The Jungle Book was published in 1894, after the stories had appeared separately in magazines over the preceding year. Of the seven stories the book contains, the first three, which concern Mowgli, are clearly a series, while the other four are entirely free-standing, with different characters and settings. One of them, “The White Seal,” has no connection with the jungle or with India.
The stories in The Jungle Book have an easier, more conversational tone than Kipling’s later works for children, The Just So Stories or Puck of Pook’s Hill. Nonetheless, they resemble these stories in being strongly didactic, emphasizing the virtues of courage and independence while also stressing the importance of rules. Although the final story, “Her Majesty’s Servants,” demonstrates a certain tolerance for the differing weaknesses of the animals (and, by implication, humanity), characters in the earlier stories are sharply divided into good and bad or, at best, good and stupid or cowardly. “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is the clearest single encapsulation of Kipling’s moral vision. Rikki himself is a great hero, with similar values to those of the Homeric heroes in the Iliad, Achilles and Hector. The members of the human family he protects are virtuous but generally passive, except when the father helps Rikki by shooting Nag. The snakes, Nag, Nagaina, and Karait, are all evil and not particularly brave, merely presenting challenges for the hero to overcome. Darzee the tailorbird is a fool, and Chuchundra the muskrat is an abject coward. They are less worthy versions of the human family, and Rikki protects them while treating them with the contempt appropriate to a hero who is a superior type of being.
This same pattern appears with slight variation in the three Mowgli stories at the beginning of the book and in “The White Seal,” where the villains are the seal-hunters, who are even less psychologically developed than Nag and Nagaina. Indeed, it seems rather flattering to refer to them as hunters, when all they do is herd hundreds of acquiescent seals to the killing grounds, where they club them to death. Kotick the white seal is the only sympathetic character in this story and apparently the only seal with either intelligence or curiosity, to say nothing of altruism. Kotick saves the lives of thousands of other seals, despite their stupidity and sneering. While they are torn to shreds in fights for the best position on the beach, demonstrating both selfishness and self-destructiveness, Kotick does not fight until he has to do so to assert his leadership in order to save the other seals. When he fights for this altruistic cause, he does so magnificently, winning even the respect of his father, Sea Catch, with his courage and ferocity. Kotick is the ideal hero: only violent when the occasion demands, but completely fearless on that occasion.
Rikki and Kotick are both more altruistic than Mowgli, the central figure in The Jungle Book . Like them, he is strong and brave, but unlike them, he is constantly at odds with his environment. Kotick is conspicuous for his whiteness and is laughed at by the other seals for his unusual preoccupation with saving their lives, but he is still a seal. Rikki loses his parents, but he knows by instinct and instruction exactly what a mongoose is supposed to do. Mowgli has no such security. The wolves show him that he is not a wolf, and Bagheera tells him that he must return to his own kind. However, by the time he goes to live in the village, it is too late. The people there are not his own kind,...
(This entire section contains 1028 words.)
a fact symbolized by his refusal to sleep in a bed. Instead, he climbs out of the window and sleeps in the grass, for the hut looks too much like a panther-trap for him to be comfortable inside it.
The status of the protagonists as nonconformists and outsiders is one factor which rescues The Jungle Book from being too worthy and didactic in its continual insistence on correct behavior and the importance of following rules. Kipling shows an awareness of the dangers of preaching when he remarks at the end of “Kaa’s Hunting” that, although Mowgli has to be punished,
One of the beauties of Jungle Law is that punishment settles all scores. There is no nagging afterward.
However, the principal way in which The Jungle Book escapes from the fate of being one of those tracts and moral tales which so abounded in Victorian nurseries is through its narrative and aesthetic qualities. There is constant excitement and danger in the stories, but also a deep appreciation for the beauty of the jungle. This is often demonstrated in the poems interspersed between the stories, as well as the songs and verses within them. Even characters given short shrift within the stories, such as the Monkey People and Darzee the tailorbird, are permitted to express themselves in lyrics which remind the reader that Kipling is a superbly gifted poet as well as a brilliant storyteller. Some of the most poetic descriptive writing is included in the stories. Kipling’s description of the the Cold Lairs, the ruined city where the Monkey People take Mowgli, recalls the sumptuous prose of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales:
The domed roof had half fallen-in and blocked up the passage from the palace by which the queens used to enter. But the walls were made of screens of marble tracery—beautiful milk-white fretwork, set with agates and cornelians and jasper and lapis lazuli, and as the moon came up behind the hill it shone through the open work, casting shadows on the ground like black velvet embroidery.
Kipling’s detractors are wont to describe him as an insensitive imperialist who regards India chiefly as a British possession. There is no denying this side to his writing, but at the same time, the stories in The Jungle Book demonstrate a poetic appreciation for the beauty of India which may well have changed the perspectives of generations of colonial administrators when they recalled reading Kipling in their childhood.