Friday, 13 October 2000

Rudyard Kipling: The Light that Failed (1891)

Edition: MacMillan, 1982
Review number: 655

One of Kipling's most interesting novels, The Light that Failed hovers on the edge of sentimentality for most of its pages, never quite slipping. Dick Heldar is an artist, who becomes successful through drawings of a war in Sudan for one of the London newspapers - this being in the days before photographs filled the newspapers. Returning to London, he begins to work as a serious artist, and re-encounters his childhood playmate, Maisie, and falls in love with her. Just as he begins work on what is to be his masterpiece, he has to seek medical advice for a problem with his eyes and is told that he is going blind, incurably, as a result of the after affects of a head wound received in the Sudan.

In the original published version of the story, The Light that Failed ended here, with Maisie marrying Dick to look after him. Kipling later changed this, saying that he was restoring the story to what he had always wanted it to be, and wrote a much longer ending (about a third of the novel as it now stands) in which Maisie abandons Dick and leaves him to sink into squalor. The original ending is trite and sentimental, and the novel as it now stands has far greater power.

The Light that Failed works because of the way it is written, with the contrast between the high spirits of a group of bachelor friends in the first half, and the serious theme of the second. Both parts are extremely well written, the earlier part being like the more cheerful army stories or parts of the Jungle Book. It is carefree, and this makes Dick's physical disintegration in the second half more powerful.

The novel is not really a particularly deep one; its concern is more with Dick's physical dissolution than with an in depth analysis of his psychology and the effects of his blindness. By leaving this to the imagination of the reader, it is extraordinarily effective, while remaining easy to read.

No comments: