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Literary Tigers and the Wilderness in Humans

Anthropomorphism: Making Sense of the Unknown

Throughout the history, humans have consistently demonstrated a tendency to make sense of every element in their surroundings. Whether animals, inanimate objects, or any other natural element present in the environment, instinctive tendency is to logically explain everything humans encounter, transforming the unknown into something knowable. Across all forms of entertainment, and more prominently in literature, this natural predisposition manifests itself through a narrative device known as "anthropomorphism." Consisting in the attribution of human characteristics, emotions, or behaviors to non-human entities, anthropomorphism functions as a strategy to leverage a story's relatability, thereby securing the readers' sympathies. While inanimate objects are occasionally subject to anthropomorphism (as in the 1756 tale of The Beauty and the Beast by French novelist Jean-Marie Leprince), there is a distinct preference for anthropomorphizing animals–the numerous examples range from the novels Black Beauty by A. Sewell (1877), Watership Down by R. Adams (1972), Animal Farm by G. Orwell (1945), to name a few.

If anthropomorphism involves attributing human characteristics to animals, it inherently implies a distinction between the two realms. Throughout the history, humans have defined themselves by contrasting with animals, often diminishing them to elevate their own status. For instance, in the Greek Aristotelian tradition, humans are defined as zoòn lògon èchon—”rational animals” or “speaking animals.” J. Derrida (2002) also highlights the role of philosophical "logocentrism" in disqualifying animals from dignifying attributes. Logocentrism is underscored by the centrality of language, positioning humans as entities in possession of both communicative tools and the required rationality to employ them. It is then logic and communication that set humans apart from the rest of animalkind, leaving animals devoid of attributes associated with speech, reason, and other aspects presumed to be the prerogative of humans (Maillet, 2008). Other views reinforce this point. Mitchell, Thompson, and Miles’s definition of anthropomorphism is “the description of animal behavior in human hence intentionalistic terms,” (1996, p. xv), a definition that endows the animalus anthropomorphicus with the faculty to take action being driven by a logical motivation or rationale. If in literary analysis it is relevant to ponder what essential traits render fictional animals eligible for classification as animalus anthropomorphicus, it is also a contemplation that inevitably entails an even more profound exploration—this time— of what it truly means to be human.

Figure 1: Illustration of an anthropomorphization of the wind (Winter, 1919).

The Human Allegory of Tigers in Literature

As exemplars of majestic beauty and brute force, tigers frequently find themselves woven into the fabric of literature. Their undeniable aesthetic appeal bestows upon them a natural charm, which makes them particularly suited for symbolisms that span themes of power, grace, and a variety of allegorical meanings (Mahapatra, 2021). However, the majestic tiger has rarely been cast as a positive character. Prominently featured in Anglophone literature in the aftermath of new world explorations, it has consistently been framed as an adversary, a fiend, or an antagonist in literature and other media. Fletcher and Crane (2014), for example, underscore this trend by presenting a series of paintings that reinforced the negative image associated with tigers during the Victorian Era. This article focuses on two literary tigers, Shere Khan from The Jungle Book (1894) by R. Kipling and Richard Parker from Life of Pi (2001) by Y. Martel. Taking into account the socio-cultural context that produced both literary tigers, it becomes evident that these characters are more than mere creations; they are profound reflections of their respective creators' worlds. Shere Khan, a product of Kipling's time, stands as an embodiment of political resonances deeply rooted in the socio-political landscape of his era. On the other hand, Richard Parker emerges as the vivid symbol of a myriad of meanings that encompass the very essence of humanity. Exhibiting multi-layered symbolic characteristics, both tigers put on stage distinct aspects of what it means to be human. While Shere Khan is a creature of logos, able to articulate his political beliefs, Richard Parker maintains a silent and consistently animalistic behavior throughout the narrative. As it will be revealed, this emphasis is a deliberate tactic to accentuate his being an anthropomorphic projection, eventually circling back to underscore his humanity at the novel's conclusion. Although both tigers operate within narratives that center on the division between the animal and human worlds, they are anthropomorphic devices of opposite sign: Shere Khan embodies the human in the animal, while Richard Parker brings forth the animal in the human.

Figure 2: A Bengal tiger is attacked by a lion (Tenniel, 1857).

Shere Khan as the Jungle’s Antagonist: The Politician in the Tiger

The Jungle Book (1894), a collection of short stories by English author R. Kipling, tells a narrative that needs little introduction—the fascination with Mowgli’s tale being constantly rekindled by new cinematic installations. Widely considered as a bildungsroman set within the historical framework of the imperialist period, every narrative element in The Jungle Book links back to the colonial discourse that was unfolding at the time of its composition. To illustrate how various character interpretations align with its historical context, the kidnapping of Mowgli by the monkeys serves as a significant example—a parallel that can be traced back to the abduction of British officials and troops by Indians during the 1857 War of Independence, a period often labeled as the Mutiny by British historians (Akşehir-Uygur, 2018). The source material itself, however, is not immune to divergent interpretations, with the nuanced debates primarily revolving around the character of Mowgli, alternatively depicted as the colonizer, the colonized, and the noble savage. Similarly, the intricate dynamics within the diverse population of animal inhabitants and their underlying significance can be construed in various ways. Consequently, decoding the complexities of The Jungle Book poses a considerable challenge, the charm of the story lying in its malleable symbolism.

In the Jungle Book, animals and humans inhabit two disjunct realms. Far from behaving as unruly wild beasts, the animals live in strict accordance with the Law of the Jungle—Bagheera the black panther, the entire wolf pack, Kaa the snake, Baloo the bear, and even the villainous Shere Khan, all abide by the code. For this reason, the animals in the Jungle Book are a famous instance of anthropomorphization: they exist as projections of the human characteristics of a legally organized society. However, instead of being equals, animals within the jungle recognize men as superior, and this recognition is vividly portrayed in their deferential attitude towards Mowgli, viewed as the authoritative figure of the jungle hierarchy. In fact, the portrayal of animals in The Jungle Book establishes a distinct dichotomy between those animals more closely associated with nature and those aligned with Mowgli's interests. A prevalent negative connotation particularly emerges in cases of animals that are deeply connected to nature, casting them as representations or extensions of less desirable aspects of humanity. These instances stand in stark contrast to qualities such as reason, sociability, and progress. Specifically, animals like tigers, monkeys, jackals, and frogs are presented as either lacking intelligence and utility or possessing malevolent traits. Contributing to the overall negative portrayal of the Jungle and its inhabitants, some animals tend to exhibit traits associated with dominance and authority. 

Figure 3: Illustration of Shere Khan (Drake, 1895).

This negative connotation is reinforced by the choice of the story's setting, the lush and untamed Indian jungles, symbols of timeless exoticism, but also of primordial wilderness. In essence, despite the immediate facade of reconciling animality and humanity, the Jungle stories ultimately become conduits for reinforcing colonial ideology. This underlying ideology not only limits the portrayal of animals but also contributes to the reification of nature alongside the natives, perpetuating a narrative that aligns with colonial perspectives.

Reading Shere Khan

Although tradition evaluates The Jungle Book as firmly grounded in colonialist historical context, other literary currents encourage alternative interpretations of the text that emerge from highlighting diverse perspectives within the story. Akşehir-Uygur (2018), for example, interrogates the novel from the angle of ecocriticism, a viewpoint that, reconsidering the importance of nature, closely examines how the interrelation of nature and the environment is represented in literature. J. Asghar and M. Butt advocate a “contrapuntal reading,” which involves the examination of multiple viewpoints simultaneously as a way “to bring 'the forgotten other' back into the narrative” (Asghar & Butt, 2017). This alternative consideration prompts a reconsideration of Shere Khan the tiger, who, in his literary debut in the tale Mowgli’s Brothers (1894), confronts readers with the image of a “perfect antagonist” (Mahapatra, 2021). A closer inspection of his motives, however, reveals that Shere Khan, driven by selfishness, displays classically human characteristics.

Figure 4: Model sheet for the character of Shere Khan in Disney's adaptation (Milt Khal, n.d.).

In an effort to reassess the character beyond its conventional villainous role, one contrapuntal interpretation immediately arises from the surname Khan—an honorific traditionally conferred upon Muslim notables, leaders, and warriors. Pashtuns also use the surname Khan. While these ethnic references may not be intentionally malicious, within the broader framework of the Empire, these representations take on added significance. By drawing parallels with the honorific "Khan" and its association with Muslim warriors, Shere Khan's character may possess a cultural and historical significance that transcends a simplistic, one-dimensional portrayal as a villain (Akşehir-Uygur, 2018). P. Mahapatra (2021) goes so far as questioning that Shere Khan truly functions as antagonist, and does so by appealing to the human-like qualities that are ascribable to the tiger. First of all, he displays feelings that are classically human. Along with the hatred he proclaims for Mowgli, arrogance is another of his human attributions: “It is I, Shere Khan, who speak!” (Kipling, 9). Engaged in an imperious exchange with Raksha, Shere Khan arrives at the wolves' den with the presumption of claiming the newly discovered infant as his property, coming off as a “mighty autocrat who does not care for The Law of the Jungle. Pretending to take it upon himself to voice his concern on behalf of the pack, he structures his protest around two pivotal points: that humankind is demonstrably dangerous, and that he harbors a personal animosity towards human beings that stem from his terror of guns and fire. His self-serving motives are then called out by the animals, who unanimously respond that in extending such demands, Shere Khan is manifestly disregarding the laws of the jungle: “Ye may kill for yourselves, and your mates, and your cubs as they need, and ye can; But kill not for pleasure of killing, and seven times never Kill Man!” (Kipling, 160). In the narrative, Shere Khan's political relevance is evident from the very beginning. Despite his pleas ultimately falling on deaf ears, this legendary tiger unmistakably possesses classically human characteristics, such as political cunning and reasoning. Additionally, his motivations, primarily rooted in fear, align with a classically human source of motivation. In conclusion, Shere Khan represents a specific type of anthropomorphism within the text—a manifestation of the political infusion deeply informed by the political and socio-cultural context of his time. As a character, he transcends the bounds of a mere antagonist, embodying complex and nuanced attributes that contribute to the multifaceted nature of anthropomorphism in literature.

Figure 5: Shere Khan giving his reasons to convince the pack (2016).
The Parable of the Tiger: Richard Parker’s “Better Story”

Popularized by the 2012 cinematic adaptation, the plot of Life of Pi famously unfolds as the story of a shipwreck survivor marooned in the vast ocean. With him, an orangutan named Orange Juice, a zebra with a broken leg, a ferocious hyena, and a Bengal tiger. Crazed with hunger, the hyena first kills the zebra, then Orange Juice, before being killed in its turn by the tiger. Stripped of all his civilized dignity, the protagonist is forced to reconsider the essence of his own humanity. In his attempts to make sense of these improbably extreme circumstances, Piscine Patel undergoes a metaphorical journey of self-discovery, not only through an exploration of the intricacies of the human self, but also by profoundly investigating every form of alterity that he encounters—a concept that, in its turn, circles back upon the very nature of the self. If Y. Martel's tale demonstrates that the essence of humanity can be delineated in the negative—that is, defined by the boundaries we set that establish what we humans are, as well as what we are not (Mensch, 2007)—it is worth exploring what literary elements embody otherness in Pi's story.

The foremost manifestation of this concept is, undoubtedly, observed in animals. In Pi's zoo upbringing, animals are not exhibits but an extended family. His anthropomorphization is clear in naming, going beyond scientific to personal names, fostering familiarity. Actively caring for them, Pi exceeds typical zookeeper duties, expressing deep emotional connections. His understanding of animal behavior suggests an intuitive, empathetic connection. On the lifeboat with Richard Parker, Pi treats the animals as an extension of his zoo family. The most pronounced expressions of Pi's connection with animals are directed towards Richard Parker, the pivotal animal figure in Pi's narrative. From early on, Pi recounts an anomaly in Richard Parker's behavior, noting that “the great beast was not behaving like a great beast” (Martel, p. 181).  Suitably described as "the greatest enigma in this book of enigmas” (Pendery, 2015), Richard Parker and his perplexing conduct serve as a poignant introduction to the central theme of the book—and how to decode it.

Figure 6: Poster of "Life of Pi"'s cinematic adaptation (2016).

The anomaly that characterizes the tiger begins with his very name. Originally named "Thirsty", the name Richard Parker gets associated with the tiger due to a clerical error in the shipping paperwork. An additional layer of significance is that one particularly relevant event is the shipwreck of the Mignonette in 1884. In this real-life incident, four men were stranded at sea, and in order to survive, they resorted to cannibalism. The cabin boy, Richard Parker, was the one who was ultimately sacrificed for the others to survive. The choice of this name for the tiger in Y. Martel's novel creates a subtle connection to the theme of survival in extreme conditions and the ethical dilemmas that can arise. The wild beast with a name and last name, while, conversely, the human protagonist is just Pi. Pi’s name is reminiscent of the pi (π), a mathematical constant that represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Mirroring the characteristics of the number he is named after, Pi is obsessed with order and meaning: “I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape” (Martel, p. 360). The reference to the number pi is then symbolic of Pi's inclination toward order, structure, and a quest for meaning in the chaos of his extraordinary journey.

Pi's journey concludes not just when his boat runs aground on the southern shore of Mexico but, more profoundly, when he and Richard Parker part ways forever. Sniffing the land, the tiger leaps over him and disappears into the jungle without giving Pi a second glance. When authorities interrogate him and express skepticism about a Bengal tiger in the forest, Pi offers an alternative version of the events. In the alternative retelling, Pi replaces the animals with humans, where the zebra becomes a sailor with a broken leg, the orangutan becomes Pi's mother, and the hyena becomes a brutish cook. In this version, the cook kills the sailor (zebra) and Pi's mother (orangutan) to use their flesh as sustenance, reflecting the grim reality of cannibalism in desperate circumstances. It is worth noting that in the cinematic adaptation, Pi asks his audience which story they prefer, to which they respond that the story with the animals is “the better story.”

Figure 7: Pi symbolically embraces his animal essence (2012).

According to this alternative version, the most pivotal beast in Pi’s narrative, Richard Parker, is no one other than Pi himself. Decoded as Richard Parker, Pi is the actual perpetrator of those ferocious deeds, his instincts leading him to do whatever it takes to survive, including resorting to cannibalism. Richard Parker is the metaphorical representation of the predatory animality inside that humans refuse to accept as inherently humanto such an extent that they resort to deceiving themselves by embellishing the story with allegories of animals. The acceptance of himself as capable of cannibalism is so unbearable that Pi retells the story shaping it with what is a more humanely plausible explanation, however circumstantially absurd: that there was a tiger on board, that engages in brutal acts normally associated with carnivoresacts he cannot bring himself to accept as his own. The reiteration that he is a human is his subconscious’ attempt to hide from him the truththat humanity is a multifaceted thing and encompasses the animality of the tiger (Mensch, 2007). Pi’s rescue marks his reintegration into human and civil society, necessitating his separation from Richard Parker. Their parting ways signifies that Pi no longer requires the attributes and behaviors he projected onto the tiger, as those ferocious qualities are no longer needed in a civilized society. Poised to reenter the human dimension, Pi sheds the animality in him that clung to survival, and Richard Parker is no more. 

Anthropomorphism, Credibility, and the Boundaries of Truth

When the narrator Pi Patel describes the story as one to make believe in God, religion is firmly established as a central theme. It is precisely by resorting to religion that Pi draws a clear line between himself and the animals–between humankind and animalkind—particularly through his devout religious practices: he engages in prayers multiple times a day, with the first act upon waking labeled as "prayers." S. Guthrie (1995) observes that the humans’ instinct to interpret events according to reason or believable explanations is an unconscious attempt to find significance in the world–including interpreting from a religious angle. In Life of Pi, this interpretive attitude encompasses the anthropomorphization of animals: Pi's religious framework influences not only his understanding of the divine but also shapes his perception of animals as sentient beings with whom he can establish a profound connection. Both the anthropomorphization of animals and his religious practices become symbolic, serving a survival function under the symbolically extreme circumstances thrown upon the protagonist. Interpreting animals according to human parameters is Pi’s resolution to find relief, companionship, and a much-desired shared humanity (imagined or otherwise), particularly in the face of extreme adversity. The intertwining of religious devotion and the anthropomorphization of animals attests to the multi-layered nature of Pi's coping mechanisms, where spirituality and the projection of human attributes onto animals become close-knit themes in his survival narrative.

Figure 7: Richard Parker vanishes into the forest, never to be seen again (2012).

Leaving the judgment of whether the story with animals or humans is “the better story” intentionally open-ended, the author introduces ambiguity in the novel's conclusion. Through Pi's address to his rescuers, and by extension the readers, the novel ventures into the theme of metafiction, drawing attention to its fictional nature. Symbolically presenting two stories, one real and one counterfeit, Life of Pi explores the suspension of disbelief necessary, required of the reader, for the story to unfold—a foundation of poetic faith. The themes of metafiction, religion, and anthropomorphism in Life of Pi are interconnected by a common thread: the exploration of credibility—investigating the nature of truth, questioning a universal objectivity, and considering that something might be true precisely because we validate it as such. Metafiction, through its self-aware narrative, challenges the reader's engagement with the story, prompting a reflection on the boundaries between fiction and reality. Religion, as a central theme, introduces spiritual dimensions that test the limits of what is considered plausible in a narrative. Anthropomorphism further contributes by blurring the lines between human and animal experiences. It is through this exploration of metafiction, religious symbolism, and anthropomorphic storytelling that Life of Pi invites readers to navigate the delicate balance between reality and fiction, emphasizing how the malleable nature of truth makes it perfectly adaptable in storytelling.


Through the symbolic exploration of Shere Khan in The Jungle Book and Richard Parker in Life of Pi, the profound truth surfaces: all the observations of a different other inevitably brings back to human beings. As Derrida remarked: Since so long ago, can we say that the animal has been looking at us? What animal? The other(2008, p. 3). In this narrative, the act of naming, the anthropomorphization of animals, and the creation of others are lenses through which we project humanity onto the perceived different one. Pi's father's zoo produces another parallel in this, where, as in the last part of the exhibit, a mirror for visitors declares the most dangerous animal to be human. It is a poignant and unfortunate revelation, one that highlights human tendency to define the 'other' not in terms of beauty or wonder but in terms of danger. The mirror, a reflection of human beings, is a subtle critique of their own perceptions and biases.

In conclusion, the animals in humans compel them to question the boundaries between the two, urging a deeper contemplation of the narratives we construct. The journey into the symbolic realm of Shere Khan and Richard Parker inevitably circles back to a self-realization: the human forays in the realm of otherness reveal more about people than the perceived other, in an interaction with a “difference that is not indifference” (Cole, 2004). As humans engage in the act of seeing and naming, they inevitably find that the most profound discoveries are those about their own humanity, indubitably beautiful as the colors pigment of the tiger, and equally dangerous.

Bibliographical References

Akşehir-Uygur, M. (2018). Perception of Nature and the Language of Imperialism in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. MCBÜ Sosyal Bilimler Dergisi, 16(1/2). DOI: 10.18026/cbayarsos.424073.

Asghar, J., & Butt, M. I. (2017). Contrapuntal Reading of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book: Theorizing the Raj through Narrativity. NUML Journal of Critical Inquiry, 15(1), ISSN 2222-5706.

Cole, S. (2004). Believing in Tigers: Anthropomorphism and Incredulity in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en littérature canadienne, 29(2), 22–36.

Derrida, J. (2008). The Animal That Therefore I Am (D. Wills, Trans.; M. L. Mallet, Ed.). Fordham University Press.

Fletcher, L., & Crane, R. (2014). Picturing the Indian Tiger: Imperial Iconography in the Nineteenth Century. Victorian Literature and Culture, 42(3).

Guthrie, S. (1995). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. Oxford University Press.

Mahapatra, P. (2021). Shere Khan: An Individual with Multiple Appeals. IUT-JARD, 7(1), April-September 2021, ISSN 2455–7846. Department of English, Prabhat Kumar College Contai (Affiliated to Vidyasagar University).

Mensch, J. (2007). The Intertwining of Incommensurables. In C. Painter & C. Lotz (Eds.), Phenomenology And The Non-Human Animal (Contributions to Phenomenology, Vol. 56). Springer.

Mitchell, R. W., Thompson, N. S., & Miles, H. L. (Eds.). (1996). Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes, and Animals. SUNY Press.

Pendery, D. (2015). Life of Pi: Into the Divine, the Hard Way, or: Why the Tiger Didn't Bite. International Journal of English and Literature, 6(4), 67–75.

Stephens, G. (2010). Feeding Tiger, Finding God: Science, Religion, and "the Better Story" in Life of Pi. Intertexts, 14(1), 41–59.

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Nicole Lorenzoni

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