Rudyard Kipling's Kim and Emile Zola's Germinal both depict features of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century world that few privileged members of society cared to consider. Kim stands as Kipling's vivid attempt at creating a tangible picture of British ruled India and those people within it; in short, Kipling loved and was fascinated by India. Accordingly, the novel reflects his particular brand of love and fascination. So, although it is somewhat a political novel, it is only superficially so; Kim's undertaking of his travels and his education stand primarily as mechanisms through which Kipling can relay his image of the land. Zola, on the other hand, is much more centrally concerned with the political implications of his novel. To some extent, the story is intended to shock the public at large; the horrible living conditions and difficult lives of the miners in Germinal, though grounded somewhat in fact, are positioned with a particular political purpose: Zola hopes to rouse France to awareness about the underprivileged classes.
Nevertheless, one theme that appears in both novels is the idea -- prevalent in Europe prior to World War II -- that certain races or groups of human beings are innately prone to violence, crime, and poverty. Zola repeatedly attributes Etienne Lantier's hot-blooded temper and addictive personality to traits that his father possessed. Such attributes, it would seem, are consequences of generations of low breeding. Meanwhile, Kipling, despite all his intricate awareness of India, appears utterly unaware of the hardships that imperialism had brought upon the native inhabitants and, indeed, that it was the natural order of the world that Britain should rule India. Overall, despite the evenhanded emphasis that both authors attempted to make with their tales, Germinal and Kim both reflect values and notions of race and class that are very out of place in the modern world.
Yet this feature of inheritance that Zola believes in is not wholly disparaging to the lower classes. In fact, it represents one of the key ways in which "germination" is possible within Germinal. Essentially, the idea is that not only does Etienne's understanding of his surroundings expand, but the broader, historical awareness of the miners is represented as growing as well: "Though their eyes were dim with weakness they perceived over yonder the ideal city of their dreams, now drawing near and almost real, where all men were brothers, a golden age when work and food would be shared by all." (Zola, 221). Zola sees the history of the miners, deep down in the earth for generations, as gradually taking root, dispersing, and growing out of the ground into full awareness of their plight. To him, it is only through this process -- which takes generations -- can the oppressed ever achieve social equality.
This notion of progression and growth is similar in both novels. Kim's wonderings allow him to grow as an individual at the same time as he becomes more fully aware of his surroundings. Similarly, Etienne -- though he does not physically wonder -- becomes increasingly aware of the conditions that dominate his life and those around him as the novel goes on. So, fundamentally, both Etienne and Kim are on a search for identity; but while Etienne's identity is indelibly linked to his social class and occupation, Kim's identity must truly be a "melting o' things." (Kipling, 160). Kim is far more detached from his parentage and, as a result, finds himself between cultures. At no point in the novel is this more apparent than when Kim is captured by the white soldiers. When they realize who he is they declare, "It's O'Hara's boy, sure enough. O'Hara's boy leagued with all the Powers of Darkness." (Kipling, 135). They also claim that he "talk[s] the same as a nigger." (Kipling, 153). Kim, at this point in the novel, is regarded by European eyes to be little more than a thief and an animal. However, his travels with Teshoo Lama have brought him several steps closer to spiritual awareness. This remains a feature of his personality that the Europeans around him never recognize.
Kim's evolution as a character, accordingly, takes place spiritually and mentally. Although he learns much…