An Essay On The Jungle Book By Rudyard Kipling

Categories: The Jungle Book

When reading Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, one could look at the Jungle as a "city" and the animals as its inhabitants, its civilization. A civilization is "the type of culture and society developed by a particular nation or region or in a particular era" (American Heritage 246). Each animal in The Jungle Book represents a different part of the "city." In a city, there are the lazy people, the hard workers, the thieves, the cheaters, the criminals, etc. It is all the same with the Jungle.

Kipling uses the Jungle and the animals to represent human civilization, and sees civilizations and cultures as being threatened by "danger." A danger is an "exposure or vulnerability to harm or risk" (American Heritage 334). This danger can be represented by many different things: war with other nations or lack of food, for example. As a civilization gets older and older, part of that culture is lost, and even that could pose as a danger. One of Kipling's main themes in his writing was the way that civilization is always being threatened by danger.

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That theme is clearly seen in The Jungle Book. And what is this danger that is present in this novel? This danger is symbolized by none other than the tiger Shere Khan. Through the use of Shere Khan and the Law of the Jungle, Kipling expresses how civilization is always being threatened, while at the same time using the Law of the Jungle and all of the animals to metaphorically show morality and civility in human civilization.

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The easiest way to see how this "civilization" is being threatened is to break it down and look at what each animal represents. As Angus Wilson put it; The chief glory of [Kipling's] art in the Mowgli stories lies in his extraordinary combination of the natural and animal world with the world of the humans. Baloo is a bear and a housemaster; Bagheera is chiefly the leopard but a wise, sensual man more worldly than the bear; Kaa is primarily a python, delighting in his coils and glistening skin, lusting chase and kill, but he is also an exceptional and clever man, knowing himself yet accepting The Law, perhaps a true intellectual as opposed to the Bandar-Log who are monkeys and "intellectuals"; the jackal is Mussolini's forerunner; and Shere Khan Hitler's. (Wilson 205) Kipling uses these animals to represent society, its laws and morals. "He certainly believed that moral ideas can be derived only from experience, but that as there is much that is common and universal in all human experience so is there a common and universal law lying beneath all the variations of racial and national cultures" (Stewart 2). His use of the animals and the Law of the Jungle expressed this moral idea of what happens when one follows or when one disregards the law. "It is a law codified in custom, and its recognition and preservation is the distinguishing principle of civilization. People or societies or individuals ignoring 'the Law' thereby diminish themselves-becoming...'lesser breeds.' To show a wolf pack as within 'the Law,' and a chatter of monkeys as outside it, is simply to...enforce the depth and reach of this idea" (Stewart 3).

To fully understand Kipling and his writings one should know more about his background. Kipling was born in India and this became a setting for many of his works (Paffard 43). He lived in various places, including India, England, London, United States, and Burwash, Sussex. His wife was a very domineering woman and had trouble accepting the varied aspects of Kipling's character. While in America, Kipling became a "'harder man,' as his political beliefs started to stiffen" (Essa). Kipling believed very much in law and morals, and living by the law. He uses the metaphor of the Jungle to express these laws and morals: " the context of the Jungle Books, Kipling is casting the impressive disguise of authentic moral law over certain aspects of animal behavior instinctively evolved to secure the survival of a species" (Stewart 2). Kipling was best known for his work on laws, traditions, and rituals, as well as the daily struggles in society's communities (Seon 75). All of these ideas are found in The Jungle Book. "The vital contrast in The Jungle Book is not between man and beast, but between law and anarchy..." (Raskin 202).

The danger that is present in The Jungle Book is the "breaking" of the Law. This law that is spoken is built on Kipling's fears and beliefs. "A specter haunted Kipling's imagination, the specter of a breakdown of authority...[Kipling sees authority as] as an earned and measured conservatism that has reckoned the costs of civilization and takes them to be worth paying...It is out of this moderate conservatism...that he built his notion of "the Law" in The Jungle Books" (Wilson 208) The main antagonist in the novel is Shere Khan, for he is the one who is breaking "the Law." Right off the bat, the reader sees Shere Khan almost as an outlaw, a self-imposed outcast, one who has nothing to do with the rest of the Jungle. He symbolizes the outlaw, the criminals and convicts who care little, if at all, about the feelings of others. He represents the bad side of this Jungle culture (McClure 205). He does as he pleases and does not abide by the Law of the Jungle. After Tabaqui tells Father Wolf that Shere Khan has shifted hunting grounds, Father Wolf responds, "He has no right! By the Law of the Jungle he has no right to change his quarters without fair warning. He will frighten every head of game within ten miles; and I -- I have to kill for two, these days" (Kipling 3). By shifting his hunting grounds and not letting the rest of the Jungle know, Shere Khan is disturbing the rest of the Jungle, causing disorder among the other animals. It is this kind of action that is threatening to the Jungle. Not only does Shere Khan disturb the Jungle, but the village as well. The reason why Mowgli ended up with the wolves in the first place is because Shere Khan attacked his village. But it is the second time that Shere Khan attacks that village, after Mowgli has been outcast from the wolf pack, that ultimately leads to his downfall. One way that Shere Khan disturbs the Jungle is the way in which he provokes the cubs to dislike Mowgli. Mowgli was born a leader, and whether the cubs and Shere Khan are willing to accept that is up to them. Shere Khan tells the young wolf cubs that they should not be led by a man's cub, and stirs up the situation. He tries fervently to get the cubs on his side, so that when Akela (pack leader) dies they will join him and kill Mowgli. When Akela is dying, Shere Khan tries to speak at the council and become leader of the pack; "When they were all gathered together, Shere Khan began to speak -- a thing he would never have dared to do when Akela was in his prime" (Kipling 34). Shere Khan wants to be the next pack leader but Mowgli will die before he lets that happen. Shere Khan represents a danger not only to the Law of the Jungle, but to the people and Mowgli as well and while everyone in the Jungle fears Shere Khan, Mowgli does not. Constantly Mowgli is reminded that Shere Khan is an enemy, one who should be feared. "Little Brother, how often have I told thee that Shere Khan is they enemy?" (Bagheera in Jungle Book 27). One reason why Mowgli is not afraid is because Mowgli is a unique individual. He plays a very important role in the novel, as a leader and a punisher, enforcing the Law, and finally realizing his dual personality: I dance on the hide of Shere Khan, but my heart is very heavy.

My mouth is cut and wounded with the stones from the village, but my heart is very light because I have come back to the jungle. Why? These two things fight together in me as the snakes fight in the spring. The water comes out of my eyes; yet I laugh while it falls. Why? I am two Mowglis... (Kipling 133) This dual role that Mowgli plays is important when the situation regarding the pack and Shere Khan is exacerbated, and he is needed to subdue Shere Khan (Dobre 204). Mowgli is as much an outcast as Shere Khan, but where Shere Khan has outcast himself, Mowgli has been outcast by others. "Man Pack have cast me out. I did them no harm, but they were afraid of me. Wolf Pack, ye have cast me out too. The jungle is shut to me and the village gates are shut" (Kipling 133). Because Mowgli is not accepted anywhere he goes, Mowgli realizes that although outcast by both species, he is indeed a man. He uses his knowledge and advantage of being a man to help overcome Shere Khan for now he no longer fears him. "But remember when next I come to the Council Rock, as a man should come, it will be with Shere Khan's hide on my head. For the rest, Akela goes free to live as he pleases. Ye will not kill him, because that is not my will. Nor do I think that ye will sit here any longer, lolling out your tongues as though ye were somebodies, instead of dogs whom I drive out...!" (Kipling 40).

It is the maturity of Mowgli and his adeptness that helps destroy the danger that threatens the Jungle. Shere Khan is finally killed by Mowgli and his brother wolves. Although this "danger" has now been defeated, there will always be more, which is the point that Kipling is trying to make. Civilization will always be threatened by danger. "Rudyard Kipling always wanted his readers to know that 'the social fabric we are inclined to take for granted is fragile and that we must be forever watchful'" (Lampi).

The Jungle Book is not just a children's novel that speaks of a boy living with the animals, telling "three stories of Mowgli, a young boy raised by the animals in an Indian village" (Kipling). It is much more profound than that. It is a story of law and morals, of victory and defeat, and how good always triumphs over evil. Mowgli matures throughout this novel and becomes a man. He becomes a leader and leads his wolf pack into victory by defeating the much-loathed Shere Khan. This struggle between Mowgli and Shere Khan represents two things: a struggle between good and evil, where good ultimately prevails, and the threat of danger to a civilization. Civilization will always be vulnerable and susceptible to danger. There is no way to stop that and that is the main point that Kipling makes to the reader. Just because a leader comes along, like Mowgli for instance, and defeats the "danger," like Shere Khan, another danger looms around the next corner, for instance like the Bandar-Log. If the danger is present despite individuals like Mowgli, then what is the civilization's option? Or is the danger something society must learn to live with, another "law of the jungle"? Through the use of metaphors and literary devices, Kipling was able to write about an in-depth topic as a children's novel. As a man who believed very deeply in authority, Kipling uses his experience to write The Jungle Book and encourage respect for the Law of the Jungle.

Works cited

  1. American Heritage. (2021). In Retrieved March 20, 2022, from
  2. Essa, A. (2020). Political Beliefs and Literary Themes in Kipling's Work. All About History. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from
  3. McClure, J. (1988). Kipling and the Jungle Book: A Sourcebook. Routledge.
  4. Paffard, M. (2016). Rudyard Kipling. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  5. Raskin, J. (1961). The Law in the Jungle: The Psychological Basis of the Jungle Books. University of California Press.
  6. Seon, P. (2018). The Jungle Book and the Law of the Jungle. Bloom's Literary Criticism.
  7. Stewart, J. (1994). Kipling's Law: A Study of His Philosophy of Life. Susquehanna University Press.
  8. Wilson, A. (1977). The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works. Viking Press.
  9. Wray, R. B. (1971). Kipling's Mind and Art: Selected Critical Essays. Manchester University Press.
  10. Zipes, J. (1988). The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood. New York: Routledge.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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An Essay On The Jungle Book By Rudyard Kipling. (2024, Feb 12). Retrieved from

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