Rudyard Kipling: "They" (1904)
Contributed by David Malcolm
On a trip in the South of England, a motorist discovers a beautiful Elizabethan house, inhabited by a blind woman and many children. He visits the house three times. On the third visit he realizes that the children are ghosts and that his own child is among them.
Rudyard Kipling, son of John Lockwood Kipling and Alice Macdonald, was born on 30 December 1865 in Bombay, India, and educated at the United Services College in North Devon. Following his engagement in journalistic work in India between 1882 and 1889, he married Caroline Balestier in 1892 (d. 1939). Three children, Josephine (1892-99), Elsie (1896-1976) and John (1897-1915) were born. Between 1892-96 Kipling lived in the USA, thereafter in England, from 1902 at Bateman’s in Burwash, East Sussex. His fame rests mainly on his short stories. After great success in the 1890s, Kipling won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. However, his literary standing later suffered an eclipse, especially after the First World War. He died on 18 January 1936 in London.
Short Stories and Novels
Plain Tales from the Hills (1888); Soldiers Three, The Story of the Gadsbys, In Black and White (1888); Under the Deodars, The Phantom Rickshaw, Wee Willie Winkie (1888); Life’s Handicap (1891); The Light That Failed (1891); The Naulahka: A Story of West and East (1892); Many Inventions (1893); The Jungle Book (1894); The Second Jungle Book (1895); Captains Courageous (1896); The Day’s Work (1898); Stalky & Co. (1899); Kim (1901); Just So Stories for Little Children (1902); Traffics and Discoveries (1904); Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906); Actions and Reactions (1909); Rewards and Fairies (1910); A Diversity of Creatures (1917); Debits and Credits (1926); The Servant a Dog (1930); Limits and Renewals (1937)
Departmental Ditties (1886); Barrack-Room Ballads (1890); The Seven Seas (1896); The Five Nations (1903); Songs from Books (1912); The Years Between (1919)
The narrator: anonymous; clearly wealthy enough to own a car in the early 1900s; however, no profession is given; expresses affection for children throughout the story
The blind woman: ‘Miss Florence’; owner of the Elizabethan house and a considerable amount of land around it; blind since just after birth; her love for the ghost children has brought them to her house, which she has organized according to their needs
Madden: the blind woman’s butler; he, too, has lost a child (before the story starts)
Mrs Madehurst: an impolite local shopkeeper who later seeks the help of the blind lady and the narrator to save her grandson
Jenny: Mrs Madehurst’s daughter; an unmarried mother, whose child dies in the course of the story
Turpin: a dishonest tenant farmer who tries unsuccessfully to cheat the blind woman; terrified of the house and its children
The story is set in the rural south of England, in the Sussex Downs. The narrator travels sixty miles from his home to a beautiful Elizabethan house. Most action takes place in the grounds of the house, and in the nearby village and surrounding countryside. The final narrative sequence, however, is set inside the house. At the story’s end, the narrator feels he can never return to the house or grounds. The time setting is contemporary with the time of publication in the early twentieth century. The narrator first comes to the house in early summer; he returns a “month or so later”, returning for the third, and last, time in early autumn.
On a car trip through the Sussex Downs, the anonymous narrator becomes lost. He travels through old villages and through thickly wooded areas until, unexpectedly, he finds he is in the grounds of a large and beautiful Elizabethan house, richly decorated and set in elaborate, well-tended gardens. He notices children at the windows and hears a child playing by a fountain.
The owner of the property, a blind woman, comes out of the house to greet him. She asks the narrator if he has seen anyone in the house or gardens. He acknowledges he has, and when the lady asks him, affirms that he likes children. She asks him to drive his car slowly through the grounds so that the children may see it. In further conversation, the narrator says that the house and garden are "the most beautiful place I have ever seen". They also discuss dreams and whether one can see the faces of the dead in dreams. While the narrator is being guided out of the grounds by Madden the butler, the latter questions him about whether he has seen the children. When the narrator wants to know the reason for the questions, the butler gives an evasive reply.
Returning home, the narrator is treated rudely by a local shopkeeper. Once home, he cannot discover where he has been. The appropriate guides to the country do not mention the house.
"A month or so later", the narrator drives to the house. He stops nearby and pretends that he has to repair his car. He waits for the children to come to watch him at his work. They do, but remain hidden, and he only hears their footsteps. The blind lady comes, however, and she and the narrator discuss the children, the cruelty of human beings (who might laugh at a blind woman or a child), and the ability to see colours and their emotional value. Towards the end of the conversation, the lady looks at the narrator and muses that he does not understand something, but that he will come again soon and "walk in the wood".
There follows a sequence of incidents which begins when Mrs Madehurst, the rude shopkeeper, in deep distress, arrives to beg the lady to help her find a doctor for her grandchild who is very ill. The narrator and Madden, the butler, drive to find a doctor and bring him back. During the ride, Madden reveals that his daughter died some time previously. He again asks enigmatic questions about the narrator’s seeing the children. The sick child’s mother reveals that her son is illegitimate and begs the doctor and the narrator to help her. They then drive around the countryside to find a nurse to care for the sick child. Once the nurse has been found and brought to the village, the narrator returns home.
Although he originally intended to visit the house very soon, the narrator does not come back until autumn has begun. He travels through landscape and weather that changes from summery to autumnal in an hour. He calls first at Mrs Madehurst’s shop, where he learns that Jenny’s child has died. He learns also that the mother is “walkin’ in de wood now”. As he drives into the grounds of the house, the narrator meets a woman and child. The woman tells him that his child is probably indoors. The narrator does not react to this statement.
The house is beautiful inside as well as outside. It is full of the signs of children’s presence. The blind owner tells him that a fire is kept burning in the hall day and night in case a child should need to warm itself. The blind woman takes the narrator on a tour of the house. He sees things laid out for children’s pleasure, but cannot see the children. He and his guide pass through the house, but the children remain just out of sight.
On their return to the hall, the narrator learns that Turpin, a tenant of the blind lady, wishes to speak with her. The narrator settles himself by the fire, near a screen, behind which, in the shadows, he has seen the children hiding. During the interview between proprietor and tenant, Turpin, who wishes to cheat the lady, is clearly terrified. The narrator feels his hand taken by a child’s hands and then kissed. He recognizes the kiss as part of a code established between him and his dead child. "Then I knew", he says.
The story concludes with a dialogue between the narrator and the blind lady. She sees that he understands the situation in the house. She reveals that her love of children brought the ghosts to the house; however, she can never see them, nor can they ever be hers. The narrator declares that he believes it would be wrong for him to return to the house, although he does not say why. The lady leaves him sitting, for a little time longer, by the screen near the fireplace.
Childhood is seen as a sacred time and state in "They", a period of innocence and joy. Children are also extremely vulnerable. The ghosts’ shyness is part of the fragility of childhood, which is also emphasised by the deaths of the children mentioned in the text. The bond between parent and child is very strong. It is a privilege to see the children and to walk with one’s dead child in the wood. The blind lady will never bear children, and thus will never know the grief of losing a child; but she can never see them.
The narrator, in a sense, drives out of contemporary time when he reaches the House Beautiful. In order to get there, he passes into an England full of the relics of the past. He might see Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth step out of the house, he reflects. The dead are present there, untouched by the passage of time. The passage of time is unstoppable, however: summer turns to autumn, although this is part of an eternal, cyclical progression.
"They" focuses on the experience of the living in relation to the dead. Yet, it suggests that the dead live on, shyly, tentatively impinging on the lives of the living. Physical contact is possible between the two, however. In some of the living (Turpin, for example) the house and its grounds inspire fear; in others the contact with the dead is welcome. The narrator, for unspecified reasons, however, cannot remain in contact with his dead child. This causes him great suffering.
co-existence of different worlds
The story is organized around two different worlds. The narrator, in a modern car, leaves the contemporary world and enters a world of the past and of ghostly presences. The space of the old house is distinct from the documented one. There is no trace of it on maps and in gazetteers. The two worlds, however, overlap. Mrs Madehurst can come from her shop into the house grounds, as can the mundane Turpin. Miss Florence can come into the village. The narrator’s car can enter both. At the story’s end, however, the narrator knows that he cannot enter the magic world of the House Beautiful again.
The documented world of “They” is marked by a robust social hierarchy. The narrator is a gentleman and is treated as such. The blind lady owns a considerable tract of land, and is a person of standing. She is traditional, but very shrewd. The doctor and the narrator elicit the help of the local landed gentry (people of power and influence, as well as wealth) to find a nurse. Madden responds to the narrator as a butler should. Even the loutish Turpin does not challenge the ruling class; he simply wants to cheat it. It is also a world of social responsibility. The upper class cares for the deserving or, at least, needy poor. The gentry – represented by the blind woman, but also by the other upper-class women – live in a world of beauty and connection with nature and the past. Turpin has no respect for the land nor for the past. The death of children, however, overrides social roles. In this matter, Madden can relate to the narrator as a human being. The narrator’s child and Jenny’s both haunt the house.
"They" appeared in the collection Traffics and Discoveries in 1904. As is often the case with Kipling’s work, this fantastic story is placed alongside stories that are quite different in genre. "A Sahib’s War", for example, is one of Kipling’s best known colonial war stories. "Their Lawful Occasions" tells of a naval practical joke. "The Army of a Dream" is that rare thing, a twentieth-century utopia. "Below the Mill Dam" is a beast fable, and "Mrs Bathurst" is a notoriously oblique psychological study of obsession. Only "Wireless", which recounts the psychic possession, by the spirit of Keats, of an enamoured pharmacy employee, has supernatural or fantastic motifs. James Harrison writes of the collection’s diversity that "It is difficult in some ways to credit that 'A Sahib’s War', 'Their Lawful Occasions', and 'They' could have been written by the same author". However, this kind of variety is typical of Kipling’s short story collections. Although Philip Mallett notes that Traffics and Discoveries did not win back readers who had begun to question Kipling’s work, he insists that "They" "is one of the most moving of Kipling’s stories". He also argues that T.S. Eliot refers to "They" in the first section of "Burnt Norton" (1935): "for the leaves were full of children, / Hidden excitedly, containing laughter". Commentators often point to a biographical connection in the text. Kipling’s daughter Josephine died in 1899; in 1902 Kipling bought the seventeenth-century house Bateman’s in Sussex.
The story is typical of Kipling’s later fiction (and of several stories in Traffics and Discoveries), in which the narrative is elliptical and the narrator’s knowledge is not complete. The reader is not aware of the death of the narrator’s child until the end of the text. Very few details are given of his life before the story commences, and the reason why he cannot revisit the house that contains his daughter’s ghost is not given. Both the reader and the narrator have fragmentary knowledge of what is going on in the story. The narrator, certainly, does not realize that he has been seeing ghosts until almost the end.
Settings are very important in the story. In terms of space, the narrator moves into an ancient and natural world as he approaches the house. The landscape takes on animate characteristics, as well as the heraldic features of a fable or romance. The house and its environs are extraordinarily graceful and beautiful, combining nature, art and history. The house is sometimes called the House Beautiful. In terms of time, the narrator’s three visits coincide with the movement of the seasons from summer to autumn. The narrator at last meets his daughter and realizes that he can never see her again in darkness with winter coming on.
The narrator is unnamed, this feature suggesting universality, but also imperfect knowledge. His obtuseness about the house is coupled with a confidence in his views and his technology. The blind lady (Miss Florence) is a seer and a medium who has brought the children to this place through her own love and need. She is also a shrewd landowner. The social hierarchy is firm throughout the story. The duplicitous Turpin is routed; the local gentry are figures of benign and traditional power. The serving classes are suitably deferential and grateful, although Madden the butler has an authority and dignity that belongs to his identification with his social role.
The ghosts are benign and happy. The House Beautiful has been arranged especially for their needs. They are accessible to those who know of them and who have lost a child. One feels the narrator must have sinned somehow because he cannot return to the house.
This fantastic text brings together motifs that recur throughout Kipling’s fiction: the supernatural; admiration for established social hierarchies; a fascination with the past; separate, but overlapping worlds (the Indian stories are full of these); the limits of knowledge; initiation (those who see the children are an elite group that transcends social divisions); and failure, exile and a hopeless desire to belong.
The critical literature on Kipling is vast. Much recent work focuses on his colonial fiction. However, some of this has fantastic elements. The following are particularly useful studies:
- Bauer, Helen Pike. Rudyard Kipling: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1994.
- Hagiioannu, Andrew. The Man Who Would Be Kipling: The Colonial Fiction and the Frontiers of Exile. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
- Hanson, Clare. Short Stories and Short Fictions, 1880-1980. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1985.
- Harrison, James. Rudyard Kipling. Boston: Twayne, 1982.
- Kemp, Sandra. Kipling’s Hidden Narratives. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.
- Lycett, Andrew. Rudyard Kipling. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1999.
- Mallet, Phillip. Rudyard Kipling: A Literary Life. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2003.
- Rutherford, Andrew. (1971). "Introduction." In Kipling, Rudyard. Short Stories: Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
- Seymour-Smith, Martin. Rudyard Kipling. London: Queen Anne Press/Macdonald, 1989.
- Shaw, Valerie. The Short Story: A Critical Introduction. London and New York: Longman, 1983.
- Wilson, Edmund. The Wound and the Bow. London: Methuen (1941; 1961).
The single best link for students of Kipling is that of the Kipling Society: