The Jungle Book Themes

The main themes in The Jungle Book are the law of the jungle, the importance of courage, and abandonment and loneliness.

  • The law of the jungle: Kipling portrays following rules, such as the Law of the Jungle or the Law of the Beach, as essential for the upholding of civilization.
  • The importance of courage: Courage is the defining quality of the book's heroes, and Kipling emphasizes the necessity of doing one's duty in spite of fear.
  • Abandonment and loneliness: Mowgli is abandoned by both humans and wolves, and Kipling portrays loneliness and solitude as the price of standing out from the community.


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The Law of the Jungle

Jungle animals are often described as wild, but Kipling’s animals follow strict rules and have no tolerance for those who break them. The first reference to the Law of the Jungle occurs when the wolves realize that Shere Khan is hunting Man. They are disgusted, and the author remarks:

The Law of the Jungle, which never orders anything without a reason, forbids every beast to eat Man, except when he is killing to show his children how to kill, and then he must hunt outside the hunting grounds of his pack or tribe.

Kipling reassures his young readers that the wolves who are to bring up Mowgli are not “animals” in the pejorative sense of the term. They are civilized, because they have rules. These rules are harsh, which means the teeth of the wolves are not entirely drawn, but they provide all-important boundaries.

The Law of the Jungle is sufficiently complex that few of the Jungle People, and none of the wolves, know it in its entirety. Baloo the bear is one of those few, and he is charged with teaching it to the wolf cubs, most of whom learn only as much of the Law as applies directly to them. This still differentiates them completely from the Monkey People, who have no knowledge of or respect for the Law, as well as Shere Khan, who breaks it.

The one story in the book that does not take place in or near the jungle is “The White Seal.” Kipling is careful to refer early in this story to an analogous code, similarly capitalized: the Rules of the Beach. Sea Catch is aggressive and ruthless, but he never chases a beaten seal, since the Rules of the Beach forbid this. Rikki-tikki-tavi and even Toomai live by similar codes. These laws and rules fulfil a clear didactic purpose in a children’s book by emphasizing that even animals have strict codes and that those who break them are beneath contempt. It is not shameful—it may be thoroughly honorable—to live and hunt alone, as Mowgli eventually decides to do, but this does not release one from the Law of the Jungle, which is binding on everyone worthy of respect. Finally, in “Her Majesty’s Servants,” it is strongly suggested that the animals’ strict obedience to rules and orders is one of the main reasons for the supremacy of the British Raj in India.

The Importance of Courage

The one essential quality shared by all Kipling’s protagonists is courage. When he is a child who can barely walk, Mowgli impresses both Father and Mother Wolf with his fearless nature. The Father Wolf remarks:

He is altogether without hair, and I could kill him with a touch of my foot. But see, he looks up and is not afraid.

Courage is Mowgli’s defining quality, and he is utterly contemptuous of cowardice. The same is true of Rikki-tikki-tavi, who speaks scornfully to Chuchundra the muskrat and treats him roughly because he is a coward who “never had spirit enough to run out into the middle of the room.” Kotick the white seal shows both physical and moral courage in his determination to save the other seals. He never bothers to take part in the sordid squabbles over territory which occupy his father, Sea Catch, yet when lives are at stake, he fights with unparalleled ferocity, until he is covered in blood. Toomai of the Elephants is brave to the point of recklessness and is rewarded by being the only human permitted to see the elephants’ extraordinary dance.

“Her Majesty’s Servants” provides some comfort for the reader who is prey to doubts and fears. Some creatures, such as Rikki-tikki-tavi, are almost incapable of fear, or feel it only for a very short time. In the last story of The Jungle Book, Kipling has the animals frankly discuss what makes them afraid. They all fear different things, but as the elephant points out, a complete lack of fear is generally based on stupidity and lack of imagination. However, the essential point which the story emphasizes is that they all do their duty and follow orders, regardless of their private fears. It is courage, not fearlessness, which is of paramount importance.

Abandonment and Loneliness

One might say that Mowgli is orphaned or abandoned three times during the course of his three stories. At the beginning of The Jungle Book, he loses his birth parents, and it is never quite clear what happens to them. Having been adopted by the wolves, he is forced to leave the pack while still a boy and go to the village where men live. He is briefly and provisionally accepted by the villagers until one of their number denounces him as a sorcerer or a demon, whereupon the men drive him away just as the wolves did. At the end of his final story, he declares that he will hunt alone.

Kotick, the only white fur-seal, is a misfit and an outsider, laughed at by the other seals and effectively abandoned even by his parents until he has fought so bitterly that he is red with blood instead of white. Toomai of the Elephants incurs the anger of his father for an act of courage, while Rikki-tikki-tavi is separated from his mother and father by a flood that nearly kills him at the beginning of his story.

Various other characters are perpetually alone and excluded. Shere Khan has a few fawning hangers-on, but no peers. Everyone is afraid of Kaa the python. Bagheera and Baloo, having once sought Kaa’s help, vow to have nothing to do with him again. Even they, in their turn, are isolated among the wolves. Like the protagonists, they are one of a kind. Solitude and loneliness are the price of being outstanding in these stories, since communities (the Wolf Pack, the Monkey People, the village, the fur-seals, the sea cows, even the wild elephants) are generally not flatteringly portrayed.

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