Thanks for joining us on The Jungle Books readalong!
For today’s post, I will get some disclaimers out of the way (spoilers: The Jungle Book is problematic, all of your faves are problematic, Rudyard Kipling is problematic), I will talk about Rudyard a little, and I will give you some things to think about while you’re reading.
I haven’t read this book before so I know I’m going into this with some assumptions about the story and characters. I have seen the animated Disney movie and the more recent live-action Disney movie, so as we go along I may discuss big differences between book and movies.
There are two major approaches in reading this book. You can read it as solely a “kids story” about talking animals, with adventure and growing up and terrifying survival lessons; or you can read it as solely an allegory of British imperialism, analyze all of the overt and covert racism, and observe justifications of “might means right”. I’m going to do my best to combine these two approaches. I am not going to argue that this book isn’t problematic and racist at times (because it is) but I’m also going to highlight some of the really excellent storytelling and structure. Just because I praise things about this book doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have flaws. I guess this shouldn’t really need to be said but…IT’S A DISCLAIMER.
Rudyard Kipling had a really tempestuous life. You can read a short biography of him (with pics) here. He lived in India at a couple different times in his life, so he had first-hand knowledge of life there (at least for a white guy). He lived with foster parents in England for a time, but they abused him and his sister so his parents took them back. As an adult, Kipling married Caroline Belestier and had kids, but his daughter Josephine to sickness and his son John to World War I. He also had a nervous breakdown at some point.
Despite or because of the bad times he experienced, Kipling wrote prolifically, mostly short stories and poems. The only other story I have read by Rudyard Kipling is Kim, which has many of the same themes, problematic bits, and excellent storytelling (in my opinion) as The Jungle Books. Rudyard Kipling is best known for these books, as well as Just So Stories and Captains Courageous; his poem “If” is probably his most-quoted work. He was a very popular author during his life, and at 23 he was already a celebrity. Apparently Henry James called him “the infant monster” because of this, which I find hilarious. But James and Kipling did end up as friends.
Kipling was a staunch imperialist, and it shows in The Jungle Books. During the Victorian era, the British took over lots of countries and territories, partly for the lolz, partly for the cool stuff, and partly from a self-proclaimed desire to civilize the natives through British culture and religion. They basically marched in wherever they wanted and justified it by saying “it’s for their own good! They’re just ignorant savages!” etc etc. Imperialism=not very cool. I’ll point it out occasionally as we go along, but I’ll try not to belabor it. There’s a nice and brief summary of British imperialism here at the Victorian Web.
Things to think about as you read through the book:
- Mowgli crosses a lot of physical and social boundaries in the book (for example, from the animal to human worlds). Stay alert for characters acting out and going outside of their species, society, language, or crossing boundaries of some kind.
- Coming of age stories are everywhere in this book (not always Mowlgi’s!). Stay alert for characters growing up (or leveling up) in some way.
- Who has the most power in this book (a character, a species, or whatever)? What does that power consist of – is it physical? mental?
- Family – what does a family consist of, according to this book? According to different characters?
- There’s a lot of violence in The Jungle Books. When (if ever) is the violence justified?
All of my information can be found in the links above or in the 2004 Barnes and Noble softcover with introduction and notes by Lisa Makman.