The story is prefaced by an excerpt from a poem written by Kipling himself that includes the lines “And God looked down from Heaven / And rolled the stone away.” The excerpt of the poem, called “The Burden,” describes Christ’s Resurrection following his Crucifixion.
The use of this excerpt foreshadows the story’s central themes of grief, mercy, and the “burden” of guilt. The poem references Christ’s death and Resurrection, which symbolize God’s mercy to mankind, and removal of the “burden” of grief, through the possibility of life after death.
Everyone in Helen Turrell’s community believes that she has done “her duty by all the world.” Her brother, George Turrell, has always been a trouble maker, so no one is surprised to learn that he “had entangled himself” with a girl in India just before his death. After George dies from falling off a horse, Helen “most nobly [takes] charge” of the situation, despite being incapacitated in the South of France due to “lung trouble.” Although she could have “washed her hands of the whole disgraceful affair,” she has the baby and his nurse brought to France. However, the nurse turns out to be incompetent (her “carelessness” allows the baby to fall sick with dysentery), so Helen fires the nurse and restores the baby, whom she names Michael, to health herself. Once he is “wholly restored,” Helen brings him to England.
Michael is really Helen’s son, to whom she has secretly given birth in the South of France. The fact that George has died in India means that there is no one to contradict Helen’s story about her brother. Helen emphasizes the fact that she could have “washed her hands” of the affair to make her decision to raise Michael look “noble” in the eyes of the local community, who have all heard Helen’s story and who know that Michael is really her son. As far as the community are concerned it is not Helen’s decision to raise Michael which is noble, but the fact that she has lied about his parentage to maintain an image of propriety and make herself appear morally upright. This helps the community feel that they can accept Helen without compromising themselves and their morals, which are reflective of British Edwardian society.
Helen is “open as the day” about this situation and allows all of the unsavory details to be “public property,” since “scandals are only increased by hushing them up.” Helen tells everyone in the village that she is grateful that Michael’s mother allowed Helen to take the boy and raise him herself—“it seemed that people of that class would do almost anything for money.” Helen tells everyone in the village that although she doesn’t particularly like children, she will raise Michael out of her deep love for George.
Helen tries to appear “open” in response to the pressure British society puts on people to be morally upright and transparent. Although this makes her a hypocrite, British society views this as preferable to being honest and openly causing a “scandal.” Helen instead, lays the blame for the “scandal” on Michael’s “mother” (the invented Indian girl) and claims that she has sold her baby to Helen to raise. This fits in with British stereotypes about Indian people of the period, which viewed them as greedy, immoral, and “uncivilized.” This addition makes Helen’s story more “believable” and acceptable to the community around her.
Michael grows up to be “as accepted as Helen had always been.” When he’s six years old, he asks Helen why he can’t call her “Mummy,” which is what “other boys called their mothers.” Helen explains to Michael that she is his aunt, not his mother, though he can call her “Mummy” at bedtime—and only then—as a sort of nickname, though he can’t tell anyone about it.
Michael is accepted by the community because Helen has lied for him and maintained a public image of propriety. As Michael grows up, however, he notices differences between himself and the people around him. The fact that he cannot call Helen “mummy” confuses him because he does not yet understand his illegitimacy or the effect it could have on his social status. Helen allows Michael to call her “mummy” at bedtime, demonstrating that she wants to make Michael happy and allow him to express his affection towards her, although, of course, it must remain private.
Helen, “as usual,” shares these details with her friends. When Michael finds out, he’s furious, angrily asking why she told anyone that he calls her “Mummy.” She tells him that it’s important to be honest, but he tells her that the “troof’s ugly” and that he will no longer call her “Mummy.” Getting increasingly worked up, Michael declares that since Helen has “hurted” him, he will hurt her, too. He says that he’ll keep hurting her even after he dies, and that he’ll be sure to die young just to hurt her some more. Helen turns to leave, but Michael begins to cry, “Mummy! Mummy!” so she returns to his side and cries with him.
Helen tells her friends about this so that, if anyone finds out, there is an explanation in place and it will not look like she is hiding something. Michael’s reaction suggests he is learning to feel ashamed of his status because he knows it is something he cannot be open about and therefore must be something bad. Michael’s claim that he will “hurt” Helen foreshadows Michael’s early death in World War 1. The fact that Helen cries with Michael after the fight shows the strain that this secrecy and confusion puts on their relationship and shows that Helen feels ashamed of herself for putting him in this position.
When Michael is ten, after he has been at prep school for several months, “something or someone” at school gives him the idea that his “civil status” is “not quite regular.” Michael questions Helen about this with the “family directness.” He tries to brush off what he has heard about himself, telling Helen that he has learned about William the Conqueror, who was also “his sort,” but who “got on first-rate.” Despite Michael’s bravado, he is worried by the comments and asks Helen if his “civil status” will make any difference to how she feels about him. Helen replies that nothing could and begins to cry. Michael says that they won’t talk about it anymore if the subject makes her upset.
Michael is becoming aware of his illegitimate status because of the way he is treated by people in British society. It is left ambiguous what exactly has brought this to Michael’s attention. The fact that Michael questions Helen with the “family directness” is ironic because the “family directness” is itself a lie. Michael is clearly anxious about how his illegitimacy might affect his place in society, but he tries to conceal this with bravado. The fact that he asks Helen if his illegitimacy will change how she feels about him shows that Michael is absorbing the Edwardian idea that illegitimate children are inferior. Helen, who does love Michael, cries at this because she feels responsible for Michael’s pain and is sad that he thinks she will stop loving him.
Michael does not bring the subject of his illegitimacy up again with Helen “of his own will.” Two years later however, Michael comes down with measles during the school holidays, when he is staying at home with Helen. As his temperature rises with the illness, Michael becomes delirious and “mutters of nothing else.” Helen stays with him and reassures him that nothing could change how she feels about him until he finally comes out of his delirium.
Although Michael does not bring the subject up again, it clearly worries him. When he is delirious, and not in control of what he says, this anxiety comes to the surface and he raves about his fear that Helen will stop loving him because he is illegitimate. This reinforces the cruelty of certain social conventions in this period, as they make people feel ashamed of things they cannot help.
Michael spends his school holidays at home with Helen and the two remain close as Michael grows up. Helen “treasures” her holidays with Michael like “jewels on a string” and, although Michael develops “his own interests”, his affection for Helen remains “constant and increasing throughout” his school years. When he finishes school Michael, who is “no fool,” gets a place at Oxford University, but World War I breaks out just before Michael is about to begin his studies.
At first Michael plans to enlist directly in the army and join “the first holocaust of public-school boys who threw themselves into the Line.” He avoids this however, because of his social connections, and is made a commissioned officer in a new battalion. Helen is shocked to hear that Michael has been thinking about direct enlistment, but Michael jokes that it is “in the family” and says, “valiantly,” that he would have been in the war sooner if he had enlisted directly. Shocked that Michael seems so eager to join up, Helen asks him if he thinks the war will end “so soon” (she has been told by a friend that the war will be over by Christmas). Michael is realistic about the war, however, and says that they will have “no such luck” and that the war will be “a long job.”
It is suggested that Michael feels he should enlist directly because of his illegitimate status, which he believes makes him partially lower-class than Helen as his “mother” in Helen’s story was a poor Indian girl. Commissions were usually given to upper class men who entered the ranks as officers rather than regular soldiers. Michael tries to justify his preference for direct enlistment by saying it would let him enter the war sooner. This is “valiant” on Michael’s part as it shows his willingness to fight for his country. The fact that Helen believes the war will be quick mirrors sentiments in Britain early on in World War I. Michael, correctly, believes people are underestimating the scale of the war and this underscores his “valiance” in that he still wishes to enlist early.
Michael’s battalion are “fortunate”; they are kept in Britain for a long period at the start of World War 1 and he gets several “leaves” during this time. They are finally sent to France on a day when Michael had planned to meet Helen for several hours while on leave. Once in France, “luck” helps the battalion again and they lead “a meritorious and unexacting life” doing maintenance on the trenches, helping build battlefields, and laying telegraph poles round Ypres in Normandy. Michael writes to Helen and tells her that there is “nothing special doing” where he is. One month later, Michael is killed by a shell. His body is hidden by a barn wall which collapses when a second shell hits it.
Michael’s battalion are described as “fortunate” because, although Kipling felt that it was valiant to fight for one’s country, the reality of combat was still something very frightening and dangerous. It is tragic and ironic therefore, that, when there is “nothing special doing,” Michael is killed. The fact that Michael’s body is hidden also reflects events in Kipling’s life, as his son John was killed in World War 1 and his body was missing for several years.
By the time Michael is killed, the village in which Helen lives is “old in experience of war” and, “English fashion” has “evolved a ritual to meet it.” The postmistress gives her seven-year old daughter the telegram, containing the news that Michael is missing, and sends her to pass the news on to Helen. As she sends her daughter on her way, she remarks that it is “Helen’s turn now” to lose somebody and that Michael has “lasted longer than most.” Unlike her mother, who reacts coldly to Michael’s death, the child arrives at Helen’s door crying because she liked Michael and “he had often given her sweets.” Once Helen has received the telegram, she “finds herself” closing all the blinds in her house and saying to herself, as she closes each one, that “missing always means dead.”
Millions of young men were killed in World War I and some villages and towns lost almost their whole male population. The postmistresses remark seems cold, but it is reflective of the way in which the community has grown used to grief. The community now treats loss as something banal, underplaying the emotions which surround it. This is also in in keeping with British ideas of propriety and reflects a society that prides itself on dealing with things in a stoic and emotionally reserved way. As soon as Helen receives her telegram, she privately accepts that Michael has been killed.
With news of Michael’s death Helen “takes her place among the dreary procession” of grieving relatives and is “impelled to go through an inevitable series of unprofitable emotions.” The Rector encourages Helen to remain hopeful and predicts that soon she will hear that Michael is alive in a prison camp. Her friends also try to keep her spirits up and tell her stories “about other women, to whom, after months and months of silence, their missing had been miraculously restored.” Others “urge” her to write to organizations which look for missing relatives in prisoner of war camps. Helen complies passively with all these suggestions and “signs everything that is put before her.”
The community around Helen encourages her to hold out hope for Michael’s recovery, and to remain active by searching for him. This reflects British attitudes to World War I and the importance that was placed on maintaining a public image of optimism, patriotism, and stoicism. To deviate from this would have meant facing social judgement for being unpatriotic or for grieving in an improper way. Although Helen has internally accepted that Michael is dead, she “complies” with these social rituals, just as she conformed previously by hiding her true relationship with Michael. Although Helen has been outwardly dishonest, she is honest and realistic with herself privately about Michael’s death.
During this time Helen remembers one of Michael’s leaves when he took her to visit a munition factory and where they saw a shell being made: “from a blank iron to all but the finished article.” Helen remembers that the shell was under constant supervision and never left alone for one minute. She thinks that she, now, is being “manufactured into a bereaved next of kin” as she writes off to organizations asking them to search for Michael.
There is something “manufactured” about the community’s approach to grief. Helen feels that she is going through the motions as though she were a machine—like the machine that made the shell. In this sense Helen feels she is like the shell because, as a shell is only manufactured to kill people, Helen’s search for Michael will only end in confirmation of Michael’s death.
None of the organizations which Helen writes to have any success looking for Michael and, as time goes on, Helen feels “something give way within her” and “all sensation—save of the thankfulness for release—come to an end in blessed passivity.” Helen now openly accepts that Michael has died, and the end of the war “broke” over her in a “blessed realization of relief.” Although she has no interest in “any aftermath, national or personal,” Helen finds herself sitting on “various relief committees” and “delivering” her views on the possible locations of the village War Memorial.
The passivity Helen feels is the relief of no longer having to keep up a public pretense of hope. This is mirrored in the relief that the end of the war brings more generally and refers to the excerpt from “The Burden,” with its sense of a burden of responsibility being lifted. Helen is finally allowed to accept her grief. The image of Armistice breaking over Europe suggests that the end of the war is a mercy. The word “broke” suggests the break of dawn after night.
Helen receives Michael’s watch and his army identity tag in the post, along with a letter confirming his death. From this letter she learns that his body has been interred in a war cemetery in Hagenzeele. She also receives the row number and plot number of his grave there. With this information, Helen finds herself “moved on to another process of the manufacture” and into “a world of broken and exultant relatives” who find relief in the idea that they might visit their loved ones’ graves. From these people, Helen learns how convenient it is and “how little it interferes” with one’s everyday life “to go and see one’s grave.” Driven by the “agony” of grief, Helen ventures “across the Channel” to Normandy to visit Michael’s grave.
Although Helen is relieved to have Michael’s death acknowledged, she finds that the process of visiting the cemeteries has also been ritualized by British society. Although there is a general relief among the relatives, Helen feels that British propriety has outwardly transformed grief into a matter of triviality and “convenience” rather than dealing with the emotional trauma of loss. Unable to find any outlet for her grief in this society, Helen is driven by her grief and “agony” to visit Michael’s grave.
When Helen arrives in France, she learns that the cemetery at Hagenzeele can be “comfortably reached” by a train which fits in with the arrival of the boat. She also discovers that there is a hotel near the cemetery so that relatives can stay overnight and visit “one’s graves” the next day. Helen learns this from a “Central Authority” who lives “in a board and tar-paper shed on the skirts of a razed city.” As Helen is leaving the hut, a grieving woman bursts in and cries hysterically for help finding her son’s grave. The Central Authority takes the woman inside, explaining apologetically to Helen that the relatives are “often like this.” He checks that Helen knows Michael’s grave number as, he says, “it makes such a difference.”
Helen sees more evidence of grief is being hidden under a guise of propriety. The details of the trip have been made “comfortable” and convenient and the trip has a feeling of tourism even though the “Central Authority” is directing the visitors from a hut on the edges of a city which has been destroyed in the war. This is also more evidence of the fact that British society would prefer to ignore ugly aspects of life, even if they are in plain sight. These same social conventions have dictated Helen’s life with Michael.
Helen moves has “tea in a crowded mauve and blue wooden structure” which carries her “still further into the nightmare.” From here she goes to the station to find out about the train to Hagenzeele and there is joined by an English-woman, Mrs. Scarsworth, who is also travelling to the war cemeteries. Waiting for the train, the two women make small talk about their hotel arrangements and Mrs. Scarsworth tells Helen that this is her ninth time visiting the cemetery. She does not come “on her own account,” she tells Helen, but comes to take photographs of the graves for relatives who cannot make the journey themselves and who pay her a commission for this service.
Although Helen is being treated like a tourist on a holiday, the real reason for her trip makes the reality of the journey a “nightmare” and the pretense of this comfort makes it worse. Helen is forced to endure more of this pretense with Mrs. Scarsworth’s small talk. Mrs. Scarsworth however, unknown to the reader and Helen, is in the same position as Helen. She pretends to be very open about the motives behind her trip when, in fact, she is engaged in an elaborate pretense.
Helen and Mrs. Scarsworth get into a train carriage together, Helen “shivering” a little at Mrs. Scarsworth’s descriptions of her commissions. Mrs. Scarsworth continues to talk cheerfully to Helen and asks her who she is visiting. Helen tells her she is visiting her nephew who she was “very fond of.” Mrs. Scarsworth says she “sometimes wonders” what the dead experience after death and Helen replies that she does not think about this, “almost lifting her hands to keep” Mrs. Scarsworth off.
Helen shivers, signifying her distaste for Mrs. Scarsworth’s seemingly callous attitude towards the dead. She believes that Mrs. Scarsworth is using others’ grief to make money. Mrs. Scarsworth’s conversation borders on improper when she wonders about life after death. This breaks the veneer of polite conversation and reminds Helen of her real purpose at Hagenzeele. Helen is so horrified by this that she almost physically tries to fend Mrs. Scarsworth off. This demonstrates the general reluctance to connect with people about emotional issues in polite, British society.
Helen is “grateful” when they arrive at the hotel, but Mrs. Scarsworth “insists” on sitting with her at dinner and showing her photographs of her commissions. Helen tries to escape Mrs. Scarsworth by going to bed early but Mrs. Scarsworth follows Helen to her room and knocks on her door. When Helen answers, Mrs. Scarsworth corners Helen and confesses that she “cannot go on any longer” without telling someone her secret. She reveals to Helen that she uses the commissions as an excuse to visit the cemetery. In reality, she keeps returning to visit the grave of a man who meant “more than anything in the world” to her, even though he “ought to have been nothing” to her.
Mrs. Scarsworth’s confession connects Helen and Mrs. Scarsworth, as the reader learns that both women have been hiding a relationship, which transgresses the boundaries of propriety in some way, in order to maintain their reputations. While Helen has been forced to hide her relationship with Michael, Mrs. Scarsworth, who is married, has been in love with another man. The two women are associated with Mary Magdalene, who was rejected by society for being a prostitute.
Shocked, Helen asks Mrs. Scarsworth why she is telling her this. Mrs. Scarsworth cries that she is exhausted from constantly lying and that she is desperate to confide in someone. Mrs. Scarsworth laments that, when she isn’t telling lies, “she has to act ‘em” and “think ‘em” and that she has had to “watch every word” she has said “for years and years.” She wants to be honest with someone, for once, about her love affair because, although she says she has always been a dishonest person, she doesn’t feel it is “worthy” of the man she has been in love with. Helen starts to say something to Mrs. Scarsworth but, without hearing her out, Mrs. Scarsworth rushes from the room crying; “Is that how you take it!”
Although the reader has not been given much insight into the strain that keeping her secret has put on Helen, Mrs. Scarsworth’s confession vocalizes this struggle and draws attention to the fact that Helen has had to carefully construct her whole life around a lie in order to stay within the boundaries of propriety. Mrs. Scarsworth’s desperation to be relieved from the “burden” of her secret, and the shame of constantly lying, have finally overwhelmed her. The fact that Mrs. Scarsworth immediately interprets Helen’s response as coldness or judgement, before she has heard what she has to say, reflects the type of negative reaction that Mrs. Scarsworth expects from people in British society.
The next day, Mrs. Scarsworth leaves the hotel early and Helen travels to the cemetery alone. When she arrives however, she is surprised at how vast the cemetery is; “meeting the entire crowded level of the thing in one held breath.” Although she has Michael’s grave number, all she can see in the cemetery is a “merciless sea of black crosses” and she can “distinguish no order or arrangement” among them. She becomes lost among the graves, “wondering hopelessly by what guidance” she should ever be able to find Michael’s grave.
While Helen expects to find order in the cemetery, with the graves being numbered and organized, she is surprised by the “chaos” which greets her instead. The “sea” of crosses is described as something relentless that provides no mercy, reflecting the ravages of World War I. The fact that the cemetery is described in these terms also reflects the “merciless” conventionality of British society in the story.
While she is lost in the cemetery, Helen sees a man kneeling among the graves and, assuming him to be the gardener, she hurries over and asks him for help to find her “nephew’s” grave. The gardener looks at Helen with “infinite compassion” and tells her that “he will show her where her son lies.”
In contrast to the unforgiving quality of the graveyard, the gardener provides Helen with relief through his “infinite compassion.” The gardener is synonymous with Christ in the story, as he represents an alternative to the unforgiving conventions of society and, instead, represents the infinite mercy of God, who brings order and hope to the world. His immediate understanding that Michael is Helen’s son suggests that all secrets are known to God and forgiven by him. Kipling parallels the story of Mary Magdalene searching for Christ’s body, when she finds his tomb empty, after the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene meets Christ but, thinking he is dead, assumes that he is the gardener and asks him where to find Jesus’s body. Although Mary Magdalene, like Helen, has been rejected by society because of her transgressions, her devotion to Christ is redemptive, just as Helen’s devotion to Michael earns her redemption from the gardener.
As Helen is leaving the cemetery she turns back for “one last look.” Again, in the distance, she sees the man she thinks is the gardener, and who has shown her to Michael’s grave. He is kneeling over the flowerbeds, “bending over” the young plants which are starting to grow there amongst the graves.
The image of the gardener “bending over” the young plants reinforces the themes of forgiveness, redemption, and new life after death. For Kipling, it would be better for British society to encourage these values, rather than clinging to old ideas of propriety, especially after the traumatic losses of World War I. The idea of rejuvenation is also present in the fact that he is a gardener, representing the natural world, and the pattern of the seasons, in which spring follows on from winter.
The story closes with the full text of Kipling’s poem, “The Burden.” The poem contains four verses. The first three are written from the poet’s perspective and are addressed to Mary Magdalene. Each verse asks her a question: the first, if there is greater pain than grief, the second if there is greater pain than being forced to lie, and the third if there is greater pain than fear. The fourth stanza is from Mary Magdalene’s perspective. It tells the reader that the Lord gave Mary Magdalene one “burden,” to guard Jesus’s tomb after his Crucifixion, but that God, looking down from Heaven, saw her tears and “rolled the stone away” from the mouth of the tomb, relieving her burden.
The first three stanzas of the poem show some of the “burdens” of human life: grief, deceit, and fear. It is possible for God to remove these burdens, because of the sacrifice of Christ, just as the gardener removes Helen’s burden in the story by showing her compassion. The final stanza of the poem connects Mary Magdalene’s burden to Helen’s burden, which is lessened by the simple act of kindness from the gardener. It demonstrates that acts of kindness can lessen the burden of people in pain and that it is better for a community to be forgiving and compassionate than to be intolerant and unkind.