A Short Analysis of Rudyard Kipling’s story “Below the Mill Dam”
“Below the Mill Dam” is set at Robert’s Mill in the English countryside at or about the time of the story’s publication (1902). Rudyard Kipling had just returned from Africa, where he had experienced the disastrous effects of the Boer War and witnessed such things as the British invention of concentration camps. He was alarmed by the ignorance of British politicians: “Conservative Balfour government’s dead cultured aristocratic hand barred the way to a wider, less class-ridden British Empire” (Wilson 226). Kipling was pessimistic that Britain could uphold her imperial role as the world’s leading nation, moreover, he was “extremely uneasy with, and critical of, unquestioned traditions, ruling-class hierarchies, and complacent establishments” (Lee 12). Fairly late in his life, in 1902, Kipling decided to live in Sussex in England. Shortly after, he had electricity installed in his house – which was not common at that time – and a sign that he was generally interested in and fascinated by new technology; he installed a turbine, a generator and associated equipment in the watermill in his own garden.
Allegorical or symbolic tales, such as “Below the Mill Dam” convey Kipling's passion for machinery and technology. The story reflects Kipling’s views about the changing environment, political atmosphere and the technical innovations that were transforming industry and the modes of production in farming, their impact on the landscape and on living conditions. Kipling disguised his plot as a fable, probably to avoid resentment from the establishment. In writing a political fable, he was able to express his “alarm and dismay at England’s apparent inability to address herself socially, imperially, culturally and technologically to the future” (Page 69). Kipling uses allegorical language throughout the dialogues as a means of mockery and satire about forces which want to preserve tradition against the new emerging forces that are pressing for change and development.
“Below the Mill Dam” is an allegory, in which Kipling assigned roles to his protagonists in order to depict different social classes. The Grey Cat and the Black Rat, anthropomorphised animals, act as main characters. Together with the animated characters of the Wheel, the Waters and the Millstones, they converse about past and present events and, in doing so, express controversial points of view, according to their designated social positions. Cats and rats are natural enemies in reality, but in Kipling’s fable their natural roles have been suspended; they are allied in their mutual concerns, in other words, they accommodate the status-quo of the British upper classes. The characters of the Black Rat and the Grey Cat are defined by their distinctive use of the English language in dialogues. Their particular way of speaking connotes their social standing and condescending attitudes. The Grey Cat’s laziness and how she clings on to her entrenched privileges symbolizes the decadence of the English gentry and the traditional elitist class which controls the House of Lords. The Black Rat’s complacency is a reflection of the ‘Old English Officer class’, mainly recruited from British aristocracy.
Their antagonists are the Waters who represent progress and endorse technological innovation as the new driving force. Also, the Waters work as a counterpoint to the old-fashioned, slow, obsolete wheel and put stress on it to work harder. Their strength, as well as confidence, is reflected in the statement “’We lifted that wheel off his bearings,’ cried the Waters. ‘We said, ‘Take away that bauble!’” (Kipling 290). The Waters, combined from various sources and merged into an immense power on their way to the mill, are busy,forward-pushing and bossy characters, constantly demanding more activity from the old Wheel.
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- Dr Sandra Miller (Author), 2004, A Short Analysis of Rudyard Kipling's "Below the Mill Dam", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/293526