A Note on Rudyard Kipling’s Loss of Brother John: "Little Tobrah"

by Cora L. Díaz de Chumaceiro

June 9, 2005


A recent article in PsyArt addressed overlooked vicissitudes of the loss of Ayah for Rudyard Kipling in early childhood (Díaz de Chumaceiro, 2003). Attention to vicissitudes of sibling-loss expands understanding of Kipling’s mourning behavior in adulthood, though biographers have underscored that primary data on this subject apparently have not been found. This brief article calls attention to Kipling’s “Little Tobrah,” a short story that can be viewed from a psychoanalytic perspective as an attempt to master this traumatic event that impacted his early life.


Biographers have said nothing or very little about Kipling’s reactions to the loss of his brother John until recently. In 1999, Lycett underscored that for Alice MacDonald Kipling the loss of her child was a devastating experience, (p. 43), also suffered by her sister Georgie six years before.

    For Rudyard, too, this had been a disturbing event: one that he buried deep in his unconscious and never mentioned. As a result, along with its vibrancy, he retained an image of Bombay as a place of death.... A sense of India as a country built on dead men, ghosts and illusions became a feature of his subsequent writings (pp. 43-44; italics added).

     John, named after his father and grand-father, only lived for a few days after a premature birth on 18 April 1870. At the time, Rudyard, born 30 December 1865, was four years and four months old, and Alice (Trix), his sister, born on 11 June 1968, was 22 months old. How the devastated mother and father handled this loss with them remains unknown. As Blum (1987) wrote:

    In the case of sibling loss, the child may not be able to obtain comfort from parents who are themselves grieving and depressed and unable to help their child cope with the common loss. The loss of the sibling is even more likely to impair the development of the child if the parents are unable to talk about the traumatic experience with each other and with their child (p. 620).

     Kipling’s "Little Tobrah," an overlooked short story in public domain in the United States, which contains his family constellation, can be viewed as an autobiographical attempt to work through his feelings of loss and rage over this accidental tragic event. It is included in the collection Life’s Handicap. Being Stories of Mine Own People (1891), published one year after his autobiographical collection Wee Willie Winkie (1890) containing his disguised rage at his parents for their abandonment at Lorne Lodge in England. Links between childhood sibling loss and creativity have been suggested by many (e.g., Burnham, 1996; Hamilton, 1969; Katz, 1991; Pollock, 1975, 1978; Rudnytsky, 1988; Sulloway, 1996).


Little Tobrah

      The story begins in the setting of a trial in which a small child is exonerated of murder due to insufficient evidence. Kipling stressed that this case had remained unreported "because nobody cared by so much as a hempen rope for the life or death of Little Tobrah" (¶1) . I interpret this opening statement to mean that, in effect, his perception was that no one cared about his feelings, and thus nobody reported them, suggesting confirmation of lack of primary evidence reported by biographers. Creatively embedded in fiction, however, is the not-so-disguised evidence Kipling chose to leave readers for posterity about a brother who disappears in the night and of his murderous wishes for his sister and parents.

     In the red court-house, the assessors interrogated Little Tobrah throughout the long and hot afternoon, and he squirmed and whined in response. The Judge agreed with the verdict of inconclusive evidence. The fact remained that the sister of little Tobrah had been found dead in the well, and at the time, he was the only person nearby. Yet it could have been an accident. Thus, he was "acquitted" and told he could go wherever wanted- hardly a generous "permission" as he had no place to go to, and nothing to eat or wear (¶1). Little Tobrah then went to the compound of the court and sitting on the well-kerb, wondered "whether an unsuccessful dive into the black water below would end in a forced voyage across the other Black Water" (¶2). As he was hungry, when a groom placed on the bricks an empty nose-bag, he scraped out the wet-grain overlooked by the horse. Then, caught as a thief, the groom led Little Tobrah by his ear to his patron, "a large and fat Englishman" (¶3) and told him the tale. The Englishman ordered he be placed in the net of the cart and taken to his house to be fed.

     After Little Tobrah had eaten his meal, and the servants were relaxing in their quarters, the Head of Grooms requested that he render an account of himself. "‘You are not of the groom caste, unless it be for the stomach’s sake. How came you into the court, and why? Answer, little devil’s spawn!’"(¶5). Serenely, Tobrah replied: "‘There was not enough to eat'... ‘This is a good place’" (¶6). The Head Groom retorted "‘Talk straight talk... or I will make you clean out the stable of that large red stallion who bites like a camel’" (¶7).

    ‘We be Telis, oil-pressers,’ said Little Tobrah, scratching his toes in the dust. ‘We were Telis — my father, my mother, my brother, the elder by four years, myself, and the sister.’

    ‘She who was found dead in the well?’ said one who had heard something of the trail.

    ‘Even so,’ said Little Tobrah gravely. ‘She who was found dead in the well. It befell upon a time, which is not in my memory, that the sickness came to the village where our oil-press stood, and first my sister was smitten as to her eyes, and went without sight, for it was mata—  the small-pox. Thereafter, my father and my mother died of that same sickness, so we were alone—  my brother who had twelve years, I who had eight, and the sister who could not see’ (¶10).

     Kipling here uses his family of origin constellation of parents and three children, merely transposing his younger sibling John as eldest, with the same age difference of four years between them, leaving Trix as the youngest. His rage at his parents is manifested in killing them of natural causes (thus exonerating him from guilt), and his sibling rivalry with his sister is initially reflected in presenting her as blind (he had almost become blind at Lorne Lodge), later intensified with a rationalization for murder. For the moment, though, the three children have become orphans.

     As the bullock and oil-press remained, they wanted to continue pressing the oil as previously. Nevertheless, Surjun Dass, the man who sold them grain had cheated them in the deal, ˝and it was always a stubborn bullock to drive.˝ On the bullock’s neck they had placed ˝marigold flowers for the Gods,˝ as well as on ˝the great grinding-beam that rose through the roof; but we gained nothing thereby, and Surjun Dass was a hard man˝ (¶10). The grooms’ wives remarked on the cheating of a child. Little Tobrah then commented that the press was old and he and his brother were ˝not strong men˝ and thus were unable to repair the beam’s neck (¶12). Joining the circle, the beautifully-dressed wife of the Head Groom agreed that it was work for a strong man, and drifted off on a tangent about when she was young in her father’s home. ˝‘Peace, woman,’ said the Head Groom. ‘Go on, boy’˝ (¶14).

    The big beam tore down the roof upon a day which is not in my memory, and with the roof fell much of the hinder wall, and both together upon our bullock, whose back was broken. Thus we had neither home, nor press, nor bullock—my brother, myself, and the sister who was blind. We went crying away from that place, hand-in-hand, across the fields; and our money was seven annas and six pie. There was a famine in the land. I do not know the name of the land. So, on a night when we were sleeping, my brother took the five annas that remained to us and ran away. I do not know whither he went. The curse of my father be upon him (¶15; italics added).

     He and his sister then begged for food in the villages, but no one gave them anything. All the men told him to seek the Englishmen who would give to them, but as he did not know what they were, "they said that they were white, living in tents." Forward he went, but could not say where that was, and could not find any food for his sister or himself. "And upon a hot night, she weeping and calling for food, we came to a well, and I bade her sit upon the kerb, and thrust her in, for, in truth, she could not see; and it is better to die than to starve" (¶15).

     Apparently, no primary material seems to exist about how the Kipling children found out about the death of the baby or what they actually saw or heard in their home after the birth. In Victorian and Edwardian times death was not discussed with children. Cain, Fast, and Erickson (1964) have suggested that not wanting to know, particularly related to time and causality appears to be related to children’s reaction to sibling death—evident in the story with the phrases "a day" or "a time which is not in my memory," and so on. The eldest who runs away while they were sleeping, whom he curses, suggests the death of the neonate and removal of the body at night, unseen by them. The desolation felt, due to uncontrollable external events, was severe. The lack of food and intense hunger suggests dire emotional starvation. The final phrase, "it is better to die than to starve," is repeated three times, mirroring the number of siblings in the family as well as his death wishes toward his parents and sister. Suicidal ideation--survivor guilt--is also present.

     Little Tobrah also would have thrown himself in, but because she was still alive and called out to him from the bottom of the well, he became scared and ran away. Someone, however, emerged from the crops and accused him of killing her and defiling the well. Thus, he was taken to see a “white and terrible" Englishman who sent him to court. "‘But there were no witnesses, and it is better to die than to starve. She, furthermore, could not see with her eyes, and was but a little child’" (¶ 17). But who are you, the wife of the Head Groom wanted to know, "weak as a fowl and small as a day-old colt, what art THOU?" Little Tobrah answers, "I who was empty am now full" and stretching out, concludes by saying that he would like to sleep. The wife covers him with a cloth "while Little Tobrah slept the sleep of the just" (¶ 20).

     A psychodynamic vista of this heart-wrenching short story, with the parallels included of his family constellation and the plot of a brother who disappears in the night, makes it difficult to assume that Kipling had forgotten about the death of his brother John, or that it was buried in his unconscious. Publication of this story occurred 21 years after the event. Kipling was then 26 years old and still single. When was the story penned? The setting of a trial suggests coping with guilt feelings over the death of his sibling, murderous feelings of rivalry with his sister, and the subsequent stealing of food, a manifestation of emotional deprivation (see Berman, 1978). In a review of the psychoanalytic literature on siblings, Colonna and Neuman (1983) underscored that sibling-loss studies show a tendency to stress intensification of guilt.

     The murderous feelings towards the grieving but abandoning parents are dealt with in one sentence—death from a common disease. As said previously, John, the neonate, has been transposed as eldest with the same age difference as in reality. Trix, almost two years old, is presented as blind; she was indeed too young to understand what had happened after seeing her mother pregnant for many months—probably not previously prepared for the birth of a sibling, or for its death. The children felt cheated by adults and invoking religion for help was to no avail. Kipling’s idealized creative solution is to remain an orphan, free from guilt having justified his actions of getting rid of his sister in a legal trial, and finding a substitute set of (servant) parents, particularly a mother to solely care for him, after which he just wants to sleep peacefully (see Cain, Fast, and Erickson, 1964; Davids, 1993). A first-born child has additional burdens when dethroned by siblings (Rollman-Branch, 1966). Perhaps in reality Ayah attempted to console him, reflected in the tale as the wife of the Head Groom.

     Little could Rudyard and Trix have suspected then that a year after this traumatic experience of sibling loss, they were to be abandoned in England at Lorne Lodge (see Díaz de Chumaceiro, 2003). Further study is required to be able to determine if they later suffered from anniversary reactions to this initial loss (Azarian, Miller, Palumbo, and Skriptchenko-Gregorian, 1997; Hilgaard, 1969). Furthermore, three years after arriving at Lorne Lodge, Captain Holloway (Pryse Agar) died, and with his absence the household balance at Southseas changed. "For Rud, his death was in effect a second ‘abandonment’" (Ricketts, 1999, p. 22). Both Rudyard and Trix were "very sorry" when he died (Birkenhead, 1978, p. 19). Kipling’s mourning over the death of his sibling remained unresolved, as suggested by his bereavement behavior in adulthood.


Grief and Mourning in Adulthood

     According to Birkenhead (1978), as an adult, Kipling was struck "with a shattering force" (p. 139) by the death of those he loved. After his friend Wolcott Balestier died, for instance, no mention could be made of his name and no photographs were permitted in his home. The death occurred in December 1891, and in January 1892, he married Balestier’s sister, Caroline (Carrie). One has to wonder if the same restriction occurred in his family of origin, after the death of his sibling. Furthermore, although hardly knowing Robert Louis Stevenson, when the news of his death in 1894 was wired, filled with grief, Kipling developed writer’s block "for nearly three weeks" (p. 139). While mourning reactions can be interpreted as normal or pathological within historic cultural mores, paralyzing grief for the death of a little known person is viewed psychoanalytically as a displacement of previous unresolved mourning (Bowlby, 1963).

     Interestingly, much later, Kipling wrote to a father whose son had died in the same year as his young daughter Josephine (1892-1899):

    People say that kind of wound heals. It doesn’t. It only skins over; but there is at least some black consolation to be got from the old and bitter thought that the boy is safe from the chances of the after years. But it is the mother that bore him who suffers most when the young life goes out (Birkenhead, 1978, p. 139).

     His thoughts in this letter of consolation can also be seen as containing ripple effects of his accidental early experience of the loss of his brother John, as well as of his own mother’s grief reactions. Lycett (1999) reported that after Josephine’s death, when they returned home, they found the house and garden full of the dead child, and Rudyard imagined her when doors were opened, or in vacant spaces, but at least they could talk about her, which was a lot, "for Carrie has hitherto been stone-dumb" (p. 426, from letter of Lockwood Kipling to Sally Norton, 22 July 1899). Only tearful eyes were reported, nothing else. Kipling did not cry but all agreed that he was full of sadness. Angela Thirkell had written about "a barrier" that emerged, as "‘much of the beloved Cousin Ruddy of our childhood died with Josephine.’ And he, more than anyone, continued to see his daughter at every turn" (Lycett, 1999, p. 427). Memories of her are included in the poem ‘Merrow Down’ and in his story ‘They,’ written five years after her death (Lycett, 1999). As a result of her dying in America, however, Rudyard never returned there and "his strong reservations about the States" were reinforced (Ricketts, 1999, p. 258). Additionally, and creating more personal damage, there "was an increased sense of distance even with those to whom he had been close" (pp. 258-259). Kipling was unable to properly mourn her death. Then, a second unfortunate tragic blow arrived in the future, further taxing his coping abilities.

     On 2 October 1915, Rudyard and his wife Carrie received a War Office telegram with the shattering news that their son John, age 18, was wounded and missing in action at the battle of Loos, France, on 27 September. One can imagine that thoughts about the traumatic, unexpected death of his same-named brother of childhood returned to mind, as well as the death of Josephine. For two years, however, they held on to the hope that rather than dead he might be a prisoner, following every possible lead until December 1917. Then, they were unable to locate his grave. Ricketts (1999) concluded that "Kipling had never been able to grieve openly for the loss of his son and had felt obliged in public to maintain a properly stoical front" (p. 366). The closest he could come was writing the story of ‘The Gardner,’ the last one in Debits and Credits, which "turned the collection into his private memorial to John, the fictional counterpart of The Irish Guards in the Great War" (p. 366).

     In his marriage, Rudyard had replicated the number of siblings in his family of origin. Elsie, his only remaining child, married but never bore children. How sibling loss affected Elsie is beyond the scope of this brief communication.

     Undoubtedly, the tragic loss of two children is extremely hard for parents in any culture or age. Their grief and mourning reactions, however, are consciously and unconsciously influenced by prior experiences of loss in their early personal histories. Sibling loss is a crucial factor that also needs to be taken into account when attempting to reconstruct positive and negative variables during Kipling’s early life.


I thank Gerald M. Fishbein, Ph.D., for his critical reading of this manuscript.



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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Cora L. Díaz de Chumaceiro "A Note on Rudyard Kipling’s Loss of Brother John: "Little Tobrah"". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/de_chumaceiro-a_note_on_rudyard_kiplings_loss_of_broth. May 24, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2005, Published: June 9, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Cora L. Díaz de Chumaceiro