Kipling and Orientalism (Mostly just Kipling…)

As a victorian Englishman Rudyard Kipling had a front row seat to British Imperialism. As a poet he knew how to study the bleakest points of human existence and offer a commentary. Often this is studied in his poem, “The White Man’s Burden”. In this poem Kipling focuses on the idea that it was the obligation, and duty of the British to civilize what they considered lesser peoples. I’ve heard arguments that Kipling actually bought into this over entitles sense of imperialism, but I would like to think that he wrote “The White Man’s Burden” as a satirical poem to highlight the intense flaws of the British Empire.

In “Gunga Din” we see that same British imperialism, however, the speaker no longer seems to be Kipling. In stead it is a man who is actually living, and even fighting, amongst the colonies in India. The speaker no longer has a brash sense of entitlement, instead he speaks with a rough, lower class accent, and on some level values the friendship/loyalty of Gunga Din. Even though we can still see that the speaker thinks of the ‘oriental’ people as naturally worth less than him, Kipling puts them on a more even playing field. The stereotypical, gin-drinking brit survives only because of Gunga Din. In the last stanza the speaker explains that Gunga Din has died, but that he is sure he will see him in the after life. Following this seemingly out of place phrase, the speaker goes further in saying that though he lashed him, Gunga Din was a much better man than he.

While neither of these are accurate depictions of India, or even of British Imperialism as a whole they do show two very different ways we can look at it from a historical and literary standpoint. On one hand we have the depiction of the unfeeling oppressor, trying to justify his…well…oppression. This stands true regardless of how we reading “The White Man’s Burden” because unfortunately no matter what Kipling’s views were, many people would have agreed with his poem. The other hand is that maybe “Gunga Din” shows how relationships between the oppressor and the oppressed really worked. How when one interacted with these people in the flesh human to human bonds naturally formed. How it was not always possible to see oneself as a unconditionally better than someone else.

My studies of orientalist and even of India, have been nearly nonexistent. I have however studied British poets and writers, especially from the Victorian age, as well as a more than basic understanding of the ins and outs of British Imperialism. That being said I definitely could be looking at this through an entirely wrong lens. But after connecting what I know of victorians and their culture, and what I have seen and read in this class so far I’m starting to understand the intense relationship between the two cultures and how difficult it is to fully separate them, but still how strong and deeply rooted the various cultures and customs of India are.



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