67 pages 2 hours read

Rudyard Kipling


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1901

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Summary and Study Guide


Kim is a novel by the prolific author and poet Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), who was the first English-language recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The novel was originally released in a serialized version in 1900-1901, after which it was published in book form. It offers a wide-ranging view of the cultural and religious diversity of British India in the late-19th century, as perceived through the experience of an Indian-enculturated Irish boy named Kim. Along with The Jungle Book and Captains Courageous, it stands as one of Kipling’s most enduring and beloved novels, although its reception has at times been marked by controversy regarding its depictions of British colonialism.

Kipling had deep personal connections to India, having been born and raised in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay) until he was five years old. He was sent back to England for schooling from age six to 16 but then returned to India, taking up a job as a journalist in Lahore, where his father worked as the curator of the cultural museum. Kipling’s writing career took off over the subsequent six years, and by 1889 he had saved enough money to relocate to London and pursue a literary life. By the time Kipling produced Kim in 1900-1901, he was already one of the most popular novelists of his day. Kim, however, was unique among his works. Kipling described it as an indulgent fancy, a work of beautiful imagery and compelling descriptions, but largely plotless. After receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, Kipling turned most of his attention to writing poetry and short stories, genres that had also dominated his early career in India. In 1910 he produced a volume of poetry that contained “If—,” a short piece that has earned a spot as one of the most beloved poems of all time. Kipling kept writing until his final years in the 1930s, though none of his later pieces achieved the same level of popularity as the works he produced at the peak of his career.

Kim’s reception has been robust but mixed. It is often seen as the masterpiece of Kipling’s fiction for its descriptive richness. Its genre, however, is difficult to identify with precision, having elements of children’s literature but also transcending the normal bounds of that field. It is best described as a coming-of-age story, featuring a plotline driven as much by personal and cultural identity questions as by the events within the narrative. The story’s backdrop is the colonialism of British India in the late-19th century, with a focus on the geopolitical tensions arising between European powers in central Asia (a situation referred to in Kim as “the Great Game”). Most of the criticisms of Kim have to do with its depictions of colonialism. While Kim is far more sympathetic in its treatment of native populations than were most of the colonial works of literature produced in the same period (even regularly depicting white Europeans as clueless in contrast to the wisdom, hospitality, and cleverness of Indians), it still bears the limitations of an outsider’s perspective on Indian culture.

This study guide uses the 2002 Norton Critical Edition of Kim. All page numbers refer to that edition. Please note that the text uses outdated and/or sensitive geopolitical references such as Bombay and Ceylon.

Plot Summary

Kim is the story of young Kimball O’Hara, the orphaned son of an Irish regimental soldier living in British India in the late nineteenth century. Known simply as Kim, the boy is so thoroughly enculturated in his surroundings that no one suspects him of being white. He moves effortlessly through the complex cultural milieu of Lahore, where the story begins, and his character is marked by cleverness, wonder, and a zeal for the diversity of life’s experiences. The story begins when Kim encounters a Buddhist lama in Lahore, and he is so struck by the lama’s words and actions that he volunteers to be the lama’s chela (disciple). The lama is on a quest for enlightenment, seeking liberation from the Wheel of Things, and he expects to find this liberation by coming to the legendary Arrow River spoken of in tales of the Buddha’s life. Kim, now the lama’s chela, agrees to accompany him on this quest to find the Arrow River.

At the same time, Kim finds himself pulled into an espionage intrigue when he is tasked by his friend, Mahbub Ali, with taking a message to the British commander in Umballa. Kim delivers the message, which concerns geopolitical intelligence about the situation to the north, and then resumes his journey with the lama. As they travel across India together, Kim and the lama come across the Irish regiment with which Kim’s father had served and which is moving north in response to the intelligence Kim had provided to the British commander. Two clergymen attached to the regiment discover Kim’s identity and insist that he be taken into the care of a British school. The lama agrees to this plan now that he knows Kim is white, even offering to pay for Kim’s schooling, but the expectation remains that one day he and Kim will take up their quest for the river again.

Kim comes to the attention of the British intelligence agency (which doubles as the ethnographic survey department for colonial India) and of its commander, Colonel Creighton. Creighton and Mahbub Ali agree that Kim might be a valuable asset to the intelligence agency, so they resolve to have him educated for espionage in addition to the standard schooling he will receive. They send Kim to St. Xavier’s, a boarding school in Lucknow, where Kim studies for several years. The lama makes occasional visits to the school to see how Kim is doing. Whenever the school is out of session, Kim chafes against the thought of residing in European barracks, so he goes out and travels the roads of India. Creighton and Ali take these seasons to arrange for Kim’s further training, and they board him in the house of a dealer in jewels and curiosities named Lurgan. Lurgan instructs Kim in skills of observation and disguise, also introducing him to another influential member of the intelligence agency, Hurree Chunder Mookherjee (often simply called “the Babu”).

With his schooling at St. Xavier’s nearing completion, his mentors in espionage (Creighton, Ali, and the Babu) allow him to take up company with the lama again. As they wander the roads of India, Kim will have the opportunity to practice his spycraft and gather valuable information along the way. While traveling with the lama, Kim identifies a fellow agent in need of assistance, and thanks to some quick thinking and his skill in making disguises, he provides the agent with a way of escape. This impresses Creighton and the others, so they steer Kim and the lama northward. This route might provide the opportunity to observe key developments in “the Great Game,” wherein Russian agents were working to undermine British influence in Central Asia.

Kim and the lama climb up into the northern hills, with the Babu traveling nearby. They come across an encampment of two foreign agents and fall into company with them. Due to a cultural misunderstanding, one of the foreigners ends up assaulting the lama. In the following action, Kim steals away with the lama and the foreigners’ documents. At the same time, the Babu leads the foreigners away under the pretense of looking out for their safety. The intelligence gathered in this episode is a major triumph for the British, but the lama interprets the outbreak of violence as a sign that his quest for the River has gone awry. They travel back down to the plains of India, but Kim falls ill along the way. He awakens some time later to have two opportunities presented to him: first, the intelligence agency is so pleased with his results that he is offered a full position with them; and second, the lama reports that he has found the Arrow River and is ready to take Kim there so that they can gain enlightenment together. Here the story ends, with no indication of which course of action Kim might choose.