(Short Story) The Man Who Was by: Rudyard Kipling
(Reaction) From Russia With Love by: Antonio Conejos
There is deceit afoot in The Man Who Was and the tension of the short story revolves around sussing out the source of this deceit. The Russian Dirkovitch in particular is meticulous in his appearance of being an amiable chap,
it suited him... to make himself as genial as he could. Aside from his easy going manner, he presented himself as a great admirer of the British,
the glorious future that awaited the combined arms of England and Russia when their hearts and their territories should run side by side and the great mission of civilizing Asia should begin.
However, Dirkovitch is not the man who was was. Rather, the poor unfortunate fellow alluded to in the title is a former officer of the White Hussars, who has been reduced to a shadow of his former self. Lt. Limmason is at first dismissed as just another rifle thief. But the gathered officers are more favorably disposed to examine the bedraggled lump of a man in front of them when they realize he speaks English and that he is white.
Ironically, while Limmason is surrounded by his compatriots and countrymen, the only one who can communicate with him is a foreigner - the Russian Dirkovitch.
Shattered though Limmason is, he still retains the ingrained traditions of the British,
There was a little pause, but the man sprung to his feet and answered without hesitation, 'The Queen, God bless her!' Limmason is a broken man, both physically and psychologically, yet he still possesses the wherewithal to find his way to his old unit and toast the Queen.
Moreover, Limmason ran afoul of the Russians precisely because of his proud British nature. He was imprisoned and driven half mad simply because he refused to apologize to a Russian officer. As narrated by Dirkovitch,
there was an accident which would have been reparable if he had apologized to that our colonel, which he had insulted.
The story then would seem to imply that there is a reservoir of strength found at the core of the British character. They may appear broken, as in the case of Limmason, but there will always remain an indomitable part of them.
Dirkovitch though questions the strength of the British. Having drunk himself (literally) under the table, the Russian towards the end of the story reveals his true thoughts. He declares that the time of the British is ending,
You see him. He is not good to see. He was just one little - oh, so little - accident that no one remembered. Now he is That! So will you be, brother-soldiers so brave... get a-way, you old peoples. Dirkovitch's defiant and taunting challenge is in marked contrast to his vows of friendship and alliance stated earlier on in the short story.
Even with this slap in the face, the White Hussars do not unceremoniously throw out Dirkovitch. He is after all their guest and codes of hospitality dictate that he not be harmed. The regiment even goes so far as to make sure Dirkovitch is properly equipped for his travels,
Got everything you want? Cheroots, ice, bedding? That's all right.
Yet to be sure, there will be a reckoning. The story ends with an ominous allusion to Bluebeard, a character from European folktales who like Dirkovitch took pains to present himself as a dashing, amiable fellow, only to reveal his deceitful nature of malice and death later on. A British officer thinks to himself,
a terrible spree there's sure to be / When he comes back again.
The vow of revenge at the end of the short story neatly alludes to the sentiment of the story's epigraph,
The vengeance we must take, / When God shall bring full reckoning, / For our dead comrade's sake.
Much of the insight on The Man Who Was can be drawn from reading in between the lines of the kind of person Dirkovitch attempts to portray himself as versus his real character. Fittingly it is thanks to the man who was (Limmason) that it is revealed who a man really is (Dirkovitch).
One is struck when reading The Man Who Was by just how much racism there is in it. Certainly it is folly to automatically associate the voice of the narrator of a story with the author of the story. Yet in this case the racist views of the narrator are so thoroughly integrated into the plot that I am inclined to do just that.
However, I'm personally of a mind to excuse the racism in this particular short story (I can't speak of Kipling's other works) as more a product of his time and of lazy generalizations. There is a genial sort of racism which traffics in generalities; small minded it may be but it is generally not mean spirited, merely a result of a lazy mind which accepts stereotypes too readily. This is the sort of racism found in The Man Who Was. The sort that usually comes from some distant uncle whose stories are fun to listen to but isn't taken seriously for anything else.
You cannot reform a lady of many lovers, and Asia has been insatiable in her flirtations aforetime. She will never attend Sunday-school or learn to vote save with swords for tickets.
I can understand an Afghan stealing, because he's built that way.
Certainly, the racist conclusions of the narrator provide to the overall humor and bombastic tone of The Man Who Was. The short story itself is quite enjoyable, for the taut plot and the wryness of language (eg.
The custom is now dead, because there is nothing to break anything for, except now and again the word of a Government, and that has been broken already.).
The Man Who Was mixes over the top indignation (
Then the Lushkar captain did a deed for which he ought to have been given the Victoria Cross - distinguished gallantry in a fight against overwhelming curiosity.) with deliberate understatement (
They had once met the regiment officially and for something less than twenty minutes, but the interview, which was complicated with many casualties, had filled them with prejudice.).