Rikki-Tikki-Tavi from The Jungle Book
If you've been rummaging through our "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" learning guide, then you've probably seen us mention something called a "postcolonial reading." But, we hear you asking, what exactly is postcolonial, and how do you read something as postcolonial as opposed to just, you know, reading it? Boy, have we got an answer for you.
In the world of literary studies, postcolonialism is what we'd call a literary theory. Now, let's break down some common assumptions right now.
When we say postcolonialism is theory, we don't mean it's a scientific theory that began life as a hypothesis, was tested, retested, and eventually confirmed valid through repeated observation of certain outcomes. Gravity this is not. We also don't mean it's a theory as in, "I theorize that by adding nutmeg to the recipe my muffins will taste scrumptious." That type of theory is simply speculation, and, besides, nutmeg always tastes delicious when added to baked goods, so it's not even an interesting speculation.
Okay, so now that we know what we're not talking about, what are we talking about? Well…that's pretty complicated and would likely take several big, bulky books to answer. But by compressing those books down to their essence, we might get something that reads like this:
Theory is a way to analyze a piece of literature that looks for certain key features, and once discovered, those key features can determine how one should interpret the story.
Imagine a lenticular picture. If you look at a lenticular picture from one angle, it might look like a man, but if you peek at it from a different angle, the picture morphs into a monster. When considering literary theory, literature acts like the picture, and theory is the angle that alters the picture—i.e. how we interpret the story. And a wide variety of schools of theory exist for our reading pleasure, including: poststructuralism, feminist theory, gender theory, Marxism, reader-response, phenomenology, new historicism, and, of course, postcolonialism. (Check out some definitions here.)
Changing the Angle
So, postcolonial theory:
Postcolonial scholars take a close look at "the history, culture, literature, and modes of discourse that are specific to the former colonies of England, Spain, France, and other European imperial powers" (source). Translation: they read works by, about, and set in former colonies. Think, India, China, South Africa, the Caribbean, and so on. They take two major approaches:
(1) They try to rediscover literature, art, and other cultural works that might have been suppressed in a country while it was under European colonial rule. Once rediscovered, these works are studied, analyzed, and perhaps introduced into their particular canon, becoming another hit on history's scholarly Billboard Chart.
(2) They study the cultural works of former colonial powers such as Britain to see how colonial cultures airbrushed their conquest into something good—by, for example, suggest that the European way of life was civilized, normal, and morally sound, while the traditional ways of life of the colonized people were primitive, abnormal, or just plain wrong.
In both cases, postcolonialists have a big problem with what they call the "master-narrative." This "master-narrative" comes from the imperialist worldview, where the colonial subject is marginalized and his culture either seen as harmful or just becomes invisible.
Postcolonialists are basically standing on the side waving their arms and saying, "Hey! Let's think about the people who actually got colonized, why don't we?"
Returning to Rikki-tikki and Co.
And so, there are two ways you can interpret "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." You can read it from the traditional angle—that of the classic hero's quest. Or you can read Kipling's short story from the angle of postcolonialism, reading to discover what assumptions Kipling's imperialist culture might have brushed under the rug.
Or, hey, why not do both?