Childhood tales are renowned for humanizing animals and giving them the ability to speak, feel and interact with other human characters. They tend to represent certain social stereotypes, and often give moral and life lessons. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, written and published in 1894, is a collection of stories mainly revolving around one child, Mowgli, who was abandoned in the jungle and raised by various types of animals. As most of the characters in this story consist of talking animals, as well as the lack of adult figures, this forms the foundation for themes of child negligence, abuse, and even attempted murder. It is not uncommon to uncover dark and disturbing analysis and explanations to seemingly innocent and entertaining bedtime stories. However, in The Jungle Book (1894), Mowgli struggles greatly as he is pulled back, sometimes forcefully, into a human civilization ruled by colonialism and a thirst for power.
Kipling’s story can be looked at through various lenses as it is constituted of different layers and levels of meanings. Some scholars argue that the diversity of his works is directly related to his cultural upbringing. According to Banciu et al. (2013), “The childhood and youth spent in India, on the one hand, and English intellectual formation, on the other hand, made him a strange mix, which we meet many personalities of British culture” (pp. 179-180). Kipling admired the wild beauty of India and this is reflected in his exotic descriptions and lavish narratives. The tale presents the two antagonistic sides of the animal kingdom. Firstly, Mowgli would not have survived if it was not for the help of the pack of wolves that subsequently raised him. The boy makes numerous friends in the jungle and is often guided and advised. At some point of the story, these animals attempt to return Mowgli to his rightful community. But, secondly, every story needs opponents to move the plot forward; In this case, the evil figures are mainly Shere Khan the tiger, and Kaa the snake. What is most interesting about this distinction is the peaceful and civilized coexistence between the two kingdoms. The mere fact that Mowgli grew up among predators categorizes the story under the genre of magical realism.
An intriguing effect here is that the audience does not differentiate between Mowgli and the animals as much as they notice a clear distinction between Mowgli and the rest of the human characters in the tale. Banciu et al. (2013) argues that “Mowgli's coexistence with wild animals of the jungle, is so fruitful in building his character, it is a lesson given to the people by Kipling in order to end enmity between the two kingdoms” (p.181). Both sides seem to have a fixed set of rules and hierarchical codes to follow, which really brings the two species closer together rather than further apart.
One cannot overlook the numerous political allusions in the tale be it in terms of plot, characters or setting. It is significant to preface by mentioning Kipling’s political bias, as he was a strong advocate of the English duty to “civilize” the inhabitants of their conquered lands, especially since India was England’s greatest colony. Thus, Kipling’s prejudice is particularly obvious in the story’s ending as Mowgli ironically returns to the society that abandoned him, and in turn, abandoning the jungle that raised and protected him dearly. The political aspect of the story also emerges through the character of Bagheera, the Indian leopard. Asghar & Butt (2017) claim that “Just like the Indian feudal lords who turned out to be the footstools of the colonizers, Bagheera teaches Mowgli such important techniques as hunting for food, climbing the tree tops and locating the traps” (p.149). Hence, one could even argue the presence of a colonial relationship between Mowgli and the animals: some see him as a threat and want to eliminate him, while others control him under the pretence of educating him. Furthermore, the reader gets to know about King Louis, a monkey who wants to become human like Mowgli, and thus, they kidnap him and try to utilize his humanity. Nyman (2001) points out that “Indeed, all animals are not equal but they too are represented in racialized and nationalized terms, which points to the flexibility of the animal trope in colonial discourse” (p.206). Therefore, The Jungle Book (1894) appears to have specific political undertones that reflect both the personal life of the author and the dominant ideologies of the 19th century.
Moreover, the choice of protagonist is truly fascinating as it reflects the Victorian idealization of the child. Childhood literature often includes coming of age stories, where the young and ignorant child grows up to be an exemplary and moral individual. However, this evolution is not present in Kipling’s story. McBratney (1992) mentions: “the hero seems to retain the ability, despite his choice of an adult identity as a servant of the British Raj, to regress to his earlier, jungle self” (p.278). Thus, Mowgli's initial rejection of his society is a direct critique of the 19th century society, but also a manifestation of a potential case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Kipling presents us with a child that was abused emotionally, mentally and physically. He is abandoned by his own cruel parents, grows up with animals and is surrounded by danger, becoming a neglected, maltreated and threatened child, and consequently, epitomizes the colonized child.
To sum up, Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894) offers rather contradictory ideas: it is simultaneously a defence of colonialism, and a critique of the 19th century society. Unlike most childhood tales, this story does not tell the inspirational journey of Mowgli’s trip back home but rather evokes sympathy and pity for the abandoned child. This story backfires as it defies Kipling’s political beliefs and showcases the consequences of colonization on children while being camouflaged by its deceiving childish exterior.
Asghar, J., & Butt, M. I. (2017). Contrapuntal Reading of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book: Theorizing the Raj through Narritivity. NUML Journal of Critical Inquiry, 15(1), 144-160.
Banciu, V., Jireghie, A., & Erdeli, I. (2013). The Jungle Book: Another Facet of Childhood. Journal of Advanced Management Science, 1(2), 179-183.
McBratney, J. (1992). Imperial Subjects, Imperial Space in Kipling's" Jungle Book". Victorian Studies, 35(3), 277-293.
Nyman, J. (2001). Re‐Reading Rudyard Kipling's ‘English’ Heroism: Narrating Nation in The Jungle Book. Orbis Litterarum, 56(3), 205-220.
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