Rudyard Kipling wrote his short story “Mary Postgate” (text) in 1915 during World War I, the very era in which the tale takes place. Numerous interpretations attempt to explain Kipling’s intent: some argue that he wrote an anti-German propaganda piece in keeping with the times while others argue in favor of relevant key themes (i.e. appearance versus reality). Few explanations are universally accepted and many individual scholars boast unique interpretations. A common focus of readers lies in the psychological development of the title character, Mary Postgate. The opening paragraph of the story characterizes Mary as a reserved woman of ordinary stature, lacking particular significance:

Mary was not young, and though her speech was as colourless as her eyes or her hair, she was never shocked. She listened unflinchingly to every one; said at the end, “How interesting!” or “How shocking!” as the case might be, and never again referred to it, for she prided herself on a trained mind, which “did not dwell on these things.” She was, too, a treasure at domestic accounts, for which the village tradesmen, with their weekly books, loved her not. Otherwise she had no enemies; provoked no jealousy even among the plainest; neither gossip nor slander had ever been traced to her.

Mary, simply, possesses an unobtrusive nature. As the story unfolds, however, her suppressed psychological troubles reveal themselves. The middle-aged woman fills the role of companion for those she serves but remains very much alone — without husband or children. It becomes increasingly obvious to the reader, however, that the title character harbors a repressed adoration for Wynn Fowler, her employer of sorts and recent addition to the Flying Corps. When hearing “the thresh of his propellers at dawn,” Mary “[runs] to the window, and star[s] at the whitening sky. A little blur passe[s] overhead. She lift[s] her lean arms towards it.” Symbolically, Mary stretches out her arms toward the love of a man — a love that will remain forever unrequited, just beyond her reach like the plane soaring through the sky.

The sudden death of Wynn and the burgeoning ramifications of World War I — including increased air bombings in and around European towns resulting in civilian death — spurs Mary toward extreme measures. Kipling constructs an image of a lonely woman avenging both the death of her secret love and young Edna Gerritt, an innocent child bystander killed by an air bomb. It remains unclear if Mary’s actions result from madness (psychological issues) or strong anti-German sentiments:

But it was a fact. A woman who had missed these things [marriage and children, etc.] could still be useful — more useful than a man in certain respects. She thumped like a paviour through the settling ashes at the secret thrill of it. The rain was damping the fire, but she could feel — it was too dark to see — that her work was done. There was a dull red glow at the bottom of the destructor, not enough to char the wooden lid if she slipped it half over against the driving wet. This arranged, she leaned on the poker and waited, while an increasing rapture laid hold on her. She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel. Her long pleasure was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life. She leaned forward and listened, smiling. There could be no mistake. She closed her eyes and drank it in. Once it ceased abruptly.

"Go on," she murmured, half aloud. "That isn't the end."

Then the end came very distinctly in a lull between two rain-gusts. Mary Postgate drew her breath short between her teeth and shivered from head to foot. "That's all right," said she contentedly, and went up to the house, where she scandalised the whole routine by taking a luxurious hot bath before tea, and came down looking, as Miss Fowler said when she saw her lying all relaxed on the other sofa, "quite handsome!"

The rapture Mary claims to feel at burning Wynn’s belongings in “the destructor” and at the death of the alleged German soldier seems almost manic. The destruction of life and the obliteration of its material trinkets elate Mary: “She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel… she closed her eyes and drank it in.” Scholars have argued about the passion with which Mary embraces such devastation: Is she reveling in the death of an enemy soldier? or does she simply enjoy the feeling of being in control (for once)? Even if the cause of Mary’s behavior cannot be agreed upon, her actions afterwards are admittedly strange. Nonchalantly enjoying a “luxurious hot bath” immediately after numerous deaths renders the main character ostensibly indifferent to the harsh realities of war.

Questions

1. The narrator claims that Mary “scandalized the whole routine by taking a luxurious hot bath before tea.” In what way does this action make the “routine” more scandalous? What does it suggest about Mary’s attitude toward her actions?

2. Narratives, by their very nature, leave gaps in stories that lead to ambiguities and alternate interpretations. What effect does “Mary Postgate,” told as a narrative, have on readers’ interpretations of the story?

3. Does Kipling’s short story accurately depict the state of affairs in small towns of the British Empire during WWI?

4. With female characters like Mary Postgate and Miss Fowler, do you find Kipling positively or negatively reflecting on the role of women in the early 20th-century British Empire?

5. In poems like “Tommy” and “Gunga Din,” Kipling seems to support the war effort of those soldiers on the front. In “Mary Postgate,” however, Kipling leans more toward anti-War sentiments. Which camp do you think the author actually promoted?

Sources

Cody, David. “‘Mary Postgate’ — An Introduction.” Victorian Web. Web. 4 May 2010.

Hutchison, Alexander. “Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Mary Postgate’ — Another View.&rdquo 2000. Victorian Web. Web. 4 May 2010.