How Rudyard Kipling Turned His Guilt Into Fiction

The novelist Scott Spencer on the English author’s short story “The Gardener” and what it reveals about transforming shame into art

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.

Doug McLean

What makes fiction writers turn to fiction? Other forms of prose storytelling—essays, memoir, journalism—offer undeniable advantages, after all: immediate high stakes, flesh-and-blood characters who come pre-made, the thrill of knowing certain events really happened. How to make sense of the fabulist’s impractical knack for wholesale invention, the impulse to depart real life’s sure footing for the uncharted waters of myth?

In a conversation for this series, the novelist Scott Spencer explained the literary appeal of making stuff up. Using Rudyard Kipling’s heartbreaking short story “The Gardener” as a guide, Spencer explored the ways fiction helps us grapple with life events too complex, challenging, or shameful to take on directly. We discussed the way imagined characters and scenarios allow authors to reckon with—and perhaps ultimately master—the messiest aspects of experience.

Last year, the novelist Alexander Chee gave readers of this series some advice: If you want to bring your characters to life, take them to a party. Spencer’s new novel, River Under the Road, is proof of concept. As it tells the story of two Hudson Valley couples through the lens of 13 gatherings—a graduation celebration, a wedding, a housewarming, a fundraiser for the Mondale campaign, a detour through a New York sex club, a barbecue thick with opium smoke—readers see the way their public faces hide their private hopes, and chart the progress of their ambition and envy.

Scott Spencer is the bestselling author of novels including Endless Love, Waking the Dead, and A Ship Made of Paper, as well as two horror novels written as Chase Novak. His nonfiction has been published in magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Rolling Stone, and he’s taught fiction at Columbia University and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He spoke to me by phone.

Scott Spencer: It must have been 10 years ago when I discovered Rudyard Kipling’s “The Gardener.” It was pure chance, and a bit of ingenuity on the publisher’s part: Penguin had made an edition that sat right next to the cash registers, part of an array of impulse buys. The little pocketbook was selling for only 95 cents, which doesn’t even get you a candy bar nowadays. So I brought it home with me and read it—and the emotional impact of the book’s second story, “The Gardener,” was nearly overwhelming.

Before that, I hadn’t much cared for Kipling, associated as he was in my mind with childhood reading and appalling politics. But I was struck by the blunt and delicate precision (I know, an oxymoron) with which he approached the subject matter: A woman named Helen loses either her nephew or her son in World War I, and is forced finally to confront the depth of her loss in a vast military cemetery in France—just she and a stranger, the gardener, amid acres and acres of humble crosses.

Kipling remains cagey about the exact nature of their relationship. The story can be taken at face value or it can (more popularly) be read as the story of Helen, an upstanding woman, raising her own child out of wedlock, pretending to her English village that he, Michael, is her dead brother’s son. Throughout his life, the boy calls Helen “Auntie,” though he pleads with her, out of love and a sense of emotional, if not actual, truth, to let him call her “Mother.” Being an honest and pragmatic woman, she allows this only occasionally, and in private.

On his 18th birthday, Michael enlists in the British Army, and is slaughtered shortly after, his body covered over by debris and unable to be located. Much, much later Michael’s body is discovered and finally Helen is able to travel to his grave in a military cemetery in France to pay her last respects. The story, which is not very long, moves with the efficiency of a fable—years go by in a half sentence. The tone is almost matter-of-fact, but we are being set up by a master craftsman for the story’s devastating climactic scene. Helen wanders through a vast expanse of graves, all of them marked with a number, not a name, each individual soldier located only through a painstaking process of record-keeping. (It was Kipling who lifted the phrase “known unto God,” out of the Bible and into the cemeteries and the monuments for unknown soldiers.) Then, while searching the endless sea of crosses, helpless, Helen comes upon a gardener. Kipling describes the exchange this way:

[The gardener] rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: "Who are you looking for?"

"Lieutenant Michael Turrell—my nephew,” said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.

The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.

"Come with me,” he said, "and I will show you where your son lies."

That’s a shocking—I would say incandescent—moment in a story that is steeped in irony and filled with lies, a world of conventions ruthlessly enforced and feelings buried or swallowed. But when the gardener lifts his eyes the story is swiftly brought to a sudden spiritual climax that is beautiful and satisfying.

In my reading of “The Gardener,” Helen is a character who has held onto her secret, to her one great love affair, for her entire life. Though she has called this boy her nephew for 18 years, the man in the cemetery, who looks at her for only one moment, says he’ll take Helen to her son. “When Helen left the cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.”

The story ends, at least in my edition, with an asterisk in the text that links to a line from the Bible, John 20:15: “Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, why weepest thou; whom seekest thou?’ She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, ‘Sir, if thou has borne him hence, tell me where thou has laid him.’”

It’s hard to talk about a Kipling story without talking about Kipling, a shameless apologist for English imperialism who coined the phrase “the white man’s burden” and who was the first person to refer to the Germans as Huns. He was a man who glorified war without ever having fought in one—and that’s where you get into the intense mix of grief and shame that Kipling surely brought to this story. Like so many young men at the time, Kipling’s son John was frantic to get into the war, but was at first turned down for duty because of weak eyes. His father, a person of almost unimaginable influence for a writer—the youngest Nobel prize winner, a darling of the English military and the British aristocracy—intervened, greasing the wheels and getting his son into the war, with the result that the younger Kipling was killed almost instantly.

When all hope of finding his son alive or dead was at last abandoned, Kipling, in his famous “Epitaphs of the War,” wrote: “If any question why we died / tell them, because our fathers lied.” You sense this same self-implication in “The Gardener.” After all, why were those boys clamoring to go over and get themselves blown up like that? Because a culture had been created that glorified that military sacrifice, and encouraged you to feel that your life was incomplete if you hadn’t fought for your country. Millions of English boys like John Kipling (and like the fictional Michael) were raised in this atmosphere of almost rabid patriotism, an atmosphere that Rudyard Kipling had not only exploited in his writing but also helped to create. And when war was declared, some six million Englishmen, many of them little more than boys, were put to battle; nearly one million were killed, and still more were grievously injured.

“The Gardener” gets to the grief and futility Kipling must have felt by the end of it all—for a while, he had nursed some hope that maybe John was still alive, perhaps taken prisoner. Though that alternative must have been terrifying, too, because were John to have been identified as Kipling’s son, he might be subject to particularly harsh treatment, since Kipling was so vociferous in his hatred of the Germans, and his characterization of them was feverish. In any case, the search went on for years, and every effort made to find the great man’s son. Kipling had worked to get John into battle and now he worked tirelessly to find what remained of him. Ultimately, a soldier did testify that he’d seen John hit by a shell, and that he was undoubtedly dead, his skull split open.

For me, the power of the story is in watching this artist grapple with his own material, in seeing what he has to do to get at his own feelings and reveal a profound truth. The simplest way to deal with this material would be to just tell the story of what happened to John, to write it as nonfiction or memoir. But there is a big difference between the biography and what ultimately unfolds across these nine or 10 pages. You’re watching life being transformed into art. To write this way is to seek a shape you can’t know until you see it, like reverse-engineering the skeleton key for a locked door you know you need to open.

Like most people, I find my own experiences—and my emotional responses to those experiences—fascinating and mysterious, even those that are a bit shaming, and a little repellent. As a writer, I try to turn my feelings and experiences into a different form entirely, something that gives me mastery over them, and also makes them meaningful to other people.

But when you take your own experiences and fictionalize them, make them bigger or smaller, engage in wit of the staircase, play the what-ifs out to their most far-reaching possibilities, you run the risk of your fictions taking precedence over your memories. When I look back at my life and think about what really happened, my memory is obscured by the stories I’ve created out of those incidents. In stories, as reality melds with art, the result sometimes feels truer than real life.

In Kipling’s case, he never found that grave. But in Helen’s case, Jesus leads her right to it. Was Kipling himself looking for an expiation of the shame he felt for his share of the responsibility for the loss of his son in such a useless and meaningless way—and all the other hundreds of thousands of wartime deaths? It could be said that all armed conflicts are a ludicrous and shameful waste of lives, but World War I has a special place in the history of futility—a war without clear purpose, a war whose resolution would ultimately make the world a far worse place. What moves me in “The Gardener” is the way Kipling so artfully seeks relief from his own complicity in the myths that led to war.

There are hints and a sense of buried truths in this story. Though my reading tells me that Michael is Helen’s son, there are readers who take her at her word and believe Michael to be her nephew. For those readers, the gardener saying, “I will take you to your son,” has a different, though still potent impact: Jesus is telling us that all those graves, the marked and the unmarked, contain the remains of all of our sons, that the loss and the grief is universal and without boundary.

Either way, we are left with the problem of a realistically presented story in which at the very last moment Jesus makes an appearance. If you read only the scholars and not the story, you would believe that some find the ending irritating. But I find “The Gardener” completely heartbreaking, and if the appearance of Jesus in the final paragraph doesn’t fully convince me of the existence of a world without end, it powerfully connects me to the desire for such a thing to be true.

I cherish the pathos mixed with relief we feel at the story’s conclusion, that experience that only art can give: an uncanny Nabokovian tingle, that sensation of the little hairs on your arm rising up for a second. That gardener is a reminder, as good a one as I know, a reminder that art can sometimes trump politics, and that stories can be transcendent.