‘‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,’’ as a children’s story, is designed both to entertain and to disseminate the values of virtuous behavior. Courage, one of the characteristics exhibited by the hero, Rikki-tikkitavi, is one such virtue. Rikki, knowing that he has to kill Nag in order to protect the human family, is fearful of the cobra’s size and strength, but his fear is trumped by his own courage, and he succeeds in killing the snake. He is rewarded for his courage by being deemed a hero and given a permanent place in the home of the humans. The virtue of courage is further emphasized by the story’s portrayal of shameful cowardliness; Chuchundra, the fearful muskrat who ‘‘never had spirit enough to run out into the middle of the room’’ is unable to overcome his fear and, therefore, elicits disdain from Rikki and the other garden creatures.
Loyalty and Duty
Kipling was deeply influenced by the codes of honor and duty evangelized at the military prep school he attended in his late childhood. Loyalty especially figures as a theme in ‘‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.’’ Rikki is loyal to the human family that takes him in, and his loyalty drives him to protect them from the cobras, even to the point of risking death. Rikki also risks death out of a sense of duty regarding his heritage as a mongoose: when he attacks Nag he ‘‘was battered to and fro. . . . he made sure he would be banged to death, and, for the honour of his family, he preferred to be found with his teeth locked.’’
Kipling is well known for promoting British imperialism in his writing; Victorian-era imperialism was not just the practice of colonization, but it reflected an attitude and philosophy of assumed British superiority, and even the children’s story ‘‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’’ reflects this racial prejudice. The story makes clear that the family living in the bungalow in India is an English family, and it is intimated that Rikki is a very lucky mongoose for having been rescued by humans who are white: ‘‘every well-brought-up mongoose always hopes to be a house-mongoose . . . and Rikki-tikki’s mother . . . had carefully told Rikki what to do if ever he came across white men.’’ The white family’s home and way of life—which dramatizes the British presence in India—is idealized and, in the specific use of the term ‘‘white men,’’ portrayed as superior to the indigenous cultures of India. The culture of the Indian people and their Hindu religion is further symbolically denigrated in the story when Nag, the villain, is directly associated with the Hindu god Brahm.
Survival is the motivating factor behind the actions of all of the characters, and it seems to be the only law that governs the fantasy world of the garden: the act of killing, for example, is not against the laws of the garden but is consistently portrayed as a means towards the more important goal of survival for both the heroic and villainous characters.
This preoccupation with survival reflects the values of social Darwinism that were prevalent during the late nineteenth century. Social Darwinism applied the biological theories of natural selection, put forth by Charles Darwin, to human behavior. Encapsulated in the...
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