Victorian Concepts in Kipling's 'A Matter of Fact'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

21 Pages, Grade: 1,8

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1. Introduction

2. Rudyard Kipling: A Matter of Fact
2.1. Contents of A Matter of Fact
2.2. The Structure of A Matter of Fact

3. Facts and Fiction, Truth and Beauty in the Story
3.1. Naturalist and Aestheticist Movement in England
3.2. Aestheticism and Naturalism in Kipling’s Story
3.3. Rudyard Kipling: Aestheticist, Symbolist or Realist

4. The Criticism on Press and Journalism

5. Mysteriousness in A Matter of Fact

6. Conclusion



The Victorian period (1835-1903) describes an important time span in English history in social, political and cultural matters. Terms like “splendid isolation“ (in the field of foreign-policy) or “laissez-faire“ (in the field of economy) and the philosophical theories of Utilitarianism and Intuitivism were fundamental concepts to influence life in the “Empire” in the second half of the 19th Century. During that time, the Industrial Revolution took place and the parliament was reformed three times (1830s –1880s). The Victorian period can be seen as the most glorious time of colonial England (if one thinks of colonialism and imperialism as glorious) but ironically also marks the decay of the “Empire”, which many Englishmen had been so proud of.

In the literary world, English Romanticism dominated the early Victorian decades. Later on, Realism and Naturalism became more and more influential and in the 1890s, the New Realism and Aestheticism (including Decadence and Symbolism) took over.

One important author of Victorian literature was Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). He achieved tremendous fame and his literary field stretched from newspaper-publications and essay-writing to novel writing and poetry. But the increasingly popular short story was the kind of literature he indulged in the most.

It is interesting to see that he went through quite an unusual educational career before he rose to fame: Kipling lived in India (a British Colony until 1950, when it became a federal state of the Commonwealth) and wrote newspaper-stories (so-called “turn overs”). This is unusual, because most of the popular authors of the Victorian Age who came from the bourgeois middle-class, which was very powerful at that time, started out directly in their writing-career in England.. Some of those were Dickens, Stevenson, Thackeray, George Eliot, H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and Thomas Hardy, who was an architect at first, though. Thus, Kipling’s seven years of short story writing is comparatively exceptional. As a consequence of this Asian background, Kipling developed a special kind of literature, called Anglo-Indian prose.

Of his output of short stories, “A Matter of Fact” is not the most famous, and in secondary literature about Kipling the story plays a minor role, but it nonetheless explicitly portrays various features of Late-Victorian fiction. It is especially useful for discussing different conceptions of writing in that period.

2. Rudyard Kipling:A Matter of Fact

Rudyard Kipling was an extremely productive writer in the field of the short story: he produced more than 350 pieces of short fiction.[1] Most of his works are dominated by mysterious themes and reflect the great deal of travelling he did in his life. Both subjects are also present in A matter of Fact. Like Hemmingway and Fitzgerald after him, one may well consider him a true cosmopolitan. His places of residence ranged from India and England to the USA and South Africa. He was famous for his typical Anglo-Indian stories but also criticised for his view of advocating British imperialism and the “burden of the white man”.[2] Harold Orel sees an incident from Kipling’s early years in which he was turned scapegoat in the dispute about the modifying of “the right of a European resident in India to be tried by a European judge”[3] as responsible for his cautious handling of racial questions:

Kipling, not yet twenty years old, and startled by the intensity of feeling aroused by Lord Ripon`s legal initiative, must have thought quite seriously from then on about racial problems. Whether the views that he held for the rest of his life were unswervingly conservative is not to be answered glibly. He certainly believed in a responsible imperialism.[4]

This implies that, considering the historical background of the English society, which still believed in white men as being superior of all other “races”, Rudyard Kipling could hardly advocate anything else than imperialism with the reservation “responsible”. That responsibility was meant in terms of guidance by the “superior” Englishmen to benefit the Empire, including all people living in it. It is a safe assumption, though, that he did differentiate between first-class and second-class citizens.

2.1. Contents of A Matter of Fact

The Short Story was first published in 1892 and later became part of Many Inventions, one of Kipling’s compilations. It tells the tale of the journey of three journalists as the only passengers of a ship from Cape Town to Southampton. The three men are Keller from the USA, Zuyland from the Netherlands, and the first person narrator who is of British nationality. Already, Kipling’s cosmopolitan nature comes into play. Not only because of the journey and the different nationalities – the ship they are taking is “cosmopolitan”, as well: it previously had served in Bilbao, Manila and Madagascar, and at the time the story takes place, it is stationed in Cape Town going “even as far as England”[5]. This might be nothing exceptional since most ships built for travelling the oceans will have been to many different parts of the world after a certain time. Moreover, Kipling is known to be obsessed with details. John Bayley calls it “Kipling’s hypnotic sense of detail and atmosphere”.[6] But telling the history of the ship “Rathmines” is not only a consequence of the author’s devotion to the exactness of story telling. The phrase “even as far as England” gives an impression of the geographical setting of the first part of A Matter of Fact. England is not considered to be the centre of the world, even though the narrator hails from there, but is somewhere far out. The reader gets the impression that there is no centre in the geographical sense. The events of the first half of the story - a submarine earthquake and the slow death of a sea monster - take place on the Atlantic Ocean without any further comment as to near which country the ship might be at that time. Through this, the sense of feeling lost is created in the reader, which mirrors the feeling the travellers must have had in the moments of danger. This changes completely in the second part, in which England as a central power is emphasised quite openly.

After the “Rathmines” has left the harbour, the tension is slowly built up. At first, the three journalists start a conversation about their profession although the first person narrator had previously intended to abstain from journalism for the rest of his life, then they tell each other about experiences they had made in the course of their lives and play cards after that. When they finally talk to the boatswain, the first hint towards an upcoming adventure is given. The boatswain says: “There is a feel in the water that I cannot understand. I think we run downhills or somethings.” (50[7] ) Now gradually, the crew is losing control over their ship with growing excitement, and as a first climax it is hurled up and down by three giant waves. At that point, the crew and passengers have reached a state of panic, although the three journalists stay surprisingly calm. The captain assumes that there was “a blow-up under sea” (p. 51).

Afterwards, the tension decreases a little but there still is danger in the air. The temperature of the water is too low and other ships, which remain unseen in a thick fog, pass the „Rathmines“. Immediately, the story heads for another climax. The cold water and warm air are said to be producing the fog and the people on the ship witness a “poisonous rank smell” (p. 54). Suddenly, a face appears in the ship’s window, which is said to be “not human, and certainly not animal” (p. 55). Then, the second climax is reached. The passengers and crew observe the death struggle of the mysterious being accompanied by another of the same species. The tension is not as immense as in the first climax, because there is no sense of danger of the ship being attacked. When the strange entity has died, the other leaves the scene and the first part of the story is over.

The second part starts with Keller’s declaration “We must pool our notes” (p. 60), meaning that the three journalists together must write down what they had seen and publish it later on. The idea is dismissed right afterwards and all three begin to write their own accounts. Kipling proceeds by comparing the three results. Zuyland’s report is said to be lacking anything “fantastic or flamboyant” (p. 61), Keller included in his article an “allusion to American enterprise” (p. 60) and decorated it with three headlines while the narrator himself excluded all journalistic craftsmanship due to reasons to be explained later on.

Whether there is a general statement about the colonial power Netherlands and the rising military power America implied in the descriptions of the journalists’ accounts is uncertain at this point. Zuyland included a list of the crew to testify his tale. This would make the Dutch mentality appear as being cautious, reassuring and not “flamboyant”, in other words: boring and commonplace. The American mentality would be described as exaggerating and as that of a “half-civilised people” (p. 61).

The narrator tries to talk Keller out of his plan of publishing the story right away when they arrive in Southampton but at the sight of the English country and towns from the window of a train, in which the three travel to London, the American recognises the traditional nature of England and realises the need to revise his version. At that point, Zuyland has already abandoned his intentions entirely.

The English journalist still is convinced that no newspaper in his country will print Keller’s article. The possibility to publish it in America is neglected by Keller as well. He thinks that no one in his homeland will believe the story to be true, for the journalists over there have put forth so many fake stories as truth that the readers will not believe anything mysterious anymore, and if they do, it would be a waste to use a “true” account on them, when they might also believe a fictional story.

Kipling, then, proceeds to deal with English tradition by stating a dialogue in which Keller asks the Englishmen about the age of several things he sees outside the train. In his answers it becomes clear that for the English journalist two hundred years of age is not much for a house. This is not a deliberate age, because the detail-focused Kipling alludes to the age of the American nation, which was about two hundred years when “A Matter of Fact” was written. This happens in order for the reader to understand that even a story about sea-snakes and submarine earthquakes would not cause a great stir in a society that does not consider two hundred years as a long period of time, whereas the “young” American people might be easier to impress.

Nonetheless, Keller has a go at publishing his story. The newspapermen whom he confronts with his errand nearly throw him out of their office when he mentions the English journalist on the “Rathmines” as being a witness and his last refuge is the plan to publish his story in an American newspaper despite his original reservations.

Finally, after more encounters of never changing monuments in London, Keller concedes to abandon the enterprise completely. The Englishman tells him that if his country had been seven hundred years older, he would have planned to tell the story as fiction right away, at which Keller sneers with disgust. The seven hundred years refer to the beginning of the Norman reign on the British Islands in 1066 (Kipling adds the seven hundred to the two hundred years of age he ascribed to the American nation), which can be seen as the starting point of the country’s existence. This becomes even more obvious (62), when the narrator tries to convince Keller of the impossibility of publishing his report:

Remember, I’m seven hundred years your senior, and what your grandchildren may learn five hundred years hence, I learned from my grandfathers about five hundred years ago. You won’t do it, because you can’t. (62)

There is an obvious contrasting in British (or European) mentality and culture against that of America, the “New World”. The British journalist with his traditional background is disillusioned and remains calm even after the events that nearly cost his life. As a representative of an old nation, he is not easy to disturb or impress. The Dutchman only tentatively attempts to sell his people the tale as “real”, but then also decides to let off. This might also be ascribed to the fact that he is considered as a “half-Dutch” residing in South Africa. Thus, the British are slightly superior in calmness and temper to the Dutch but both function as specimen of the old world and are infinitely superior to the American, who easily lose their temper and get carried away. It is obviously Kipling’s point to explain this as due to the different backgrounds in tradition and age of the nations. In this context, telling the history of the “Rathmines” becomes significant as well. It is an old ship with some “tradition” and therefore not easy to impress as well. This might be supposed to be the reason why it was not destroyed by the submarine explosion.

2.2. The structure of A Matter of Fact

Unlike most short stories, A Matter of Fact is formally subdivided into different parts, which seems to be a popular feature of Victorian short fiction though (e.g. Hardy’s For Conscience’s Sake, Bennett’s The Murder of the Mandarin or Kipling’s The Mystery of Purun Bhagat). It starts out with a poem about the mysteries of the sea. The actual story is divided into two parts, the first of which could be described as the adventure part. The second part would then be the theoretical or literary part, because the terms “truth”, “fact”, “fiction” and “beauty” make up the most significant subject of discussion in it. Furthermore, there is an introductory paragraph at the beginning and corresponding to that a concluding paragraph at the end. The first paragraph gives the reader a concept to be verified in the course of the story:

Once a priest, always a priest; once a Mason, always a Mason; but once a journalist, always and forever a journalist. (45)

A probably colloquial saying is completed by a statement about journalists, which describes the adherence of those to their profession as even stronger than the obviously notorious adherence of the other two to their jobs. This reflects upon the Englishman’s vow not to act as a journalist anymore and his finally dismissing his vow when witnessing the tumults on the ocean. The fact that the mentioning of his name made the newspapermen in England almost throw Keller out of their office makes the reader assume that he might have resolved to quit his profession due to trouble with publishers who did not want to accept some of his stories.

After the concept of the nature of journalists has been stated, Kipling delivers a classical exposition. The three main characters, their common profession, and their respective nationalities are introduced; the ship and its history are presented; the geographical background is told.

After the exposition, Kipling immediately starts to build up tension, which culminates in the first climax (the explosion, eruption or earthquake). Then, the tension decreases abruptly but is slowly rising again to the second climax (the death struggle of the sea-snake). At the end of the adventurous part, a peaceful air dissolves all tension.

At the beginning of the second part, the tension is built up again in the discourse about the journalists' reports of the events. Keller’s resolute opposition against the others’ opinion about the likeliness to have their reports printed becomes more and more desperate. The final climax is when Keller “stumbled gasping into the thick gloom, and the roar of the traffic came to his bewildered ears” (p.67). This reaction to his experiencing London’s monumentality, especially Westminster Abbey, causes him to give up on his errand to tell the “Britishers” about their adventure.

A gentle lead-out in terms of tensions ends in the final paragraph, the conclusion of the story:

For truth is a naked lady, and if by accident she is drawn up from the bottom of the sea, it behoves a gentleman either to give her a print petticoat or to turn his face to the wall and vow that he did not see. (68)

This ironic sentence makes the reader finally relax, realising that the struggle is over. This sense of relaxation is misleading, though, because the ironic voice in which Kipling wrote the conclusion suggests that there is some opposition to this view in the author. This opposition might be subdued by life-experience. Maybe he had rather not give truth a “print petticoat” nor “turn his face to the wall”.

Taking a look at the way the tension increases and decreases, one might argue that it follows the pattern of a real eruption of a volcano or that of an earthquake. The first climax serves as the initial eruption which actually was the cause of the phenomena described in the story. It is the most threatening of the three. Then, in reality, there follow minor eruptions or earthquakes, which are of decreasing severeness. The second and third climaxes of the story represent this decreasing severeness. The death-struggle of the sea snake is not life-threatening anymore but still bears an immense tension, produced by the mysteriousness of the apparition and the pity for its fate, which Kipling tries to evoke in the reader. The third climax is of merely artistic or literary character and therefore generates the smallest degree of tension.

On the other hand, it may appear to the reader that a writer of fiction might stress the literary discussion as most significant and therefore bearing the greatest tension. This becomes even more likely when examining the connection between the title and the discussion in the end of the story. Thus, it depends on the way the story is perceived: if the “adventurous” part is stressed, the tension follows the pattern of real seismologic phenomena; if the “literary” part is seen as more significant, the most intense climax is at the end of the story.

3.Facts and Fiction, Truth and Beauty in A Matter of Fact

Leaving aside the subject of national tradition, A Matter of Fact obviously takes up the dispute between Victorian Aestheticist writers and those who promoted the New Realist and Naturalist Movement of the 19th century. Looking closely at the story, the reader quite often encounters the terms “beauty”, “truth”, “facts” and “fiction” which were at the centre of literary discussions, especially of the 1890s.

3.1. Naturalist and Aestheticist Movement in England

Helga Quadflieg produced a 268 pages book about the Short Story of the 1890s and the struggle between Aestheticists and Naturalists[8] but surprisingly does not mention A Matter of Fact. Nevertheless, the story provides an interesting view on the subject.

The traditional literature of Victorian England demanded that literature had to fulfil a moral purpose and, in doing so, automatically had to limit its range of subjects to those appropriate to serve that purpose.[9] The opposition to that traditional view of literature is one thing, the disputing Aestheticists, New Realists and Naturalists have in common,[10] although they differed in their aims. Another thing they had in common was the lack of belief in a divine order of the world. Quadflieg: “Gemeinsam ist den neuen englischen Realisten und den Ästhetizisten auch der Mangel an eine verborgene Sinnesordnung hinter den beobachteten Phänomenen der Welt”.[11]

Influenced by French writers like Zola and Flaubert, the Naturalists and New Realists saw their highest duty in reflecting the social reality and the nature of mankind the way it was represented in the phenomena of the world, without selecting topics out of moralistic reasons. New Realist authors concentrated on the social aspect, which produced the social novel, in which people were seen as the products of their environment. This is certainly not in accordance with the “Social Darwinism”, which was prominent then and believed in people influencing their environment, not the other way around.

In difference to “old” Realism, the New Realism did not promote an idealised picture of society. The Naturalists focused on the nature of mankind and consequently went even further and broke certain taboos, which was not in accordance with moralistic functions of literature, in which the New Realists still believed.[12]

The concept most important to both was thus that of absolute “truth”. In difference to the traditional view, everything that was true or real could be told in a story. Thus, the difference to the Aestheticist movement can be put like this: everything told in a story had to be true (real). For Aestheticists, the concept of “beauty” was the main concept. The slogan of “l’art pour l’art” became famous. Authors who proclaimed this view were not willing to let anything else but the mere beauty of art influence their work and saw themselves as quite apart from the rest of the society. Truth was unimportant and the difference to the Naturalists and New Realists can be also expressed like this: everything told in a story had to serve the principle of “beauty”.

3.2. Aestheticism against Naturalism in Kipling’s Story

The events in A Matter of Fact alone demand a discussion of what is real and what is fiction. The title states that the story is a fact, but the reader certainly has to locate it in the realm of fiction. The term “a matter of fact” also hints towards the discussion of fact and fiction in the second, “literary” part: the different points of view of the journalists are derived from the question of fact or fiction.

In Kipling’s story, the American journalist Keller favours the concept of “truth” and “fact”, while the English journalist sees “truth” as a “naked Lady” who ought to be dressed to hide her nudity or remain concealed altogether. Thus, Keller assumes the role of the Naturalist or New Realist; in contrast, the narrator plays the part of the Aestheticist.

The Naturalist Keller probably exists only in the circumstances of this story. On 64, he describes the American public:

We’ve played them for suckers so often that when it comes to the golden truth – I’d like to try this on a London paper. (64)

This reveals that he used to write “untrue” stories but the “truth”, in this case the events of the first half of the story, has to be told as a true account. This is no reservation to the role he plays: the “golden truth” has to be published and this term suggests the nature of a “highest principle” of writing. It might even take on the part formerly ascribed to the “divine” or “supernatural”.[13]

On 66, the first clash of Aestheticist and Naturalist views happens, when Keller asks the narrator “what record do you hold for truth in this country, anyway?” and he answers “A beauty.” (66) This reflects the differing points of view of the two literary groups:

Im Gegensatz zum Ästhetizismus stellt der New Realism aber nicht ‘beauty’ an die Stelle früherer Gottheiten, sondern ‘truth’, die (...) den höchsten Stellenwert hat.[14]

This must not be misunderstood as the British people believing in everything beautiful but not in a true account. The point is that a report as unbelievable as the one in discussion would not be taken seriously if it were presented as “truth”. Only if it appears as mere “beauty”, which means “fiction”, it would matter in any way. This leads over to the lead-out of the last climax, when the English journalist reveals that he is going to tell the story as a fictional tale. Keller’s reaction is disgust. It is remarkable that the narrator goes as far as calling his account “a lie”, even though he knows that it is not.

This presents a fundamental feature of Kipling’s understanding of literature. Bayley writes: “Delusions, as Kipling himself knew well, have their own kind of reality.”[15] and “A feature of many of the best of these tales is the way ‘truth’ and ‘literature’ are virtually separated in them.”[16]. This shows that for Kipling “truth” was not the highest principle of art but that it was rather supposed to be kept out of it altogether. In consideration of this, Kipling has to be considered to be an Aestheticist (provided that the narrator in A Matter of Fact expresses the author’s view) if he does not see his duty in presenting the “truth” but in presenting “beauty”.

One has to keep in mind, though, that the tale they want to tell is about a superficial adventure, anyway, and that truth is important in serious subjects but not in cases of trivial literature, no matter how exciting the adventure it is based upon actually was.

3.3. Rudyard Kipling: Aestheticist, Symbolist or Realist?

Apart from the division of truth and beauty in literature, there is another component of Kipling’s view of art. He also believes in literature to teach the reader something: “All his stories have the intention of instructing us, even lecturing us”[17] and John Bayley’s account of Kipling’s The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes gives a hint at what that is:

As so often with good short stories an invisible synergism is taking place below the surface, the traditional art of the form compounding in this case with a meaning the author seems reluctant to give, because it hardly coincides with his ideas about the duties and obligations of empire.[18]

The term “traditional” is difficult to interpret in this context. If Bayley refers to the traditional Romanticists, it would mean that their art was the “art of the form” but it cannot be disputed that those also believed in a didactic purpose of literature.[19] It is likely to assume that Bayley means the Aestheticist and Symbolist movements, although it is hard to see why those are supposed to be traditional.

In “A Matter of Fact”, Kipling is not reluctant to reveal the meaning because it is well in accordance with the “duties” and “obligations” of empire. He explicitly tells the reader in the last paragraph what he thinks the nature of literature should be. The sense of duty of the empire comes into play when he contrasts its tradition and age to that of the United States of America. The British seem to assume the part of a “Welt-Leitkultur” and that is what Kipling thought the obligation of the empire (as well as the “burden of the white man”) to be like. The “young” American journalist has to be guided by the wisdom of the “old” or “experienced” English journalist. Rudyard Kipling sees a responsibility of the British to act as a guiding culture. At this point, his critics will probably have found another case in which Rudyard Kipling exacts his “knowingness”.[20]

In the final paragraph of his story, there is a distinct notion that the author believes in manipulating the truth. The “print petticoat” for the “naked lady” is one way of presenting truth to the public. The other way to treat it would be keeping it secret. This certainly does oppose the New Realist and Naturalist view of how to treat truth since those would have tended not to change anything in the original facts of a story if they had to tell the tale of the adventure the three journalists on the “Rathmines” had experienced.

The intention to be lecturing his readers is an obvious hint that the purely Aestheticist view of art does not suffice to define Kipling’s fiction. On the other hand, the possibility to see him as a Naturalist is out of the question, although truth is not altogether insignificant for him. It is just not the exclusively determining principle. He developed another concept of how truth works in literature going even further than the separation of the two: “the storyteller creates his own truth by means of an absolute and offhand authority”[21] Not quite an Aestheticist view, this appears to locate Kipling’s fiction near the traditional Romanticist’s fiction. Truth should not matter at all for a purely aesthetic contemplation but it does for Kipling: it is created by the author and according to the last paragraph of “A Matter of Fact”, this is accomplished by giving truth a “print petticoat”.

At this point, one has to take into consideration that “A Matter of Fact” and most of Kipling’s other short stories is exclusively fictional. There are no sea-snakes and there have never been three journalists on the “Rathmines” who later on struggled in trying to use their adventure as the basis for a piece of literature. The lecture has clearly come across, but it did so in a fictional tale, which means that the form of art is an Aestheticist form. The lecturing character of it is the only reservation to saying: “Rudyard Kipling was an Aestheticist writer.” This shows how difficult it is to try to categorise literary authors. One might go as far as saying that it is useless to do so and that every artist has his own style. Kipling’s style could then be described as “lecturing Aestheticism” or “imperial Aestheticism” (considering his intention to teach the “obligations of empire”).

There seems to be an influence of Symbolism, which, along with the Decadence movement, was part of the Aestheticist movement, in the story, as well. The sight of British buildings, landscape and newspaper pages serve as symbols that force the American whose culture is symbolised by “from a trouser button to a double-eagle”(75), meaning “from a small coin to a twenty-dollar banknote” to abandon his business concerning the sea snake. The description of different kinds of column type is another good example of a typical Symbolist device. This gives further support to locating Kipling in the Aestheticist corner rather than the Realist corner.

It is curious that Symbolism was seen as a “reaction against the descriptive precision and objectivity of Realism and the scientific determinism of Naturalism”.[22] The use of symbols as in “A Matter of Fact” makes the story very detailed and the term “descriptive precision” works well with that. In contrast to the Realist writers, Kipling describes the moods of the characters by using symbols, though. The mood created in Keller at the sight of British monuments, newspapers, horse-race tracks and landscape is brought about in a spiritual manner. There is no active process and no discourse, since the decisive act is neither the turning down by the English publishers, nor the discussion with the narrator. What makes Keller submit is a rather slow development culminating in the visit to Westminster Abbey. The Symbolists’ belief in the reality of the spiritual world was what that movement tried to define against the purely realistic view the world. The lecturing that is enacted even in these stylistic devices makes it impossible to describe Kipling as a pure Symbolist, as well. One may say that his writing features many trademarks belonging to the Aestheticism and Symbolism but he nonetheless keeps on lecturing, which characterizes Realist literature.

4. The Criticism on Press and Journalism in A Matter of Fact

Apart from promoting the duties and obligations of the British empire, contrasting its culture against that of the “New World” and discussing the themes of truth and beauty, A Matter of Fact also deals with another interesting subject: journalism. The opening paragraph first introduces journalism by stating that people of that profession have an even greater devotion and adherence to it than priests and masons have to theirs. This suggests an addiction-type attraction journalists are victims of. This mechanism is implied as being universal and happening automatically. Kipling speaks in general terms establishing “the Journalist” as a representative of the whole group of them. This is strengthened in the following pages, when the three passengers of the “Rathmines” start conversing about their trade. The English journalist puts aside the intended abstention from anything connected to his profession. The adherence or addiction is too strong. The automatic nature of journalism’s attraction is expressed in the phrase “we were all at home instantly, because we were men of the same profession needing no introduction.”[23]

There seems to be a notion of idealization of “the Journalist”. “We, by virtue of our craft, were anything but ordinary men.” The three passengers do not quarrel and are never bored due to their being journalists. On 53, it says “Keller, who, being a journalist, always sought for explanations.” This reflects the braveness of the three, who are frightened but never panic and even seek for explanations for the mysteriousness of what happens during their trip. The degree of idealisation reaches its top when Keller, immediately after the adventure is over, considers to sit down and produce a report of it.

At that point, “the Journalist” as a prototype disappears. The narrator opposes Keller’s proposal for the three journalists to work as a team: “I objected to this. Nothing is gained by collaboration in journalism when all deal with the same facts”. (63) A division into several kinds of journalists is established. Keller is the American who is too hot-tempered. Zuyland and the narrator are the wise and experienced ones who judge the situation correctly. Then, there are the publishers in America, who are said to have played their readers “for suckers so often” (64), describing their willingness to publish everything that sounds good regardless of its being true or fake. The publishers in England are the exact opposite of those. They appear even over-cautious and would not consider for a moment to publish a story like the one described in the first part of A Matter of Fact if it is supposed to appear as a true story.

The separation is brought about by the “Britishness” of publishers and reporters compared with the “American-ness” portrayed by Keller and the Newspapers in his home country. The British, traditional as they are, “don’t sit up as quickly as some people” (64). Again, the question of age comes into play. Symbols like old farmhouses, nicely trimmed hedges, the monumentality of Westminster Abbey and the sincerity expressed by the title page of the “Times” take on the “Buck-eye-State” and the “double eagle”. This is an uneven match and consequently brings about Keller’s surrender.

Although the English publishers are not very likeable when they almost throw Keller out of their office, Kipling seems to be defending their way of running a newspaper. The narrator also got into trouble with them and earned a bad reputation but, obeying his wisdom and judgement, learned through the tradition of his countr), he is considerate of their motives, which he also favours.

The American newspapermen, in contrast, represent an unfavourable kind of journalism in Kipling’s eyes.

He referred to certain public bodies, such as the press, as exercising ‘power without responsibility – the perquisite of the harlot throughout the ages’.[24]

For Kipling, responsibility was important (as explained in 3.3. in connection with the “obligations of empire”) not only in case of newspapers but also in literature in general. His own literature is seen as exemplary in this context:

In fact, in his public pronouncements and views, as well as in the open or disguised messages of his work, Kipling was highly responsible – no writer more so.[25]

With reference to journalism, responsibility means to publish only that which the reader can believe in, and fictional stories should be labelled as such if they are printed in newspapers. This appears curious since the story Keller wants to tell is true. The argument seems to be that even though the story is not fake, it nonetheless is futile. There is nothing to be learnt from it (as I already stated in 3.2.). The British readers do well to be incredulous about sea-snake adventures, because in ninety-nine percent of the cases they are fiction and even if there is one true story among them, it will not tear down the order of the world. This criticism can be extended as far as to the current abundance of “yellow-press”: no matter if what they tell is truth or lie, their reports are futile, anyways.

Coming from a writer of fictional prose, this point of view may surprise the reader but it must not be misunderstood that all fiction is futile and must not be printed. It depends on whether fiction is told as truth or not and if the reader can learn anything from it. Kipling himself published almost all of his short stories in newspapers (as was usual at that time) but as specimen of fictional prose. Moreover, the literary criticism of preferring “beauty” to “facts” cannot be extended to the subject of journalism. A journalist has to concentrate on reality, while the artist should focus on art, which must feature “beauty” and not “truth”.

This is enacted by the narrator in “A Matter of Fact” when he decides to publish the adventure-story as fiction. He turns into a pure artist at that point, leaving aside all of his journalist duties he is well aware of. Thus, it can be conjectured that the narrator is not supposed to be identical with Kipling, who, though believing in the beauty of art (as explained in 3.3.), also sees an urge to lecture the readers through his writing. It becomes obvious that the short story provides three different ways of story telling: Keller writes a true but futile report; the narrator has a fictional account in mind (false fiction), which lacks lecturing character; Kipling actually wrote “real” fiction. The short story A Matter of Fact is a merely fictional tale but what makes it not futile (like the other two) is its lecturing which takes place mostly in its the second part.

Journalist writing has its purpose and that is probably why the three journalists on the “Rathmines” are described so positively. But they should stick to their trade and when it comes to subject-matters that belong to the realm of fiction (regardless of their actual reality) they should leave those to artist writers, who themselves ought to leave “reality” to journalists. The criticism on journalism and press could therefore be extended to the literary discussion, as well. An artist who wants to deliver truth and facts might not be considered an artist, anymore, because he left his trade of fiction and beauty. This again strengthens the assumption that, if anything, Kipling was an Aestheticist.

5. The Mysteriousness in the Story

Considering that Kipling was known as a writer who involved a lot of mysterious themes in his prose fiction, A Matter of Fact appears a bit wanting in that area. The earthquake or submarine volcano eruption is nothing supernatural but a common seismologic phenomenon. The thrill in the fog produced in the wake of that is nothing mysterious either. The sea snake’s appearance might be belonging to that field but does not suffice to justify the author’s reputation. The discussion in the second part of the story also does not seem to contribute anything mysterious at first sight but after a closer look, it actually delivers more than the sea-snake subject does.

Rudyard Kipling did not only write about strange appearances in terms of “mysteriousness”. His conception of that matter was more subtle. Edgar Mertner, in his interpretation of Kipling’s The Bull That Thought, explains it like this:

Hier sind wir in einer ursprünglichen, geheimnisvollen und zugleich gewaltigen Welt, in der sich das Ideal symbolisch ohne die Unzulänglichkeit des Menschen verwirklichen kann.[26]

In A Matter of Fact, this “World” is responsible for the Englishman’s consciousness that a realistic account of what he had witnessed would never be published (“refraining from putting any journalese into it for reasons that had begun to appear to me.” (61)). It becomes more obvious in the procedure that makes Keller surrender to the English culture. The symbols like Westminster Abbey, “The Times” or the “solid stone dock and monolithic pier” (63) bring across the knowledge Keller had previously lacked due to his being a man from the “New World”.

Keller’s growing ferocity as a reaction to his progressing realisation of the impossibility of publishing his report in an English newspaper is significant here. Instead of mere disappointment, which would have been more natural, he “stumbles” out of Westminster Abbey, “groans” when handing the English journalist his copy and is “disgusted” (76) at the idea of telling the story as fiction. This apparent liveliness is a strong contrast to its cause: The symbols of England are not lively at all and the process ignited in the American is a gradually growing one. This contrast is most clearly stated in the lines:

I heard Keller gasp as the influence of the land closed in about him, cowing him as they say Newmarket Heath cows a young horse unused to open courses. (63)

Thus, England’s steadiness and calmness creates a feeling of uncertainty and disturbance in the “young” American (again, the subject of the differing ages of England and America comes into play), which finally grows strong enough for him to subdue.

The matter-of-factliness of this process also explains the choice of title. This mysterious development of Keller’s realisation is “a matter of fact”, implying that the same would happen to any other “young” (untamed) journalist. Keller, who wanted to make “the Britishers sit up”, is himself the one to sit up in the end. Considering the conjectures of 3.3, one could say that the mysteriousness of the process that caused this effect is a typical Symbolist approach to story telling: it exemplifies the reality of the spiritual world.

The title certainly also implies the dispute between fact and fancy in the story but this more obvious connection is not as central to the story, because one has to keep in mind that the actual facts of the events in the first part are told as fiction in the end. This would make the title appear to be rather ironical or even cynical. The second implication as promoting the mater-of-factliness of a mysterious procedure to take place in a human mind and created through specimen of the material world appears to be more significant.

6. Conclusion

In writing “A Matter of Fact”, Rudyard Kipling put forth a well-constructed, many-layered piece of art. There are many different subjects in the story: the dispute of Realist and Aestheticist views, the differentiation between Europe and the “New World”, the criticism on journalism and the promoting of a “mysterious” spiritual world apart from the materialistic world described by realistic writers. The fact that the author included a poem in his prose fiction makes it possible to add even more (literary) subjects to the discussion. One of them would be the significance of the bottom of the sea. It is described as dwelling place of strange entities in the poem and in the first part of the story it says that the bottom of the sea has literally come to the surface, thus hurling up the sea snake. The theme recurs in the final paragraph: “for Truth is a naked lady, and if by accident she is drawn up from the bottom of the sea…”

It remains difficult to decide whether the narrator is supposed to be Kipling himself or at least stating the exact same opinion as him. In many cases, such as lecturing about the duty of empire and preferring fiction in literature but fact in journalistic publications, it is safe to assume that the author makes the narrator his alter ego, but there still seems to be an ironic undertone in the final paragraph. The decision never to tell the truth the way it is appears immoral from today’s point of view. Only if it is applied solely to artistic literature would today’s public support such a view, and even then there would be many who are critical against the “l’art pour l’art” postulation underlying this view.

In England, the Angry Young Men movement in the wake of World War II strongly opposed the purely Aestheticist or Symbolist directions of literature. Authors like John Osborne, Alan Silitoe, John Braine and Kingsley Amis stressed social aspects in their works. Interestingly, in the first lines of Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” (its anti-hero Jimmy Porter became the prototype ”Angry Young Man”) the subject “Victorianism” is raised . “The scene is a fairly large attic room, at the top of a large Victorian house”[27]. It represents that which caused many of the social problems the Angry Young Men deal with. Although that age was long gone, the mentality was supposed to have been still present in the English middle-class, which had profited so much from the developments of the 19th century.

It is dangerous to say that, because we nowadays see “l’art pour l’art” in literature in a critical way, the promotion of such a view in the last paragraph of A Matter of Fact must be ironical and that Rudyard Kipling is likely to be of a completely different opinion. Maybe it is only our own background that makes us assume that paragraph to be ironical. Things like cultural and temporal background play an important role in literary studies and by trying to assume the point of view of an Aestheticist writer of the late Victorian age, it seems likely that that last paragraph sincerely advocates the purely artistic approach to the subject of story-telling. This approach was a reaction against the Realists and Naturalists. The Angry Young Men can be seen as a reaction against the Aestheticists and Symbolists and therefore as the spiritual successors of the New Realists and Naturalists.


Primary Literature:

Kipling, Richard: A Matter of Fact. In: Oeser, Hans-Christian (Hrsg.): Modern English Short Stories I. Stuttgart, 1985.

Osborne, John: Look Back in Anger. Frankfurt a.M., 1974.

Secondary Literature:

Bayley, John: The Short Story. New York, 1988.

Goeller, Karl Heinz und Gerhard Hoffmann (Hrsg.): Die englische Kurzgeschichte. Düsseldorf, 1973.

Orel, Harold: The Victorian Short Story. Cambridge, 1986.

Ousby, Ian (Hrsg.): The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Cambridge, 1993.

Quadflieg, Helga: Die Short Story der Nineties. Frankfurt a.M.. 1988.


[1] Harold Orel. The Victorian Short Story. Cambridge, 1986. p. 144

[2] Hans-Christian Oeser (Hrsg.). Modern English Short Stories I. Stuttgart, 1985. p. 174

[3] Harold Orel. The Victorian Short Story. Cambridge, 1986. p. 144

[4] ibid. p. 144

[5] Kipling, Rudyard. A Matter of Fact. In: Oeser, Hans-Christian (Hrsg.): Modern English Short Stories I. Stuttgart, 1985. p. 45

[6] Bayley, John. The Short Story. New York, 1988. p. 66

[7] I will refer to A Matter of Fact using the beforementioned Version edited by H.C. Oeser.

[8] Quadflieg, Helga. Die Short Story der Nineties. Frankfurt, 1988.

[9] ibid. p. 20

[10] ibid. p. 21

[11] ibid. p. 43

[12] ebenda. p. 34

[13] Quadflieg, Helga. Die Short Story der Nineties. Frankfurt a.M., 1988. p. 43

[14] Quadflieg, Helga. Die Short Story der Nineties. Frankfurt a.M., 1988 p. 43

[15] Bayley, John. The Short Story. New York, 1988. p. 66

[16] ibid. p. 65

[17] ibid. p. 65

[18] ibid. p. 67

[19] Quadflieg, Helga. Die Short Story der Nineties. Frankfurt a.M., 1988. p. 30

[20] Orel, Harold. The Victorian Short Story. Cambridge, 1986. p. 152

[21] Bayley, John. The Short Story. New York, 1988. p. 75

[22] Ousby, Ian (Hrsg.). The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Cambridge, 1993. p. 921

[23] Kipling, Rudyard. A matter of Fact. In: Oeser, Hans-Christian (Hrsg.). Modern English Short Stories I. Stuttgart, 1985. p. 46

[24] Bayley, John. The Short Story. New York, 1988. p. 64

[25] ibid. p. 65

[26] Mertner, Edgar. Kipling. The Bull That Thought. In: Goeller, Karl Heinz und Gerhard Hoffmann (Hrsg.) .

Die englische Kurzgeschichte. Düsseldorf, 1973. p. 92

[27] Osborne, John. Look Back in Anger. Frankfurt a.M., 1974. p. 5

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Victorian Concepts in Kipling's 'A Matter of Fact'
University of Hannover
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Guido Scholl (Author), 2002, Victorian Concepts in Kipling's 'A Matter of Fact', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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