You remember Aesop, right? He's the Greek slave who is credited with creating a whole bunch of fables, stories that usually contain animal characters and portray particular lessons or moral teachings. Well, Kipling took a page out of Aesop's playbook when writing "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" because the tone is totally fabulist. (LOL. Sorry.)
Check out the moralist tone:
That night at dinner, walking to and fro among the wineglasses on the table, [Rikki-tikki] could have stuffed himself three times over with nice things; but he remembered Nag and Nagaina […]. (38).
Although Rikki-tikki could indulge in the finer things in life, he chooses not to because they'll only slow him down in the battles to come. The tone of that passage slyly suggests that this anti-gluttony attitude is one the reader should also take up when necessary. In fact, many aspects of Rikki-tikki's character, from his courage to his curiosity, are held up by the novel's tone as characteristics that its readers—originally young boys—should emulate.
On the flip side are characters like "feather-brained" (78) Darzee. Rikki-tikki's complaint that Darzee doesn't "know when to do the right thing at the right time" is aimed as much at the reader as it is at the bird (69).
Kipling enjoys himself some adventure stories. His tales often center on action-oriented travelers going to foreign lands and risking all for the thrill and reward of dangerous circumstances. And Rikki-tikki's got all the adventure of an Indiana Jones flick, just on a smaller, more domestic scale.
The garden might not seem like an untamed wilderness from a human's perspective, but when you shrink your view down to a mongoose's size, suddenly the very same garden changes into a jungle. The mundane backyard becomes a land fraught with dangers such as poisonous snakes and summer storms that act like floods. And our protagonist mongoose must brave them all if he's to keep the British family safe and win the prize of a comfortable life. Let the adventure begin!
And we also have to mention another possible allusion under this category: looking at the bones of the story, we've got an intrepid hero who kills a scary (male) monster and then follows a second scary (female) monster back to her lair to kill her. Hmmmm. Sounds to us a lot like Beowulf—the prototypical English adventure story, if there ever was one.
"Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" follows the typical coming-of-age model for a boy's adventure story. Well, typical in that a boy goes from being a boy to being a man. The fact that the protagonist is a mongoose is a little atypical, but, hey, mongooses have to grow up too.
Like a typical boy's coming-of-age story, Rikki-tikki starts off a young mongoose who has never left his parents' side. Thanks to a summer storm, he's whisked away from them and enters the care of a British family. In their garden, Rikki-tikki takes on the role of adult mongoose and does battle with the resident snakes.
At first, he makes some mistakes such as not killing Nagaina when presented with the opportunity (30) or thinking Karait less dangerous than the cobra (35). But as the story continues, the mongoose grows in skill, courage, and confidence. By the end, he's a snake-chomping powerhouse.
Kipling's definitely tapping into some Aesop with "Rikki-tikki-tavi." Just like a classic Aesop fable, the animal characters teach a moral meant for the human readers to follow. In the case of this short story, we're taught that humans should take on the characteristics of Rikki-tikki—courageous, pragmatic, adventurous, curious, action-oriented and protective.
Of course, what's a fable without a foil: an ant to compare to the grasshopper, or a hare to a tortoise? The other animals exist to provide a counter example to Rikki-tikki—as in, don't be these guys.
Darzee is a flighty bird who is more interested in creating songs than doing useful things to protect the garden. Yeah, don't be that guy. Chuchundra is a muskrat who slinks about at night because he's afraid of Nag. Don't be that guy either. Instead, be Rikki-tikki and be awesome.
Despite its page length, "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is an epic at heart, and most epics are named after the hero they feature. Beowulf is about Beowulf. The Odyssey means "the story of Odysseus," and Virgil titled his epic, the Aeneid, after its hero as a shout-out to the Odyssey.
And "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is about a mongoose named Rikki-tikki-tavi. Just like any epic hero, Rikki-tikki must face a of series challenges and triumph over a villain. By doing so, he learns new skills, grows in strength, and comes of age during the quest. That little mongoose deserves top billing in the title just like any other epic hero. And get top billing he does.
Click on over to our "Epigraph" section for more of Kipling's borrowings from the epic tradition.
No surprises here. The ending to "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is a straightforward ending to the typical hero-goes-a-questing story. But just for the sake of consistency, let's take a look all the same:
"Oh, it's you," said [Rikki-tikki]. "What are you bothering for? All the cobras are dead; and if they weren't, I'm here."
Rikki-tikki had a right to be proud of himself; but he did not grow too proud, and he kept that garden as a mongoose should keep it, with tooth and jump and spring and bit, till never a cobra dared show its head inside the walls. (110-111).
Like the true hero, Rikki-tikki defeated the threat to his home, the cobras. Although he takes a rest from his long adventure, he stays valiant in his destiny of being the hero and keeps his home safe from then on. Like we said, it's pretty straightforward, nothing too surprising.
Let's screw on the postcolonial lens and see if we can view this thing in a different light. If you check out our "Characters" section, you'll find that we discuss Nag and Nagaina as representative of India. After all, cobra imagery goes deep into Indian culture, and not just from fear of its poisonous bite. The culture also reveres the cobra, and the Hindu religion portrays it alongside some of its most important deities.
By defeating the cobras, Rikki-tikki has made the house safe for the British colonizers, but he had to destroy an important symbol of the Indian culture to do it. Here, the walls of the military encampment are seen less as keeping out cobras than as keeping the bungalow safe from India. Remember, during the time of the story, the British military maintained a presence in India to conquer and colonize the nation for imperial wealth, in part justifying its efforts by claiming to civilize what they saw as a "primitive" land (source).
In a way, we can almost see Rikki-tikki as a dark force in the story. As a creature native to India, Rikki-tikki conquers his native land for the comforts and trinkets of the bungalow, becoming a subject of colonization to do so.
Want more? Check out our "Setting" section for more on the bungalow and the garden as representatives of Britain and India.
The setting of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is restrained to a bungalow and its garden, so we don't have travel far to take in all the sights. But even though it's a small setting, the landscape is filled with subtle meaning and context that's super important if we're to understand the conflict between Rikki-tikki and the cobras.
The human's bungalow is a place of wonder and bounty for a mongoose like Rikki-tikki. There, he's constantly presented with more food than he can possibly eat, and the place is filled with such (then) modern wonders as a bathtub, kerosene lamps, writing-table, and western-style beds (15). Like most other aspects of the novel, how we read the bungalow depends on how we read the story as a whole.
If we take the classical route, the bungalow represents a safe haven from the wilds of the garden (which we'll get into in a minute). Like Camelot or the Shire, it's the place where the hero finds safety from the dangers of the world. It's also the place the hero must protect at all costs to maintain peace throughout the land, erm, backyard at any rate.
But if we read the story via postcolonial theory, the bungalow takes on a distinctly different appearance. It becomes the site of colonial power within the garden and represents "the impact of Western technology on an ancient, essentially spiritual civilization" (source). In other words, what was once a part of India has now been taken over, replaced with a bungalow to house the colonizer and his family. In this light, the bungalow seems the invading force, disrupting the natural balance of garden. And speaking of the garden….
The garden is technically a part of the bungalow's plot, but it remains "only half cultivated, with bushes as big as summer-houses of Marshal Niel roses, lime and orange trees, clumps of bamboo, and thickets of high grass" (18).
This description sets this garden apart from anything Kipling's British or American readers would find in their backyard. The bamboo and citrus trees give it a distinct feel of what they'd have called the Orient—i.e. various parts of Asia. Its status as "half cultivated" suggests a wild, jungle-like vibe, a foreign place for its British inhabitants.
Just like the bungalow, we will read the garden differently depending on our take on the story. If the bungalow is seen as the safe haven for Rikki-tikki, then the garden is its counterpart—an uncivilized, wild, and dangerous landscape. It is the home to the villainous cobras, so, like Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, it poses a risk to the protagonist's safe haven. Our hero must conquer or tame it or, at the very least, return alive (preferably all three).
On the other hand, we can also look at the garden as India itself. Under the pressure of colonial rule (the bungalow), the garden has become half cultivated, meaning that part of it is shaped by the colonists but part of it remains as it once was. The dangerous cobras lurking in it aren't villains trying to destroy the hero's safe haven; they're natives trying to preserve their way of life. The danger it poses to the human characters has less to do with its inherent evilness that with bone-headed humans not knowing how to deal with it.
Of course, you can read these places differently if you read the story in a way other than the classical or postcolonial. Feel free to open up your interpretations to fit your own reading of the story.
At the hole where he went in
Red-Eye called to Wrinkle-Skin
Hear what little Red-Eye saith:
"Nag, come up and dance with death!"
Eye to eye and head to head
(Keep the measure, Nag.)
This shall end when one is dead;
(At thy pleasure, Nag.)
Turn for turn and twist for twist —
(Run and hide thee, Nag.)
Hah! The hooded Death has missed!
(Woe betide thee, Nag!)
Ah, poetry. It has so many different uses. It can describe a landscape, profess love, and can break all its own rules. But Kipling is tapping into an even older poetry tradition for this poetic epigraph—that of the epic poem.
In antiquity, poems were the chosen medium to tell the tales of heroes and their adventures. The reason was that ancient cultures didn't write a lot of stuff down. Paper was a scarce resource, and chiseling words into stone tablets can be a tad tedious. So they told a lot of stories orally. Poetry's use of meter and rhyme made the stories easier to memorize and more engaging when recited to audiences. Both the Odyssey and Beowulf originated from different epic traditions.
What's that have to do with the tiny tale of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi"? Kipling taps into the epic tradition with this epigraph. This scene could easily be from any heroic verse. It has a hero, a villain, a fight to the death, and even a few thees, thys and woes thrown in for that old-timey flavor.
Sure. The hero is tiny carnivore, a large stick could kill his enemy, and everything takes place in a garden. But, that doesn't make this story any less epic at its core, and his poetic epigraph helps readers get into that mindset from the get-go.
(Want more? Surf on over to our "What's Up with the Title" section for more on Kipling borrowing from the epic tradition.)
Kipling wrote "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" for children back in 1894, but it's plenty accessible for young 'uns and adults here in the far-flung future of the twenty-first century. The sentences flow, the language is concise, and the word choice is user-friendly.
Oh, sure, there may be a dated word or foreign name to throw you a bit, such as cantonment (1) or Brahm (24). But most editions of the story will come with handy footnotes to help you along. Even if the footnotes are lacking, the difficult words are few and far between. And Shmoop is here to help.
Kipling's writing style is pretty kid-friendly. Everything from sentence structure to word choice is basically arranged to make things as accessible as possible. Here's an example:
Rikki-tikki smashed two eggs, and tumbled backward down the melon-bed with the third egg in his mouth, and scuttled to the veranda as hard as he could put foot to the ground. Teddy and his mother and father were there at early breakfast; but Rikki-tikki saw that they were not eating anything. They sat stone-still, and their faces were white. (87)
The sentences may be a little long by today's standards, but the flow and ease between subject and verb still make them accessible to all reading levels. The word choice remains on the safe side of simple. Sure, a child might have to ask what exactly a "scuttled" movement looks like and most houses don't come with a veranda these days, but these instances are few and far between.
That's actually the short story's stylistic advantage. A child learns these new words by asking an adult or looking them up as they appear. Since these more difficult word choices don't appear very often, the reader won't get frustrated by having to stop and question the meaning every sentence or so. This makes "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" and excellent stylistic choice to build those reading muscles.
Whenever you see a shotgun in a story, it's a symbol. (We don't know if that's actually true or not, but it's probably a pretty good bet.)
And it's definitely true for "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." Both the shotgun and the stick represent man's control over nature and his ability to bend nature to his will. And by bend nature, we mean kill it. See, Kipling's protagonists are generally go-getters. They prefer action over something namby-pamby like science, politics, or understanding. They get the job done Schwarzenegger-style, and that's about that.
Teddy's father is no different. Sure, he nurses Rikki-tikki back to health, but he understands mongooses to be useful critters that will be friendly when fed (12). In other words, the mongoose is not a threat—unlike snakes. The father sees Karait as threatening Teddy, so he comes to beat him (the snake, obvs) to death with a stick (36). When the father hears the scuffle in the bathroom, he blows Nag away with the shotgun (61). (Too bad Rikki-tikki got there first.)
Rather than understand the threat or try to rearrange his garden to minimize it, he simply uses his power as a human to remove the threat, permanently. Whether you see this as a positive or negative aspect in the story will depend on your reading. The father protecting his family from the cobras? Good. The family invading the cobras' land by force? Eh, not so sure about that.
And in either reading, the shotgun and stick represent man's power over nature—the power of death.
Let's get this out of the way right now: mongooses' eyes don't actually glow a fiery red when they get angry. Kipling invented that whole thing specifically for "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi."
Okay, now that we've got the zoology out of the way, what does this odd eye pigment have to do with the story? As they say, eyes are the window to the soul.
We know that Rikki-tikki's eyes "[grow] red and hot [when] he is angry" (32). This fiery temperament might not be such a great trait in a different kind of story, if it led the protagonist to action without thinking. But in "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," temper is a good thing: it leads him to action and makes him brave.
And then there are Nag's "wicked snake's eyes that never change their expression, whatever the snake may be thinking of" (23). This expert, unreadable poker face hints at Nag's foreign nature. No one can read a snake's eyes because the snake is distinct from anything the narrator would consider normal. Pretty creepy.
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.)
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?"
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?
We're just going to throw this out there. Think about the story of the Garden of Eden. A quick refresher, if you need it:
In Judeo-Christian tradition, God creates Adam and Eve and sets them down in the Garden of Eden, an awesome paradise. They get tricked out of that paradise (and innocence) thanks to the maneuverings of the wily serpent/ Satan.
And now think about the story of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." There's an innocent boy in a garden. He's threatened by a snake. (Sound familiar? Yeah.) But instead of getting kicked out of the garden, he gets to stay in the garden. The snake is defeated; innocence is preserved.
And that sounds a lot like a reversal of Eden to us.
Though the name may be daunting, this one is actually an easy concept once chopped up into littler pieces.
The third-person part of things means the narrator isn't a part of the story. He's an outside entity looking in. We can tell this because the narrator uses the third-person pronouns "he" and "she" to describe every character. If the narrator were inside the story—what's called a first-person narrator—there'd be an "I" pronoun popping up. Since we don't have one, we have to go with a third-person type narrator.
Now for "omniscient." That part means the narrator can go anywhere and know anything. The narrator isn't tied down to the perspective of one character at all times (like, say, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone). He's all-knowing, like the god of the story. In fact, "all-knowing" is literally what omni ("all") scient (knowing) means.
We can tell this is the case for "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" because the narrator occupies the minds of many different characters. Usually, the narrator focuses his storytelling efforts on Rikki-tikki's point of view. But every now and then, the narrator will jump to another character's perspective. For example:
Nag was thinking to himself, and watching the least little movement in the grass behind Rikki-tikki. He knew that mongooses in the garden meant death sooner or later for him and his family; […] (27)
Notice how this paragraph has leapt out of Rikki-tikki's perspective. We're receiving Nag's thoughts and looking at something behind Rikki-tikki's back. These two bits of information can't be known to Rikki-tikki, so the information must be coming from a source outside the story.
This type of back and forth between character's thoughts and perspectives is a clear sign we've got an omniscient narrator. Added to the third-person we discussed earlier, and we get "third-person omniscient" narrator. Simple enough, right?
Exposition is just a fancy way of saying background information, and every story has background information the reader needs to know to proceed. It's the "who," "what," "where," "when," and "why" of the story. Every now and then, we even get a "how" thrown into the mix.
In "Rikki-tikki-tavi," the exposition is contained in the beginning of the story. We learn who Rikki-tikki is and how he comes to be with the British family. We also discover a lot of useful information on the nature of mongooses—information to help us understand why Rikki-tikki fights against the cobras. We also meet the other players of the story such as Darzee, the British family, and Nag and Nagaina.
Roughly speaking, the exposition ends once we have all this information. For this story, that's when Nag and Nagaina slither away after having confronted Rikki-tikki. At this point, we know who almost every character is and what their place is in the story. We also understand what the conflict will be, so now it's time to get the exciting stuff underway.
The rising action is the part of the story where the action begins to, you know, rise. Pretty accurate label, no? Another way to put it: the conflict heats up and the difficulty increases for the protagonist.
In our short story, the rising action consists of Rikki-tikki's battle with Karait. Since it's the mongoose's first kill, it helps his build his skills toward the inevitable scuffles with the cobras.
Rikki-tikki's vendetta against all snake-kind is complicated by the fact that the cobras have wants and desires of their own—like the desire to raise a family. Like many expectant parents, they're no longer content with their little garden hole; they want a second bedroom, and maybe even a playroom or family room.
To do that, they decide to kill the entire British family, meaning that Rikki-tikki has to step his game up—stat.
The climax is the turning point in the conflict. Everything about the story changes, and there's no going back to the previous status quo set up in the exposition.
In "Rikki-tikki-tavi," that's the battle with Nag. The battle is Rikki-tikki's most daunting challenge, one that almost kills him. Also, the battle changes the relationship between our protagonist and the antagonists. Before this, Rikki-tikki was a nuisance to the cobras, but now he's a genuine threat to Nagaina. The same change happens in Rikki-tikki. After he kills Nag, his confidence grows. He realizes he has to deal with Nagaina now, as she'll be out for blood.
The name "falling action" is a bit misleading. It might sound like the action is dying down at this point, but actually the action can be just as intense as ever. What's falling is the conflict between the antagonist and the protagonists, and it falls toward the resolution.
And in this story, the falling action constitutes the battle between Rikki-tikki and Nagaina. First, Rikki-tikki has the upper hand as he destroys Nagaina's nest. But then Nagaina regains it when she attacks the family on the veranda. And when Rikki-tikki comes back with the egg, things switch again. Of course, Nagaina gets the egg back, so that's another switcheroo. See? This action isn't tapering off at all. Rather, the conclusion inches closer while the tension ratchets up from all the reverses in the power struggle.
The falling action ends with that final bit-o-suspense before we hit resolution: Rikki-tikki and Nagaina both enter the cobra's den. Who will emerge?
Finally, we reach the resolution. The conflict ends, the plot threads are tied off, and we discover the fate of those involved.
"Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" plays things safe and gives us the happy resolution. Rikki-tikki emerges from the den, proclaiming Nagaina dead. The animals rejoice and peace comes to the garden. Rikki-tikki stays with the family and lives his days out as their protector.
And the cobras? They never enter the garden again.