Kim follows the story of a young Irish boy who is left in India as a child, learning the culture and becoming one of them. He makes friends with a Tibetan Lama who is elderly, and who wishes to look for the River of the Arrow in order to reach Enlightenment. The Lama takes Kim under his wing as he continues this search. They go along the Grand Trunk Road, where Kim is identified by a chaplain and taken from the Lama, being sent instead to a school. Kim and the Lama keep in touch, as he also learns about the British secret service, starting training as a spy.
Three years later, Kim is allowed to rejoin the Lama for a short time before entering government service as a spy. However, the Lama gets into trouble with some Russian spies and is captured. Kim, using his spy training, rescues the Lama, as well as gathers intelligence from the Russians through his ability to steal plans and maps from them. Kim gives the Russian papers to Hurree, a British spy. After this is done, the Lama decides to go to the plains, Kim going with him. With his help, the Lama manages to reach Enlightenment. At the end of the book, it is left ambiguous whether or not Kim will continue to be a spy or become a Buddhist, or perhaps reconcile the two aspects of his life.
Kim, despite being a simple hero's journey on the outside, carries with it multiple levels of meaning. For one, Kim's journey echoes the constant dilemma that people have when loyalties are split. Does he follow the path of the Lama, which he grew up with, or does he follow the calling of the Great Game, being a spy and honoring his blood heritage as a white man? The path between savagery and civilization is at the core of Kim's dilemma. At the end of the book, it is still not decided whether he will be a spy or a Buddhist; these two polar opposite identities pull at Kim, due to the different upbringings he is faced with. This resonates with the reader, many of whom have faced these dilemmas regarding who they are, and who they wish to be - Kim's journey follows their own, and his indecision and conflicting thoughts about the two lives set before him are very familiar.
In this journey, Kipling downplays the idea of prophecy as a means of dictating what our lives will turn out to be; Kim continually bucks tradition by being a young white boy who grows up in India, effectively becoming one of them. He also does this through his resistance to his training, and subsequent use of it to serve his own ends (the Lama's rescue). At the same time, he still delivers the Russian documents. This pattern of behavior is indicative of the unpredictable nature of man, especially as a boy - Kim's surrender to youthful impulsivity is seen as a virtue, and Kipling means to emphasize that in whatever young men read this book.
In the book, Kipling reveals a very controversial idea regarding the British Raj - essentially, it seems that Kipling thought that British ownership and rule of India was correct and impossible to question. This is a very controversial and divisive opinion, as the pervading wisdom is that British imperialism is bad, especially for the Indians, and it never should have happened. In Kipling's eyes, though, he seems to glorify the British occupation. Despite the fact that Indians were revolting violently against the British Raj at the time, Kipling seemed to think nothing of it. In Chapter 3, at a description of the Great Mutiny of 1857, an old soldier comments that "A madness ate into all the Army, and they turned against their officers" (p. 100). Describing the revolt as madness takes away from the legitimacy of their claim, chalking it up to some kind of illness or insanity.
In the next chapter, an Indian woman claims that British men who have been in India are "the sort to oversee justice. They know the land and the customs of the land" (p. 124). This justifies their behavior and their ability to supervise a country and a people they do not belong to. There is even a self-aggrandizing bit of congratulations and patronization that takes place regarding how the British rule India: "The Curator smiled at the mixture of old-world piety and modern progress that is the note of India today" (p. 59).
Kipling showcases a very quixotic, double-sided nature to humanity - there is the spiritual and the practical, good and evil, young and old. At the same time, one of Kim's strengths is his ability to see through human nature and how it works, managing to navigate people's expectations of him and defy them continually. Kim manages to charm his way into getting the widow Kulu to take care of himself and the Lama, and he manipulates his intelligence overseers during his training by besting them at their tests and anticipating their expectations. Kipling seems to make the argument that human nature is very predictable and malleable, at least to those who know how to play the game.
That being said, the spirituality and worldly aspects of Kim's journey seem to complete him to an extent; his sense of adventure suits both types of journeys perfectly. The little boy in him loves the idea of sneaking around and inquiring about things, and that same sense of delight in the unknown draws him to Buddhism and the Lama's teachings - "What he loved was the game for its own sake - the stealthy prowl through the dark gullies and lanes, the crawl up a water-pipe....the headlong flight from housetop to housetop under cover of the hot dark (p. 51).
According to Kim, being an intelligence officer requires great skill and cunning, as well as substantial mental trickery. One of the most popular things often taken from the novel is "Kim's Game," which involves Kim looking at a series of random objects and notes that are mixed up, and frequently added to and subtracted from. The overall goal is to recognize what has been changed about the collection of things each time he looks at it. This incites greater memory recall and cognitive awareness. As a spy, Kim must be aware of everything that is around him, and notice each change that occurs. Kim's game allows this skill to be practiced.
Kim is also trained to resist torture and psychological mind games, as he is subject to a test where he is meant to be hypnotized to the point where he believes a broken vase is back together again (pp. 201-202). Instead of believing Lurgan, the intelligence officer, and falling for the hypnotism, he instead runs off math tables in his mind, successfully resisting the hypnotic suggestion. This is evidence of more ordered mindsets being able to conquer manipulation and trickery. In essence, Kim has to give up the random, spiritual side that he learned as a native in order to fit in more as an intelligence officer. This is one of Kim's central dilemmas throughout the novel.
In conclusion, Rudyard Kipling's Kim is a layered, interesting work, the kind that combines boyish spy fiction with a detailed account of a foreign, exotic land. Kim manages to be a complex, fascinating and enigmatic character whose true path in life is still not resolved at the end of the novel, but whose possibilities are left wide open for the audience to consider. Kipling's portrayal of India is somewhat imperialist and colonial, but it is honest to the time in which he wrote it. Portraying the exotic land as a place of adventure and new experiences, but still with a significantly intriguing and familiar background (English rule and espionage) allows the combination of travelogue and spy thriller.