"Mary Postgate" (text) is a complex story, and arguably a great one. It is quintessentially a Kipling story: it concerns itself, that is, with themes which run through all of Kipling's work, and it betrays his preoccupation with the darkness which lies in the human heart--a preoccupation which he shared for example, with Conrad and with Lawrence.

"Mary Postgate" is a horrifying story no matter how we read it, but like all of Kipling's best work (and like all great art) it can be read in several ways. It is a propaganda piece, written in 1915 during World War I in the context of German atrocities and massacres in France, and just after German aircraft had engaged in bombing raids on English towns. Viewed in this context, as written by a Kipling who had in fact written that in fighting the Germans England was "dealing with animals who have scientifically and philosophically removed themselves inconceivably outside civilization," and who maintained that there were "only two divisions in the world to-day--human beings and Germans," "Mary Postgate" was intended to inspire in English readers just such cold-blooded courage and ferocity as Mary herself displays. It is also, however, a portrait of a woman who finds in the circumstances of war a release from societal, psychological, and sexual pressures: in this sense the deaths of Wynn and little Edna Gerrit are not reasons but excuses for the behavior Mary indulges in. From this point of view Kipling does not endorse but merely records her response to the situation, though he provides us with a wealth of detail to enable us to see why she behaves as she does: the story is full of clues, of ominous warning signs, which prepare us for the ghastly climax. And the climax becomes more terrifying, more horrible, the deeper we go into the story, the more carefully we read it.

"Mary Postgate" is a story about the terrible consequences of the death not of human beings but of dreams. Mary is a complex character, but we may not realize how complex she really is, or how artfully Kipling has created her. She is, for example, like so many characters in Dickens's work, a distorted version of a character out of fairy tales: she is a Cinderella whose Prince will never come, a sort of Sleeping Ugly. She is a horrible modern incarnation of Keats's "Belle Dame sans merci," the beautiful woman without pity (what are we to make of the fact that Mary, whom Miss Fowler has just characterized as "an old woman," returns in the end as "quite handsome!"?). "Vitality" is an important word in "Mary Postgate": the story is charged, as Lawrence's "The Prussian Officer" is charged, with a dark sexual undercurrent. Mary's behavior is enormously complex. She allows the young German aviator to die. Why? Because he killed Edna (DID he?), and because the Germans are beasts? Because Wynn, the Gentleman, the boy she loved though he had always treated her as "his butt and his slave," had himself become a casualty of the War? Is Mary, for that matter, aware, consciously, that she loves Wynn? What is Kipling saying about English class structures, about relationships between men and women, about love? How has Mary's life prepared her for this response, so that when we begin to understand her it begins to seem not unexpected but inevitable, and how does Kipling enable us to come to know her?

In the very abundance of what appear to be trivial details, Kipling displays a remarkable efficiency, a wonderful mastery of his craft: almost everything, every remark, every action, is charged with meaning. What do we know about Wynn, for example, from the careful description of his belongings, which are the paraphernalia of the English public school? What are we to make of Mary's ritual destruction of them? It is worth noting that although the story has nothing to do with India, in any overt sense, the burning recalls the Indian custom of suttee (the self-immolation of a Hindu widow upon her dead husband's funeral pyre) and reminds us, again, of the complexity both of Mary's motives and of Kipling's art. How does Mary's response to Wynn's death contrast with Miss Fowler's?

Of the validity of what values, what "fairy tales" inherent in Victorianism, is "Mary Postgate," a story not of the nineteenth but of the twentieth century, a denial? In the sense that it concerns itself with loss, fear, repression, and alienation, the story is a precursor of later modernist works (which we will be reading in this course) by Joyce, Yeats and Eliot--in what ways do these themes manifest themselves?

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Victorian England Rudyard Kipling

Last modified 1988