The Burden – The Gardener by Rudyard Kipling.
By Mike Smith
Several critics of Kipling mention this story. It comes in the 1926 Debits and Credits collection, late in the sequence of short story publications.
Written in the shadow of ‘The Great War’, it stands comparison with the earlier, and perhaps more controversial Mary Postgate, and like that story, is regarded as one of his best. Frank O’Connor though, in The Lonely Voice, his 1963 study of the genre, singles it out for an in-depth analysis. Describing it as ‘clearly a masterpiece’, he nevertheless goes on to use it to justify, and explain his contention that either Kipling ‘is not a real writer’ or that Chekhov and Maupassant must have ‘something … obviously wrong with them’.
He goes on to confess, or at least report, that ‘I found myself rewriting the story as it might have been written by Chekhov or Maupassant’, which one has to admire, if only for the sheer hutzpah of the claim. He undertook this in order ‘to see what would happen’, which seems to me a perfectly reasonable motivation.
What it leads him to is an alternative story, and one from which he is able to draw conclusions about what is wrong with Kipling’s version, and what is right with his. It comes down to a sense of what the story ought to have been about, instead of what O’Connor believes it actually was about.
There are two elements here to hold up to scrutiny. The first is the issue of whether or not O’Connor’s view of what the story is about is viable (correct would be too strong a word, for we can only speculate about what Kipling might have intended). The second is whether or not a story ‘ought’ to be anything other than what the author has presented us with. Even in the case of a story we think badly written, or badly conceived, I’m not convinced that we can say it ought to have been done differently, though we might wish it had been.
Briefly summarised, The Gardener tells the story of a middle class woman, Helen Turrell. who brings up what she claims is her dead brother’s illegitimate son (by an Indian woman), but who is in fact her own, (by an Indian man). The secret is kept from us by Kipling’s usual sleight of hand. The story opens with what ‘the village knows’, and Kipling makes no attempt to force us to see beyond that. Expanding on the tale, he reports what Helen says, and leaves us to be duped just as the village has been. It is for the eponymous gardener, who has miraculous insight to make the truth plain, eventually. This takes place when Helen visits the child’s grave, for he has become a casualty of the Great War. ‘Come with me….I will show you where your son lies.’ As a thinly veiled metaphor for God, the gardener is tending his ‘plantings’, the tens of thousands of young men killed in the war, and implicitly knows all their stories, even the ones not known to them. His introduction, at the beginning of the penultimate paragraph of the story, tells us in an aside ‘-evidently a gardener’, a typical Kipling hint, in that ‘evidently’, that we should take note. The last words of the story reinforce the nudge: ‘…she went away, supposing him to be the gardener’.
Perhaps the most powerful image in the story is the description of the cemetery, still under development, if that is the right word.
‘….a merciless sea of black crosses, bearing little strips of stamped
tin at all angles across their faces…..nothing but a waist-high wilderness
as of weeds stricken dead, rushing at her.’
Many of us will have seen the pristine, neatly kept cemeteries of the War Graves Commission, and will have been stunned into silence, but how much greater must have been the awesome sight of ‘the entire crowded level of the thing’ unfinished?
The most powerful speeches are those of the child himself, when, angered by his ‘aunt’s’ sharing with friends of their secret, that he might call her ‘mummy’ in private, he delivers a series of prophetic statements which encapsulate the tragedy of their situation.
‘You’ve hurted me in my insides and I’ll hurt you back. I’ll
hurt you as long as I live.’
‘I will! And when I’m dead I’ll hurt you worse!’
‘Lots of little boys die quite soon. So’ll I. Then you’ll see!’
After his death, when the prophecies have come true, the aunt-mother, as she travels to the graveyard, meets a woman who has practised a different deception. Working as a photographer for relatives who cannot make the trip to France, she has visited repeatedly the grave of a lover whom she cannot publically acknowledge. Breaking down, she reveals this truth to Helen, and in doing so brings Helen to a bitter recognition of her own loss, and of her son’s, which goes back, of course, to the initial adoption of the lie.
O’Connor’s main criticism is with the presence of the gardener. He is the final false step, we are told, in what have been a series of false steps by Kipling. O’Connor’s own version, dispensing with him, ‘moves out of the world of Celestial Gardeners and Celestial Choirs’ and into the one where ‘having an illegitimate child is….a terrifying and humiliating experience.’ O’Connor’s story makes Helen, he says, ‘a woman of heroic stature’.
Analysing the difference between the two versions, and trying to ‘put a finger on’ where Kipling has gone wrong, O’Connor reveals what he thinks this story, and short stories generally perhaps, should be about: Kipling, he tells us, ‘is not really thinking at all of that mother and son’
The point here is not only what O’Connor doesn’t like about the story, but how, I believe, he misinterprets its purpose. He goes on to say that Kipling is thinking about ‘an audience and the effect he can create..’
The underlying thrust of O’Connor’s study of the short story form is encapsulated in its title. That ‘Lonely Voice’ belongs to an individual. It must, and a lonely one at that. But not all short stories can be shoehorned into such a tight definition. It is not, I think, the mother and child that is the real focus of this story, nor any particular individual, but it is the state of the nation, and of the wider world. It is the predicament of God, dealing with such a world. Far from being a distraction from the true focus of the tale, the Gardener, for whom the story is named, is the true focus, and a couple of distinct statements make plain his role. When Helen arrives at the cemetery, Kipling tells us, ‘The place was still in the making.’
Most commentators writing about the short story, will tell you, at some point, how important are their endings. Some, and I include myself with those, will say it is the most important, that the whole of the rest of a short story is only the preparation for your arrival at the ending. The ending here is at the war graves cemetery of Hagenzeele Third, with its ‘twenty-one thousand dead already’ and ‘still in the making’. And it is here, at that ending that ‘The Gardener’ of the title introduces himself to us. It is he, ‘evidently’, we are asked to consider, ‘supposing him to be the gardener.’
There are large chunks of this story that have been neither quoted nor described in either this essay, or in O’Connor’s analysis. Michael’s life and war service, and Helen’s deepening involvement in the life of the bereaved relative take up pages of text, but that does not shift the focus of the story, nor the point of telling it, remaining just another part of that preparation for our encounter with the ending, the contextualising of that ending. It is not merely what we know, but what we feel that will give point, and power to the closing words. This is in the nature of short stories, and makes O’Connor’s remark about creating an effect for ‘an audience’ one that must be interpreted rather than simply denied. Kipling was trying to create an effect, but not at the expense of what the story is about.
As is his common practice, Kipling interleaves his stories in this collection with poems. Some, unattributed are implicitly his own. Following The Gardener is a poem called The Burden. O’ Connor does not refer to it. Should we consider these poems alongside the stories to which they appear appended? Should we consider the stories in light of the poems? In this poem a lonely voice calls upon Mary Magdalene in the line that closes each of the three verses: ‘Where is/ Where can be/ Where shall be the greater pain?’ The pain is of unending grief, and of maintaining a lie. The fourth verse brings a reply, which is that God has ‘rolled the Stone away.’ Once again, the focus seems to be on the supplicant, but ends on the actions of God, and again ends equivocally, for is that ‘rolling’ a continuation of, or an ending to the speaker’s pain?
If this story is a tragedy, it is not, as O’Connor tells us it ought to be, the tragedy of a woman and a boy, but the tragedy of a gardener, ‘bending over his young plants’.