‘The Man Who Would Be King’ (1888): Rudyard Kipling’s Last Imperial Story

Richard Ambrosini


With its complex, metafictional narrative-frame structure and ironic, detached treatment of imperial history and mythology, Rudyard Kipling’s 14,000-word short story ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ (1888), is a privileged site in the study of the ‘imperial short story’—a cultural phenomenon which, when viewed in its historical and geopolitical context, can be defined as ‘imperial short story’ and, in the history of colonial and colonialist fiction, as a specific literary subgenre: the ‘imperial short story’. Returning to ‘The Man’ through the literary-historical perspective opened up by the subgenre of the imperial short story casts new light on the mechanisms that regulate the text’s several transitions: from the section narrated by a journalist-narrator (who shares many traits with the author himself), to the tragicomic adventure story which the ‘man who would be king’ has previously related to the journalist. This new light offers a way to understand both how Kipling’s text represents and comments upon a shift in geographical perspective on British India and the implications of the latter for his art.

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