Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book has more than colonial stereotypes — ambiguity about identity, belonging

A close reading of the Jungle Book stories reveals than an imperialist narrative. Perhaps it’s time for a more nuanced reading of his works that allows their ambiguities and ambivalences to come to the fore.

The Conversation August 21, 2019 13:09:24 IST
Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book has more than colonial stereotypes — ambiguity about identity, belonging
  • Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books feature stories about Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in the Indian jungle.

  • The stories have remained popular but questioned by some parents and critics, who see them as a relic of Britain’s colonial past.

  • So there are ambiguities there, but a close reading of the Jungle Book stories leads me to feel that there is more to them than an imperialist narrative.

By Sue Walsh

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books were first published in 1894 and 1895, and they feature stories about Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in the Indian jungle. The stories have remained popular and have inspired numerous adaptations – but their attitudes have been questioned by some parents and critics, who see them as a relic of Britain’s colonial past.

Rudyard Kiplings Jungle Book has more than colonial stereotypes  ambiguity about identity belonging

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle trailer screenshot.

Indeed, a classic way of reading the tales is as an allegory for the position of the white colonialist born and raised in India. Mowgli – the Indian boy who becomes “master” of the jungle – is understood to be – as Kipling scholar John McClure interprets it: “behaving towards the beasts as the British do to the Indians”.

The classic account of Kipling, while persuasive in many ways, seems to me to be a bit limited. It misses some of the interesting questions the stories raise about notions of belonging and identity.

The standard account relies on the idea that the human and animal identities within the stories are clearly distinguished from each other and fixed – and that this fixed distinction extends via allegory to white colonial and Indian identities.

Fluid identities

But what happens to our understanding of the stories if we don’t treat the human and animal identities as distinct? I would argue that a species name doesn’t necessarily fix a character’s identity in the reader’s mind’s eye.

Rudyard Kiplings Jungle Book has more than colonial stereotypes  ambiguity about identity belonging

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle trailer screenshot.

For example, Bagheera, the black panther, is described in terms of a series of other animals: he is “as cunning as Tabaqui [the jackal], as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant”. Attributes that are supposedly intrinsic to one animal can be found in another. Like Bagheera, Mowgli describes himself in terms of other animals: “Mowgli the Frog have I been […] Mowgli the Wolf have I said that I am. Now Mowgli the Ape must I be before I am Mowgli the Buck,” and it is this process of transformation that will lead to the end in which he will become “Mowgli the Man”. In this way he blurs the distinction between himself and the other jungle inhabitants.

This undermines narratives of essential difference between species. If we follow this through with respect to the common allegorical reading that sets Mowgli apart from the animals, it also undermines claims that there are absolute differences between white colonialists and Indian “natives”.

Also take a closer look at the relationship of the child Mowgli to the inhabitants of the jungle and you’ll see the way this complicates accounts of the Jungle Books as straightforwardly imperialist in character.

Belonging

The Jungle Book stories focus a great deal on the issue of belonging, raising questions about the grounds on which one may claim to belong to a particular group or community: is belonging a matter of being born a member of a group, or is it a matter of convention and social agreement?

Because Mowgli is raised by wolves and initiated into their society he has a hybrid identity. Shere Khan, the tiger, resists Mowgli’s hybrid identity, referring to it as “man-wolf folly”. He claims that his hatred of Mowgli is justified because Mowgli is intrinsically “a man, a man’s child”. On the other hand, Akela, the leader of the wolves, claims kinship with Mowgli on the basis that:

"He has eaten our food. He has slept with us. He has driven game for us. He has broken no word of the Law of the Jungle. … He is our brother in all but blood."

For Akela, Mowgli’s belonging is secured by his actions and his conformity with wolf society. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the most strident advocate of the idea that identity and belonging are a matter of “blood” is Shere Khan, the villain of the piece.

Nuance and ambiguity

By the end of the first Mowgli story it may seem that those, like Shere Khan, who claim that one’s identity is what one is born to be, carry the day – since Mowgli is cast out of the jungle. Though he speaks of leaving the jungle and going to “his own people”, he also qualifies this with: “if they be my own people” and he also goes on to reassert his claim to be part of the wolf pack when he follows this with the promise: “There shall be no war between any of us in the pack.”

Rudyard Kiplings Jungle Book has more than colonial stereotypes  ambiguity about identity belonging

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle trailer screenshot.

As Daniel Karlin points out in his Penguin Classics edition of The Jungle Books (1987), Kipling changed this in his final collected edition of the stories to: “There shall be no war between any of us and the pack,” and so in the later edition “he already identifies with men”.

Either way, Mowgli does go on to rule the jungle rather than just remain a member of the jungle “family” as seems to be suggested by the recent Disney live-action/CGI film based on the stories. So there are ambiguities there, but a close reading of the Jungle Book stories leads me to feel that there is more to them than an imperialist narrative.

After a century or so during which Kipling has frequently been painted simply as a cheerleader for the “white man” and his burden – and at a time when questions of identity and belonging are particularly relevant for Britain – perhaps it’s time for a more nuanced reading of his classic works that allows their ambiguities and ambivalences to come to the fore.

Sue Walsh, Lecturer, Department of English Literature, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Updated Date:

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.

also read

Kapila Vatsyayan, noted arts scholar and Padma Vibhushan awardee, passes away aged 92
Arts & Culture

Kapila Vatsyayan, noted arts scholar and Padma Vibhushan awardee, passes away aged 92

Kapila Vatsyayan authored nearly 20 books on different forms of art and their histories in her long career. Some of her notable works include The Square and the Circle of Indian Arts (1997), Bharata: The Natya Sastra (2006), Dance in Indian Painting (2004), Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts (2007), and Transmissions and Transformations: Learning Through the Arts in Asia (2011).

As Keeping up with the Kardashians comes to an end, reality's first family will continue to dominate cultural conversations
Entertainment

As Keeping up with the Kardashians comes to an end, reality's first family will continue to dominate cultural conversations

As their reality show comes to an end, a look at how the Kardashians have influenced major contemporary debates and will leave a lasting and complicated legacy of social change.

Amid a lockdown and development of livestreaming technology, chess is going through a renaissance
Lifestyle

Amid a lockdown and development of livestreaming technology, chess is going through a renaissance

As the global pandemic continues, American chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura is leading a renaissance in chess as thousands of viewers are tuning in on the livestream website Twitch.tv.