu (Hurree Chunder Mookerjee), a "chain man" in the Great Game (the position which Kim is also being trained for) who comically (and pedantically) overuses/misuses a number of English idioms. Meanwhile, Kim finishes another year of school at St. Xaviers, and trains during his vacations with Lurgan Sahib and Mahbub Ali. After this year, these two men convince Creighton that he is ready. Disguised as a young Buddhist priest, Kim receives also a secret code, "Son of the Charm," which enables chaim-men to recognize each other. At this point, Kim famously has a kind of identity crisis, repeating to himself, "Who is Kim--Kim--Kim?
Kim meets up with the lama again, and along the way, encounters a Punjabi farmer who begs help for his sick child. Kim manages to cure him with medicines from a kit Babu has given him. The lama shows Kim that he has been preoccupied with drawing up a Wheel of Life, which illustrates how life is a cycle which traps the soul. Meantime, Kim meets someone by the name of E23 no the train who is also a chain man who is being pursued by enemies. Kim disguises the man, and the lama becomes afraid that Kim has learned magic spells and charms, warning him that he should not do anything unless it be to "acquire merit" on the way to enlightenment. Kim rather dismissively tells the lama that a Sahib needs to act.
When the lama and Kim encounter again the old woman whom the lama has blessed with granchildren, Kim meets up with Babu, who tells Kim about a mission to intercept Russian spies at the northern border. Kim agrees to help Babu and convinces the lama that they must travel north. Upon their arrival in the north, Babu tells the spies, actually a Frenchman and a Russian, that he will be a guide for them through the difficult terrain of the north. In an exciting turn of events, Kim manages to obtain the luggage of the spies and intercept the documents. One of the spies asks the lama to sell him his Wheel of Life and when the lama refuses, he takes it from him and the spy punches the lama in the face. Kim is incensed and fights with the Russian spy and the servants of the spies run away with the French spy, themselves Buddhist and appalled that the Russian spy has hit the lama. Kim manages to convince the servants that the luggage is cursed and he takes the luggage.
Kim and the lama rest at shelter provided by the woman of Shamlegh, whose seductive advances Kim resists. The lama feels like he is further from enlightenment because he was angry at and shaken up by the spies and wishes to return to the lowlands of India to search for the river. The lama falls ill, and later Kim also falls ill as they reach shelter with the widow of Kulu. Meanwhile, Babu takes the documents off of Kim as he is nursed back to health, delivering them to the Colonel. As Kim gets better, he has his second identity crisis, saying to himself, "I am Kim. What is Kim?" He feels like a "cog wheel unconnected with any machinery" but all of a sudden, he finds that he is crying and that things seemed to be moving once again. Kim is rather unaware of what is happening, but that somehow, everything seemed in his place, and he felt very much a part of the world, of its roads, houses, cattle, fields, people--"They were all real and true." In contrast, the lama says that he has attained enlightenment, but has decided to return in order to help save his chela. The narrative ends on an ambiguous note as far as the different understandings that Kim and his lama have come to.
Criticism on Kim might be described as somewhat "schizophrenic"--Rushdie acknowledges that he read it with both "anger and delight"--in accounting both for what by modern standards constitutes racist representation and for the work's aesthetic merits. Edward Said's criticism, like Rushdie's, allows both to stand in tension. Others, like Abdul Jan Mohammed, have pointed out that amongst other novels of its time, Kim was much less racist in its stereotypes and ought to receive credit as such. Mohammed suggests reading Kim as a sort of Manichean allegory, in which the East mediates the Western experience, allowing the West to become more reflexive.
Generically, Kim poses problems as well: is it a utopian fiction? a travelogue? picaresque? a bildungsroman? a spy thriller? Indeed all of these genres seem to fit in different ways--the novel is remarkably plural. It's pluralism seems to be, however, at the center of what Kipling seeks. Just as the plurality of the Grand Trunk Road delights Kim, the heteroglossic, linguistic plurality of Kipling's narrative paints a colorful diversity (not just with respect to the inclusion of native words, but also with respect to different modes of narrative point of view--e.g., direct addresses to the reader, "transcendental" languages like the lama's, spy codes, varied punctuation, and so forth). I read the open ending--in which Kim's seeming embrace of "the world" and the lama's enlightenment--as occupying the same kind of openness which defines the plurality of the work.