The bulk of Kipling’s “The Gardener” follows Helen Turrell as she deals with the fallout of her son Michael’s death in the wake of World War I. A staunch patriot, Kipling wrote propaganda for the British government in support of World War I. He had a reputation as an enthusiastic supporter of British Imperialism, expressed strong political opposition to German expansion, and encouraged his own son, John, to sign up for the forces. However, like many Europeans, Kipling was surprised by the scale of the war, the extent of the destruction, and the heavy loss of life that it caused. Though not opposed to war in general, he believed that World War I was poorly executed. After his son was killed, Kipling joined the Imperial War Grave Commission, organizing the burial and commemoration of young men killed on the battlefield. The climax of “The Gardener” takes place at a war graveyard, imbuing the story with Kipling’s own grief for his son and for Britain’s sons more generally. Despite the palpable heartache for Britain’s fallen soldiers, “The Gardener” ultimately takes a nuanced approach to the war. Kipling criticizes Britain for its poor execution and the resulting loss of life, while still elevating the war as necessary and honorable.
Michael’s decision to enlist at the outbreak of WWI is treated ambiguously in the story, echoing Kipling’s own nuanced opinion of the war. At times, Kipling seems to regret that the war has been necessary. He notes that Michael is “no fool” and that “the war took him just before what was likely to have been a most promising career,” squarely placing the blame of Michael’s death on the war itself. The use of the phrase “took him” suggests an unstoppable force, pointing to the war’s magnitude and the extreme loss of life which, in Kipling’s view, could have been avoided if the war had been fought more effectively or if Britain had been better prepared for its scale. Similarly, the fact that Kipling uses the term “holocaust,” meaning mass destruction, to describe the “public school boys who threw themselves into the First Line” is also suggestive of the enormous losses that WWI produced. Using the term “holocaust” frames the war as a slaughter, rather than a fair fight, from which these young men had little chance of returning. This demonstrates Kipling’s critical stance on the tactics that were employed during the war, such as trench warfare which was notorious for gaining little ground but for causing high casualties.
This critical tone however, is undercut when Kipling describes Michael talking “valiantly” about enlisting, suggesting that it is noble to want to fight for and defend one’s country. This moment provides a characteristic expression of patriotism for the writer, depicting the war as necessary and the sacrifice of British soldiers as honorable. Before Michael enlists, Helen is blasé about the war and says that “it couldn’t possibly last beyond Christmas.” Michael knows better and tells Helen that they will have “no such luck.” This supports Kipling’s description of Michael as “valiant” and demonstrates Kipling’s respect for the soldiers and his attitude of support for the war. Although Michael hopes that the war will be over soon, he is realistic enough to know that men like him need to fight so that Britain can be protected from German invasion.
Although Kipling had previously penned propaganda emphasizing the glory of war, “The Gardener” frames WWI in a more mundane and realistic way, reflecting the everyday experience of soldiers. Michael’s battalion is used for necessary manual labor, digging trenches on various parts of the line. When Michael is killed in Loos, his death is not one the reader associates with “valiant” warfare. Instead, Michael is killed in an impersonal way, by a shell, while he is posted somewhere with “nothing special doing.” This demonstrates Kipling’s observation of the actual experience of WWI, from the perspective of a soldier’s relative, as opposed to the glorious descriptions of combat in war propaganda.
The mundane approach that Kipling takes to Michael’s death is mirrored in Helen’s plodding and mechanical experience of grief. Helen connects her grief to the manufactured item—the shell—which has killed Michael and remembers a time when he “had taken her over to a munition factory.” Like the shell that Helen sees being made, which is described as a “wretched thing,” Helen feels that she is being “manufactured” into a “bereaved relative,” just as the shell has been “manufactured” into an instrument that creates bereaved relatives. Helen also remarks upon the mechanical form her grief takes and the fact that, “moving at a great immense distance, she sat on various relief committees and held strong views—she heard herself delivering them—about the site of the proposed village War Memorial.” This description of Helen “at an immense distance,” and the disassociated idea that she “heard herself” delivering speeches, suggests the shock of grief and the difficulty in resuming normal life after suffering a deep loss. The fact that almost everyone in the village has lost someone, and that they are “old in experience of war” by the time Michael is killed, demonstrates the magnitude of losses in the war. These losses led to the development of a new social etiquette around grief after WWI, which involved remaining hopeful and patriotic, and it is this which Helen feels pushed on her by society after Michael’s death.
Although Kipling had previously written propaganda supporting World War I and encouraging young men to enlist, the reality of the war was bleak for everyone involved. New weapons technology meant that the loss of life was much higher than expected, and the anonymous nature of death for many of the soldiers, like Michael in the story, led to the necessity to build new “ritual” around this. This is reflected in the cemeteries full of unmarked graves created to deal with the numbers of men whose bodies were never found, which Kipling describes in “The Gardener.” Although Kipling’s views on WWI are somewhat complicated, the story does suggest that the end of the war is a “relief,” even though, in Kipling’s view, Britain’s entry into the war was very necessary. The Armistice is described in terms of a dawn that “broke over” Helen; this metaphorical sunrise points to renewed life and mercy, connecting the end of the war to the image of Christ as the gardener and the mercy that he shows to Helen.
World War I ThemeTracker
World War I Quotes in The Gardener
Since Michael was no fool, the War took him just before what was like to have been a most promising career. He was to have gone up to Oxford, with a scholarship, in October. At the end of August, he was on the edge of joining the first holocaust of public-school boys who threw themselves into the Line.
Helen had been shocked at the idea of direct enlistment.
“But it’s in the family,” Michael laughed.
“You don’t mean to tell me that you believed that old story all this time?” Helen said […] “I gave you my word of honor—and I give it again—that—that—it’s alright. It is indeed.”
“Oh, that doesn’t worry me. It never did,” he replied valiantly. “What I meant was, I should have got into the thing sooner if I’d enlisted—like my grandfather.”
In France luck again helped the battalion. It was put down near the Salient, where it led a meritorious and unexacting life, while the Somme was being manufactured; and enjoyed the peace of Armentières and Laventie sectors when the battle began.
A month later, and just after Michael had written Helen that there was nothing special doing and therefore no need to worry, a shell-splinter dropping out of a wet dawn killed him at once. The next shell uprooted and laid down over the body what had been the foundation of a barn wall, so neatly that none but an expert would have guessed that anything unpleasant had happened.
Helen, presently, found herself pulling down the house-blinds one after another with great care, and saying earnestly to each one: “Missing always means dead.” Then she took her place in the dreary procession that was impelled to go through a series of unprofitable emotions. The Rector, of course, preached hope and prophesized word, very soon, from a prison camp. Several friends too, told her perfectly truthful tales, but always about other women, to whom, after months and months of silence, their missing had been miraculously restored.
Helen did and wrote and signed everything that was suggested or put before her. Once, on one of Michael’s leaves, he had taken her over a munition factory, where she saw the progress of a shell from blank-iron to all but the finished article. It struck her at the time that the wretched thing was never left alone for a single second; and “I’m being manufactured into a bereaved next of kin,” she told herself, as she prepared her documents.
The agony of being waked up to some sort of second life drove Helen across the Channel, where, in a new world of abbreviated titles, she learnt that Hagenzeele Third could be comfortably reached by an afternoon train which fitted in with the morning boat, and that there was a comfortable little hotel not three kilometers from Hagenzeele itself where one could spend quite a comfortable night, and go to see one’s grave the next morning. All this she had from a Central Authority who lived in a tar and paper shed on the skirt of a razed city full of whirling lime-dust and blowing papers.
Helen was grateful, but when they reached the hotel Mrs. Scarsworth […] insisted on dining at the same table with her and, after the meal […] took Helen through her “commissions” with biographies of the dead, where she happened to know them, and sketches of their next of kin. Helen endured this till nearly half-past nine, ere she fled to her room. Almost at once there was a knock on the door and Mrs. Scarsworth entered; her hands, holding the dreadful list, clasped before her.
“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 toward the naked black crosses. “Come with me,” he said, “and I will show you where your son lies.”