Book Review: The Light That Failed by Rudyard Kipling

In Expressions Of October on October 5, 2010 at 5:38 PM

Today I have for you, another Book Review!!! I have been working on reading The Light That Failed by Rudyard Kipling for the past month and finally finished it. Generally I haven’t taken much time to read it during the weeks and reserved it simply as travel reading so while I was on the planes to and from London I finally got the point where I could finish the book and last night I finally did. Unlike the other books that I have read, in this one I took the time to underline some of my favorite quotes that I think are quite interesting because they are not only appropriate to the context of the book, but to life and I think it is here that Kipling has some amazing things to say.

Here are my favorite lines from the book.  Some are witty and some are thought provoking.

“It is not easy for a man of catholic tastes and healthy appetites to exist for twenty-four days on fifty shillings.”

“You haven’t much sense, but you’ve got a backbone, anyhow.”

“He was Ishmael enough to know the value of liberty.”

“The lean years have passed, and I approve of these fat ones.”

“What is Art? Give ‘em what they know, and when you’ve done it once do it again.”

‘What earthly need have you for money?’ ‘It’s there bless its golden heart,’ said Dick. ‘It’s there all the time.’

“He thinks he is his own master.”

“There’s more in a week of life than in a lively weekly.”

“She’s all alone in London, with a red-haired impressionist girl, who probably has the digestion of an ostrich. Most red-haired people have.”

“Torpenhow came into the studio at dusk, and looked at Dick with his eyes full of the austere love that springs up between men who have tugged at the same oar together and are yoked by custom and use and the intimacies of toil. This is a good love, and, since it allows, and even encourages strife, recrimination, and the most brutal sincerity, does not die, but increases, and is proof against any absence and evil conduct.”

“The truly healthy man doesn’t know he has a soul. What business have you with luxuries of that kind?”

“I’d take any punishment that’s in store for him if I could; but the worst of it is, no man can save his brother.”

“How can you do anything until you have seen everything, or as much as you can?”

“To each man is appointed his particular dread – the terror that if he does not fight against it, must cow him even to the loss of his manhood.”

“He took himself off the bridge and went whistling to his chambers with a strong yearning for some man-talk and tobacco after his first experience of an entire day spent in the society of a woman.”

“Maisie looked more than usually kissable as she stepped from the night-mail on to the windy pier in a grey waterproof and a little grey cloth traveling-cap.”

“And there’s nothing – nothing in the wide world – to keep us apart except her obstinacy.”

I said she was not immoral. I was wrong. She said she could cook. That showed premeditated sin. Oh, Binkie, if you are a man you will go to perdition; but if you are a woman, and say that you can cook, you will go to a much worse place.”

“It is not good to realize that you have failed in the hour of trial of flinched before the mere possibility of making sacrifices.”

“It is hard to live alone in the dark, confusing the day and night; dropping to sleep through sheer weariness at midday and rising restless in the chill of the dawn.”

“A woman may love one man and despise another, but on general feminine principles she will do her best to save the man she despises from being defrauded.”

My favorite is the fourth from last. Binkie is the dog. I love that he says this absolutely brilliant line to the dog whose name just happens to be Binkie. It just makes me laugh.

The Light That Failed was published in 1891 three years before The Jungle Book was written and published. The story reflects the very British sense of pride in a man of war being a man of valor at the turn of the 20th century as well as demonstrating the beauty of the city of London in Victorian England as the place many of Kipling’s readers called home. There are consistent references to specific places in London that his readers would have known very well and could therefore be that much more engaged in the story of the artist Dick Heldar. Our protagonist is unfortunately a sad one and his life is unfortunately even worse. The majority of his childhood is spent as an orphan under the care of a woman who would do nothing but punish him and tell him that any wrongdoing he might commit as an eight year old will send him to hell. Dick however, is not alone in his torture as he is joined in his mischief making by a girl around his age named Maisie who is also an orphan but sadly gets sent away from Dick only a month after declaring their childish love for each other.

As Dick grows up and enters the war as an artist depicting the images of the battles for newspapers back in England, his often random thoughts consistently referred to this mysterious girl named Maisie. His best friends are fellow soldiers who have battled with him in the Sudan and have also traveled around the world defending the British Empire. As his comrades would remark later, “Is it really possible for one man to stay true to a woman from his childhood?” Apparently the idea of childish love persisting throughout one’s life was such an unfathomable idea at the time that it very much shocked his friends. Of course, Dick encounters Maisie when he is older and his love for her has only grown stronger through the years. She however, remains obstinate and resolute in her work as an artist as well and only allows Dick to visit her at her apartment in London to offer advice on her work. Naturally, Dick is the superior artist and uses his time trying to help her, but with the ulterior motive of simply trying to convince her to fall in love with him. Sadly his efforts are all in vain and she leaves England to try and showcase her artwork in France.

When Dick goes blind, however, she returns briefly out of pity but refuses to stay with him, despite her lack of success in France. She leaves and Dick finds himself becoming more and more disheveled from his lack of vision and company who would necessitate his looking proper, and his life slowly begins to fall apart. His best friend, Torpenhow, who had been Dick’s faithful friend throughout his entire life and probably the closest friend I have ever read in literature, realizes that he cannot sacrifice his own life for the sake of Dick and when the call to war comes, he is off to the Sudan to fight for his country as a proper man should. Dick is thus left almost entirely alone with only the housekeeper who robs him as his only company. Eventually, after a chance encounter with the girl who modeled for his last painting, he decides to leave his life in England and return to the Sudan, to the place where he once felt free and had a sense of value to his life. Like all good protagonists, Dick dies in the end, but the manner in which this occurs I will leave up to you as the reader to discover.

The book, being written in turn of the century British English is a little difficult to understand at times and thus reading it took much longer than I anticipated. After reading for an hour and anticipating having read at least 60 pages, I would find I had only read 20 and would have to fight to not be disappointed that I couldn’t read faster as the language wouldn’t allow for me to do so. There is a certain beauty to the words in this book that I can only describe as British. I find I often have the same problem when reading the works of C.S. Lewis. Somehow I just find it difficult to read and comprehend what British authors are saying at a relatively fast pace.

The idea of traveling internationally is also a very prominent one throughout the story. Dick often recounts his adventures in Sudan, South America, Australia, and there are consistent references as well to the Balkans. As well, nostalgia seems to be one of the biggest themes of the story. It seems as if Dick doesn’t believe in making a better future for himself, but simply using the future as a means to restoring his past with Maisie. Being an artist as well, I learned a lot about the philosophy behind art in Kipling’s tale. I don’t know what Kipling’s personal experience with art was, but I personally found his descriptions of the artwork to be very helpful in my own understanding of art as well as the personage of Dick.

Dick’s life seems to be a devastating one. At the end of the story, one can’t help but feel so much pity for Dick as it seems his whole reason for living has simply ended. Every person he has ever known has either left him or taken complete advantage of him. He has almost no choice but to return back to Sudan. Interestingly enough, this experience is very similar to the real life experience of Kipling who found the isolated lifestyle of Britain to be stagnating and pretentious and spent the majority of his life in his birth country of India where he felt he could live his life as he found fit.

The story in my opinion moves a little slowly for the majority of the text and doesn’t always makes sense until it makes a dash to the finish at which point the reader is a little confused that the book has ended. I will honestly admit as I read the last line of the book, I turned the page and said, “That’s it?” I felt like the book had finally started to take some shape and it was just at that moment that Kipling ends the history of Dick Heldar. I will not say that I was disappointed with the story because it is not at all disappointing but simply minimalist in many aspects. Where an author like Dan Brown shapes every character and uses all of the cheap drama tricks to keep his reader turning page after page, Kipling requires his reader to work a little harder and become more internally invested into his characters. At one point I even asked myself the question, “Am I Torpenhow?” I looked at the details of this character and the words he spoke, and found that I would probably say the same things and take the same actions as his character.

The characters are very complex and I feel like I would need to read the book with someone else or maybe within the context of a literature course in order to better understand what Kipling is saying in terms of society. I find it interesting as well that for as much as Kipling wrote, he doesn’t seem to be a very celebrated author. At Hillsdale for example, I have seen courses offered on authors like Vonnegut, Cather, C.S. Lewis, and many others, but none like Kipling. I will admit my knowledge on the spectrum of literature is very limited and so perhaps some of my English major friends can enlighten my understanding. The biggest reason I bought and read this book was for the purpose of learning a new style, perspective, and timelines of literature that I hadn’t been exposed to in the past. I think I have achieved my objective and I hope that it is not the last novel I read of the style and will hopefully be able to look back at The Light That Failed as a fundamental beginning to my understanding of literature from that era.

As I am sure you noticed, this book review is different from the other ones I have done as well. I think that is a good thing and will hopefully reflect the different styles of the books I am reading. I have a holocaust book next on my reading list. If you have any books that you believe are fundamental to the human experience please don’t hesitate to let me know, as I would love to get my hands on some more great literature. I think so far I have read over 30 books this year and I am proud to say that is probably the most I have ever read in a year. I hope next year to begin a goal of reading one book a week and keeping a blog, perhaps simply continuing this one as enjoy writing on it so much, and reviewing 52 books in 52 weeks. I think it’s a great goal and something that is very doable. I once read that if we read 10 books a year for 75 years of our lives we will have read 750 books during our entire lifetime. Yet what struck me as shocking is how few that truly is. If you go to the library there are thousands and thousands of books. And we only read 750 during our life? And that’s assuming you read 10 a year? How many people actually read ten books a year? I can say that I am privileged enough to know many who read quite a number more than that, but generally most of America sadly does not. I would say Europe is probably at an advantage in this field simply due to the majority of people using public transportation frequently. If we didn’t have to drive everywhere, I imagine we would probably read more.

Seeing as how there really isn’t much we can do about it, we will simply have to learn to discipline ourselves to read more and make it a priority. I hope that with the 52 books I look forward to reading next year I will read 26 novels and 26 Christian themed books.  I think it is very important to read both novels and Christ centered books that encourage us to improve our walks with the Lord that are written in a contemporary style that makes sense to us and strengthens us in our walk. Similarly, by reading novels, I hope I will be able to see the lack of Christian worldview within most literature and use that to strengthen my biblical foundation.

It’s time for dinner so I must now end this review. Hope you’ve enjoyed it. That’s all for now. Ciao!

  1. I love Kipling but that quote Dick said to Binkie–obsessed. So funny!

  2. I have just found a copy of this book in my belongings and it was gifted to a relative in 1908 according to a note inside. It was printed by Macmillan and Co Limited, London in 1911. Wow,100 years ago. Is this valuable? It is in very good condition.

  3. It’s Fay again. Just trying to work out how it could be given as a gift in 1908, but the print says 1911. Regardless, it is still very old. Cheers, Fay

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