This poem is Kipling’s re-telling of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, narrated in Chapter 4 of The Book of Genesis, the tale of the first murder according to conventional sense of morality. In Genesis Cain, the elder brother, a farmer, finds to his dismay that his offerings to the Lord are being jeopardized and rejected, while those of his brother Abel, the shepherd, is being readily accepted. In a fit of rage, he murders Abel and is henceforth cursed forever. The moral is simple and pointed- that any tinge of jealousy, between relationships, can lead to murderous instinct leading to violence, and murder is a punishable offense and cannot be forgiven. And that the ultimate judgment is provided by God’s will, however plausible it might be.
Line by Line Summary of Cain and Abel by Rudyard Kipling
Since Cane and Abel are the children of Adam and Eve, they are bound to carry the genes of perpetual sin. Thus their actions will yield necessary consequences. Cain from the beginning is portrayed to be ambitious in his endeavor. His interest is in corn by he seems to be over utilizing the elements from the river bank and in the process is causing erosion of fertility and stability. He has mined or excavated “A-half Euphrates out of her bed” to water his crops. His vice is overtly visible.
Three years of prolonged drought, have rendered water sustainability to its minimum. And as such, the scorching sun has taken a toll over Abel’s herd. The Herd-bulls have come to Cain’s new house for a drink of water, but Cain shows a nonchalant attitude towards their predicament and is least interested to help them out. The ardent pleading, “Give us water for our pore cows!” is shammed by a blatant “No!” Similar is the case with the Cows and the “li’l Calves”. Cain is smug in the knowledge of his materialistic security. His house has been described as “new”, “big” and “fine”, severely contrasted to the animals’ gloom.
Cain is guilty of the sin of pride and jealousy. Kipling is as if preaching morale, where he is urging his readers to engage themselves in a symbiotic relationship where one should be helping the other and coexisting in a harmonious society.
Abel himself then goes to his brother urging:
‘”Oh, sell me water, my brother dear,
Or there will be no beef this year.”
And Cain he answered — “No!”’
And his pleadings to secure a bit of water go unheard too. Cain seems in no way ready to part with his possessions. His dam stands as the tower of strength. Cain is not ready to part with his reserved water until his crops have grown full and have become mature. Even Cain threatens Abel with the power of law in the case of breach of trust. Conventional notions of morality would recommend a Cain to part with what he has preserved but the notion of ethics is a dubious region. One is not punished if one doesn’t participate in charity. It seems to be a moral flaw and calls for God’s action of judgment or higher justice.
This brings into perspective the actions that Abel will subsequently undertake. Abel takes his “best bull-goad,/An’ holed a dyke on the Eden road.” With the water from the dam let to flow, the herd takes pleasure in new hope of rejuvenation. We question Abel’s moral stance. Is he condemnable? Or do we acknowledge what he has done for he has helped his herd with water at times of water scarcity? Abel has undertaken the Robin Hood motif.
A severe altercation between the brothers starts to fume. And we notice the battle of morality, the war between what is the necessity and what is ethically incorrect. Cain states “I did not sell an’ I did not draw,/An’ now you’ve breached I’ll have the Law.” But Cain takes up the law in his own hand and in an act of seeking vengeance kills Abel.
Kipling here suggests that the relationship between the hunter and the hunted, between the dominator and the dominated, is primeval, and has always been there in mankind. A man by virtue is a beast and the notions of pride and jealousy seem to be inherent.
Cain is called to the court of God and has been charged with committing the first ever homicide. The poem ends in a dilemma where the poet questions the concept of justice and how justice functions. When the charges of moral sin are perfectly humane, why do we need divine intervention to seek refuge? The poem ends by establishing a dichotomy that what is inherent in human nature, cannot be judged and thus punished accordingly. Thus the poet ends, “But, seein’ all he had had to bear,/I never could call the Judgment fair!” Hope you enjoyed going through Cain and Abel summary.
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