Study Guide

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi from The Jungle Book Themes

  • Coming of Age

    Rikki-tikki starts the story as a young and inexperienced mongoose, which this means he has only one place to go from there: up. Yes, like many coming of age stories, "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" is about a boy who grows into manhood by having himself an adventure. The adventure tests him every step of the way, and by overcoming the trials, the boy mongoose learns about himself, develops his skills, and discovers his reason for living to become a man mongoose. Sure, Rikki-tikki is a little furrier than our usual coming-of-age hero, and his journey only takes him as far as the backyard. But trust us. There's some major maturation going on.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. Do any characters other than Rikki-tikki come of age during the story? If so, who and why do you think this character comes of age? If not, why do you think it's important for the story to only have one character come of age?
    2. Think of another coming of age story—anything from another Jungle Book story to something like, say, Harry Potter. Any similarities between this story and Rikki-tikki's? Any differences? What does this comparison tell you about the theme in "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi"?
    3. Are there any ways where Rikki-tikki seems to lessen in maturity during the story? If yes, where and why is this scene important? If not, why do you think the story characterizes Rikki-tikki on this absolute path toward coming of age?

    Chew on This

    Coming of age is the major theme tying "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" to the rest of the Jungle Books stories.

    Rikki-tikki doesn't actually come of age in the story. As the narrator points out, he's a "true mongoose" (7). This means he's not maturing so much as doing what a mongoose does best, snake killing.

  • Man & the Natural World

    "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" shows man (and woman) in a really awkward place within the natural world. On the one hand, Teddy and his family are obviously super into nature. Teddy plays in the garden and the family takes in Rikki-tikki—a wild creature, mind you—without much hesitation. On the other hand, nature just seems out to get them. Three snake attacks in less than three days? That's got to be a record. Then to further complicate matters, the only way the family can protect themselves from nature as represented by the cobras is by domesticating a natural creature like Rikki-tikki. Perhaps the story's view of nature can best be summed up as: "Wow, isn't nature wonderful? Sure hope it doesn't kill us."

    Questions About Man & the Natural World

    1. Nature is often depicted as dangerous in "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." Do you see any instances where it's seen as benign or helpful? If yes, where and how does this affect your reading of the story? If no, why do you think such a moment is absent from the story?
    2. What member of the British family seems most at ease with nature? Which one the least at ease? What does this tell you about this theme as seen in the story?
    3. By the end, do you think Rikki-tikki is a creature of nature or of civilization?
    4. The human father is practical while the human mother is a bit flighty. On the other hand, Darzee is a flighty songbird while his wife has a good head on her feathers. Why do you suppose the characterization of these couples is reversed like it is? Does it say something about man and the natural world?

    Chew on This

    In "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," the division between man and the natural world is also a division between Imperial Britain and India, with the British Empire and civilization on one side, and India and nature on the other.

    It's possible to read "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" as arguing that the man's ownership of the garden is a result of survival of the fittest (a relatively new idea when Kipling was penning the story).

  • Good vs. Evil

    "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" comes down pretty hard on the whole good versus evil thing. In this corner, wearing his fur raised, we have the valiant, the fearless, the good Rikki-tikki. He fights to protect the innocent people of the bungalow, especially their boy, Teddy. In the other corner, wearing scales black as onyx, are the evil, vicious, and downright nasty cobras, Nag and Nagaina. They want to kill the humans so they can become the undisputed rules of the garden. Between these corners is a middle ground where no character can survive. Seriously, you're either with the good guys or you're the evil ones here. Get off the fence and pick a side.

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. Connecting into our theme of "Man and the Natural World," do you think nature is seen as a force for good or evil? Why?
    2. Would you say Darzee and Chuchundra are good characters or evil ones? Something in the middle? None of the above? Explain your reasoning.
    3. Do you think it's possible to read the British family as an evil force in the story? If yes, how? If not, then why not?
    4. As Nag points out to Rikki-tikki, "You eat eggs. Why should not I eat birds?" Well, why not? does the story distinguish between Rikki-tikki's squashing of eggs and Nag's eating of baby birds? Where do we see evidence for this? Do you agree with the story's reasoning?

    Chew on This

    The characters aligned with good in the story are action-oriented.

    The only evil characters in the story are cold-blooded snakes. The good characters are all warm-blooded animals.

  • Courage & Bravery

    Bravery sets Rikki-tikki apart from the other characters. Darzee isn't brave; he just cowers in his nest, hiding from Nag and Nagaina. Chuchundra isn't brave; he comes out at night to avoid danger. But Rikki-tikki, oh yeah, that guy is brave. He fearlessly jumps into a battle with Karait to save Teddy from certain death. He follows Nagaina into her cobra den to bring their battle to a permanent close. With the story presenting a type of moral lesson through talking animals à la an Aesop fable, one thing becomes clear: in the garden of life, definitely be the mongoose.

    Questions About Courage & Bravery

    1. Do you think Nagaina is a courageous character or not? Explain your answer with evidence from the story.
    2. Create two lists. On one list goes the brave characters, on another the cowardly ones (a possible third list is the neutral characters). Look at the brave characters. Based on the names there, what can you say about this theme in the story? Does comparing them to the more cowardly characters open up any new suggestions? What are they?
    3. Seeing "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" as a fable, what lesson is the story trying to teach the reader in light of Rikki-tikki's bravery? Do you agree with this lesson? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Rikki-tikki isn't a brave character. Since it's his nature to fight cobras, his fights are less about courage and more about natural instinct overriding all else.

    Chuchundra knows about Nag and Nagaina's temperament. So, his helping Rikki-tikki is actually a brave act despite his overall cowardice.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Postcolonialism

    Postcolonialism can be seen as a philosophy, a reconsideration of history, or a method of cultural studies. In short, it's a field with its work cut out for it. For our purposes, we can think of postcolonial readers as those "concerned with literature produced by colonial powers and works produced by those who were/are colonized" (Source). The basic idea is to read between the lines of the stories written by history's winners and see what may have be left out. With "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," what does the story leave out of its presentation of India? And once reincorporated into the story, does this ignored history change the way we perceive and find meaning in the story? Only one way to find out: we're going to have to shake things up a little.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Postcolonialism

    1. Do you think the postcolonial reading we've offered in parts of this guide presents an accurate portrayal of the story? If yes, why? If not, then why not? Each response should come with evidence from the story.
    2. How do you see characters like Darzee, Darzee's wife, and Chuchundra fitting into a postcolonial reading? Does this reading change their role in the story? If yes, how? If not, then why not?
    3. Pick another story in the Jungle Books and read it with a magnifying glass toward postcolonial evidence. What do you see? Can this other story be read as a postcolonial text? When comparing this story to "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," does it suggest any new outlooks on postcolonialism in general? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Kipling snuck support for India into "Rikki-tikki-tavi" by giving the cobras motivations and feelings.

    The story sees the cobras as evil not because of the postcolonial view we're proposing here but from of Rikki-tikki's youthful, immature life view. See "Coming of Age" for more.