Essays and Criticism
‘‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,’’ Rudyard Kipling’s famous children’s story about the battle between a mongoose and two cobras, seems to be a straightforward tale in which the hero and villains are clearly defined and good triumphs over evil. However, like most stories that deal with such themes, the methods by which good and evil are defined and represented can serve to make a greater ideological point. Kipling, who wrote during the height of British imperial power, was a well-known proponent of British imperialism, and his ideologies were not absent from his children’s stories. In the case of ‘‘Rikki- Tikki-Tavi,’’ Kipling uses the cobras, Nag and Nagaina, as a symbol of evil in order to demonize the Hindu culture and thereby promote the British agenda of rule over India.
When Nag is first introduced, he is described in simple adjectives that serve to clearly attribute an evil nature to him:
. . . from the thick grass at the foot of the bush there came a low hiss—a horrid cold sound that made Rikki-tikki jump back two clear feet. Then inch by inch out of the grass rose up the head and spread hood of Nag, the big black cobra. . . . and he looked at Rikki-tikki with the wicked snake’s eyes that never change their expression. . . .
Both objective and subjective adjectives are used to describe him: while an adjective like ‘‘black’’ reflects an objective observation, other adjectives, such as ‘‘horrid’’ ‘‘cold,’’ and ‘‘wicked’’ that do the most to cast Nag as evil, are descriptions based not on fact but on the narrator’s subjective bias.
Aside from these subjective descriptions, however, there is little else to indicate why Nag—and by extension, his wife Nagaina—merit the attribution of evil.
The concept of evil itself is, of course, also subjective. It is commonly applied to that which falls outside of the bounds of the laws and morals that govern a particular society. It might be construed that the snakes are evil because they kill—but killing, in the world of the bungalow garden, is not an act that deviates from its laws. The only governing law is the law of survival, by which all the characters, snakes included, are primarily motivated.
The big man who lives in the bungalow does not hesitate to keep a mongoose to kill snakes or to use his shotgun against the snakes as well (as he does twice in the story) in order to protect himself and his family from death. At the same time, Nag and Nagaina would not hesitate to kill the humans in order to preserve their lives and the lives of their children: That survival is their sole motivation in attacking the humans and Rikki-tikki-tavi is evident when Nagaina explains the rationale of their ambush to Nag: ‘‘When the house is emptied of people . . . [Rikki-tikki-tavi] will have to go away, and then the garden will be our own again. . . . So long as the bungalow is empty, we are king and queen of the garden; and remember that as soon as our eggs in the melon-bed hatch . . . our children will need room and quiet.’’
Not only is killing for survival regarded as acceptable behavior, it is exalted as heroic. Rikkitikki- tavi is deemed a hero for bringing about the death of Nag and Nagaina. He even resorts to what would otherwise be considered less-than-scrupulous means to achieve his triumph when he fatally attacks a sleeping Nag. In fact, the only character who expresses any reluctance at killing—Darzee the tailorbird, who refuses to help Rikki destroy the cobras’ eggs—is called ‘‘a feather-brained little fellow’’ for not understanding that the act of taking life is vital to his own self-preservation.
The narrator’s choice of adjectives in describing the snakes, then, is not justified by any evidence of deviant behavior. The perception of the snakes as evil, therefore, is based solely on the snakes’ adversarial relationship to Rikki-tikki-tavi and especially to the human family.
Indeed, the narrative voice’s bias towards...
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