Throughout “The Man Who Would Be King,” Daniel Dravot’s ambition is boundless. As soon as he achieves his lofty goal of becoming king of Kafiristan, he decides it’s not enough: he must build an empire as well, and ultimately pronounces himself both an emperor and a god. Ambition and hubris are what drive Dravot to break his contract with Carnehan (the two men had agreed to abstain from women and alcohol until they were king), leading to his dethroning as king and his violent death at the hands of the local people. That Dravot literally plunges to his death after declaring himself a god makes clear that, in the world of Kipling’s story, pride comes before the fall.
After conquering Kafiristan, Dravot immediately moves on to grander plans: “I won’t make a Nation,” he declares, “I’ll make an Empire!” His erratic behavior further suggests that his ambition has become a dangerous obsession, as he speaks in long monologues full of asides and exclamations, chews his beard, and paces back and forth. As the story unfolds, Dravot’s ambition-turned-obsession bleeds into insanity when his aims are finally thwarted. As they are fleeing from the rebellious natives, Carnehan says, “My own notion is that Dan began to go mad in his head from that hour.”
Dravot also demonstrates his hubris by repeatedly overstating his own political and religious power. On the journey to Kafiristan, for instance, Carnehan implores Dravot “not to sing and whistle so loud for fear of bringing down the tremenjus avalanches. But Dravot says that if a King couldn’t sing it wasn’t worth being King.” Dravot, who is not even a king yet at this point in the story, is pompously saying here that his mere desire to be king should make him immune to the forces of nature—a patently ridiculous claim.
Dravot’s hubris also leads him to claim a religious authority that he does not in fact have. He exploits the local devotion to freemasonry by pretending to be a Grand Master, even though Carnehan points out that this is illegal as neither of them “ever held office in any Lodge.” Dravot doesn’t listen and instead uses his knowledge of Masonic ritual to convince the natives that he is a god.
Dravot’s lust for power and excessive pride ultimately lead him to abandon his moral code (symbolized by his contract with Carnehan) and demand a wife, which sets the stage for his fall. Dravot’s desire for a wife not only goes against the grain of his moral code, but is itself based partly on ambition. He says he wants “a queen to breed a King’s son for the King.” In other words, he wants to establish a dynasty. It’s clear that Dravot’s inflated sense of his own power interferes with his judgment. When the council and Carnehan question his demand for a wife, he flies into “a white-hot rage,” and Carnehan says that he is “going against his better mind.” Finally, it is Dravot’s hubris in claiming to be a god that sparks the rebellion against him. When his terrified wife bites him, the people discover that he bleeds and is therefore a man rather than a deity. If he had never claimed to be a god in the first place, he presumably could have avoided the situation that leads to his downfall.
By highlighting the consequences of Dravot’s arrogance and insatiable ambition, Kipling warns against what he sees as corrupt motivations for colonialism. The morally appropriate motivation, he believes, is the (ethnocentric) desire to bring the benefits of civilization to supposedly inferior people, not the hubristic desire for power and glory.
Ambition and Hubris ThemeTracker
Ambition and Hubris Quotes in The Man Who Would Be King
They went up and up, and down and down, and that other party, Carnehan, was imploring of Dravot not to sing and whistle so loud, for fear of bringing down the tremenjus avalanches. But Dravot says that if a King couldn’t sing it wasn’t worth being King, and whacked the mules over the rump, and never took no heed for ten cold days.
One morning I heard the devil’s own noise of drums and horns, and Dan Dravot marches down the hill with his Army and a tail of hundreds of men, and, which was the most amazing, a great gold crown on his head. “My Gord, Carnehan,” says Daniel, “this is a tremenjus business, and we’ve got the whole country as far as it’s worth having. I am the son of Alexander by Queen Semiramis, and you’re my younger brother and a God too! It’s the biggest thing we’ve ever seen. I’ve been marching and fighting for six weeks with the Army, and every footy little village for fifty miles has come in rejoiceful; and more than that, I’ve got the key of the whole show, as you’ll see, and I’ve got a crown for you! I told ’em to make two of ’em at a place called Shu, where the gold lies in the rock like suet in mutton. Gold I’ve seen, and turquoise I’ve kicked out of the cliffs, and there’s garnets in the sands of the river, and here’s a chunk of amber that a man brought me. Call up all the priests and, here, take your crown.”
“Shake hands with him,” says Dravot, and I shook hands and nearly dropped, for Billy Fish gave me the Grip. I said nothing, but tried him with the Fellow Craft Grip. He answers all right, and I tried the Master’s Grip, but that was a slip. “A Fellow Craft he is!” I says to Dan. “Does he know the word?”—“He does,” says Dan, “and all the priests know. It’s a miracle! The Chiefs and the priests can work a Fellow Craft Lodge in a way that’s very like ours, and they’ve cut the marks on the rocks, but they don’t know the Third Degree, and they’ve come to find out. It’s Gord’s Truth. I’ve known these long years that the Afghans knew up to the Fellow Craft Degree, but this is a miracle. A God and a Grand-Master of the Craft am I, and a Lodge in the Third Degree I will open, and we’ll raise the head priests and the Chiefs of the villages.”
“It’s against all the law,” I says, “holding a Lodge without warrant from any one; and you know we never held office in any Lodge.”
“It’s a master-stroke o’ policy,” says Dravot.
Dravot talked big about powder-shops and factories, walking up and down in the pine wood when the winter was coming on.
“I won’t make a Nation,” says he; “I’ll make an Empire! These men aren’t niggers; they’re English! Look at their eyes—look at their mouths. Look at the way they stand up. They sit on chairs in their own houses. They’re the Lost Tribes, or something like it, and they’ve grown to be English. I’ll take a census in the spring if the priests don’t get frightened. There must be a fair two million of ’em in these hills. The villages are full o’ little children. Two million people—two hundred and fifty thousand fighting men—and all English! They only want the rifles and a little drilling. Two hundred and fifty thousand men ready to cut in on Russia’s right flank when she tries for India! Peachey, man,” he says, chewing his beard in great hunks, “we shall be Emperors—Emperors of the Earth!”
“The girl’s a little bit afraid,” says the priest. “She thinks she’s going to die, and they are a-heartening of her up down in the temple.”
“Hearten her very tender, then,” says Dravot, “or I’ll hearten you with the butt of a gun so you’ll never want to be heartened again.” He licked his lips, did Dan, and stayed up walking about more than half the night, thinking of the wife that he was going to get in the morning. I wasn’t any means comfortable, for I knew that dealings with a woman in foreign parts, though you was a crowned King twenty times over, could not but be risky.
Up comes the girl, and a strapping wench she was, covered with silver and turquoises, but white as death, and looking back every minute at the priests. “She’ll do,” said Dan, looking her over. “What’s to be afraid of, lass? Come and kiss me.” He puts his arm round her. She shuts her eyes, gives a bit of a squeak, and down goes her face in the side of Dan’s flaming red beard. “The slut’s bitten me!” says he, clapping his hand to his neck, and, sure enough, his hand was red with blood. Billy Fish and two of his matchlock-men catches hold of Dan by the shoulders and drags him into the Bashkai lot, while the priests howls in their lingo, —“Neither God nor Devil, but a man!” I was all taken aback, for a priest cut at me in front, and the Army behind began firing into the Bashkai men.
“My own notion is that Dan began to go mad in his head from that hour. He stared up and down like a stuck pig. Then he was all for walking back alone and killing the priests with his bare hands; which he could have done. “An Emperor am I,” says Daniel, “and next year I shall be a Knight of the Queen.”
“All right, Dan,” says I; “but come along now while there’s time.”
“It’s your fault,” says he, “for not looking after your Army better. There was mutiny in the midst, and you didn’t know—you damned engine-driving, plate-laying, missionary’s-pass-hunting hound!” He sat upon a rock and called me every foul name he could lay tongue to. I was too heart-sick to care, though it was all his foolishness that brought the smash.
“I’m sorry, Dan,” says I, “but there’s no accounting for natives. This business is our Fifty-Seven. Maybe we’ll make something out of it yet, when we’ve got to Bashkai.”
He fumbled in the mass of rags round his bent waist; brought out a black horsehair bag embroidered with silver thread; and shook therefrom on to my table—the dried, withered head of Daniel Dravot! The morning sun that had long been paling the lamps struck the red beard and blind, sunken eyes; struck, too, a heavy circlet of gold studded with raw turquoises, that Carnehan placed tenderly on the battered temples. “You be’old now,” said Carnehan, “the Emperor in his ’abit as he lived—the King of Kafiristan with his crown upon his head. Poor old Daniel that was a monarch once!”