Study Guide

The Jungle Book Themes

  • Rules and Order

    Even if you haven't read The Jungle Book, you should be familiar with a few rules of the jungle. He's Tarzan, and we're Jane, for instance, and watch out for trees. These rules keep people safe when swinging through the branches and make sure traditional gender dynamics stay solid in the wild. In The Jungle Book we're introduced to an unwritten animal code (animals can't write) called the Law of the Jungle, or on the beach, the Law of the Beach. It seems to be a general moral code to maintain order in the wild.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. What exactly are the Laws of the Jungle? What purpose do they serve? Do they always succeed?
    2. Are the Law of the Jungle and the Law of the Beach the same thing, just in different places? Why or why not?
    3. Do the animals always abide by these laws? What happens if they don't?
    4. Which animals don't have laws? How does this make their community different from the animals who do?

    Chew on This

    The Law of the Jungle personifies the animals more by showing us that they adhere to human-like laws.

    Animals who don't abide by the Law of Jungle don't seem to last long in the jungle.

  • Revenge

    You've heard the phrase an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth before. In the jungle, you have to add a fang for a fang or a hide for a hide or a thirty-foot-long recently shed snakeskin for a thirty-foot-long recently shed snakeskin to the mix. Animals take their revenge seriously in The Jungle Book. With all that Law of the Jungle talk, you'd think they'd be more civil, but mostly the Law encourages sweet, sweet revenge. Watch your back.

    Questions About Revenge

    1. Why is Mowgli expected to kill Shere Khan? What does Shere Khan have against Mowgli?
    2. Why does Kaa hate the Bandar-log? What does he do to exact his revenge against them?
    3. Does Mowgli take revenge on the wolves for kicking him out of the Pack? Or the humans for kicking him out of their village? Why or why not?
    4. Why doesn't Kala Nag ever try to take revenge against the men who have captured him?

    Chew on This

    Revenge is a dish best served cold, which is why Mowgli bides his time before putting an end to Shere Khan—when the not-so-vicious tiger is napping.

    If Shere Khan had gone away, Mowgli never would have tried to kill him. Mowgli's revenge kill of Shere Khan is more a result of the tiger bothering the wolves than the tiger actually being a danger to Mowgli.

  • Violence

    A website for family-friendly movie reviews ranks The Jungle Book (1994) a 3/10 on the violent scale, with 1 being a cuddly puppy barking loudly and 10 being a Rob Zombie movie. We'd have to rank the book a little higher, though. In the book, the animals of the jungle (or beach, or bungalow) are constantly aware of the violence around them. They have to hunt to survive and they have to fight to show their strength. Pacifists need not apply.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Who is more violent—man, or animals? Why? Support your answer using the text.
    2. Are any animals especially violent? Are you surprised that any animals are more peaceful than you'd expect them to be? If yes, then who? If not, then what does this say about violence in this book?
    3. Does the violence, whether from man or animal, always serve a purpose? Is it always justified? Is it ever gratuitous?

    Chew on This

    The jungle may have a law, but it doesn't have a court system, so the punishment is often death.

    Both man and animal are seen hunting for survival, but in the chapter "His Majesty's Servants," the animals don't understand why men fight each other, seemingly just for the sake of it. They understand survival, not war.

  • Courage

    We often associate animals with courage and bravery, like the three animals fearlessly searching for a way home, or the noble pig fighting for his farm. So it's unsurprising that the animal heroes in The Jungle Book are overflowing with courage, too. That and, of course, courage and hero-status pretty much always go together. It's kind of their thing.

    Questions About Courage

    1. Is Mowgli naturally courageous, or does his courage grow as he does? Explain.
    2. Which other characters in the Mowgli stories show their bravery, and which are cowards? Are any characters a mix of the two?
    3. Why is Kotick brave when all the other seals are content following the pack?
    4. In "Her Majesty's Servants," which of the animals are courageous? Which are cowardly? Which are both? Are any of the animals afraid of the same thing?

    Chew on This

    The animals in the chapter "Her Majesty's Servants," which live among men, are much less courageous than the animals in the rest of the chapters, which are raised in the wild.

    Tigers are often associated with courage, but ironically, Shere Khan might be the least courageous creature in the book.

  • Coming of Age

    The protagonists of almost all the stories of The Jungle Book—all three Mowgli chapters; Kotick, the white seal; and Little Toomai—are all children, or as they're known in the jungle, cubs or pups. But there comes a time when all cubs and pups must grow up into big-bad bears or bulls or men. And that time is usually near the end of a story, when things are getting nice and dramatic.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. What moments mark the transition for Mowgli/Kotick/Toomai from child to adult? How can you tell?
    2. Is the jungle's version of adult different than society's version? If so, how? And if not, explain the overlap.
    3. Were any of these characters actually children to begin with? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Mowgli is forced to come of age early because there is no such thing as adolescence in the jungle.

    Both Kotick and Toomai end up becoming like better versions of their fathers in their respective stories. Kotick becomes a leader, but leads his fellow seals to safety, and Toomai becomes an elephant handler, but one who has seen the secret elephant dance, unlike his father or anyone else.

  • Foreignness and "The Other"

    The Jungle Book was written by a white guy who lived in India while India was under British rule—and thought this was a pretty cool arrangement. As if that wasn't enough, he threw animals into the mix with this book. So we have British people, Indian people, Aleut people, even some Afghans, and almost all of them are viewed from the points of view of animals who think all these people are equally foreign. Just who, or what, is the "other" in these tales? It can be dizzying to think about, but let's power on.

    Questions About Foreignness and "The Other"

    1. No, really, who would you consider the "other" in these stories? The Indians? The British? All men? The animals? Is it the same in all the stories? Get specific, please.
    2. "Rikki-tikki-tavi" is often viewed as an allegory for imperialism. Could you say the same for any of the other stories?
    3. Do the animals always act human, or do they sometimes act in ways you don't understand? How does this other—or not other—them?

    Chew on This

    To Mowgli, everything is foreign, both the world of animals and the world of man. But since he is raised by wolves (and a nice bear), the world of man is even more foreign to him.

    "Rikki-tikki-tavi" aside, the story that most explores foreignness is "Her Majesty's Servants," although it's focused less on the difference between cultures, and more on why some people, and some animals, blindly follow orders, while others don't.

  • Principles

    You may have heard someone exclaim, "It's a jungle out there," by which they mean that it's dangerous and chaotic (or they're watching Jumanji). Because of the meaning of this idiom, you might be scared in the jungle—those animals could do anything to you. Well, that's not exactly true. The animals we meet in The Jungle Book often abide by a strict moral code. They have honor to uphold, after all, so you can sleep safely in your tent knowing they'll only devour you if they have a really good reason to!

    Questions About Principles

    1. Mother Wolf and Father Wolf may be honorable, but does the rest of the Wolf Pack have strong principles? What does this say about them, and what does this say about Ma and Pa Wolf?
    2. What promises does Mowgli make, and how does he keep them?
    3. Why is Kotick so determined to save his fellow seals, even though they don't seem to care for themselves?
    4. How have Kala Nag's principles been altered and shaped by his captivity?

    Chew on This

    Baloo is honorable for honor's sake. He has no reason to stand up and care for Mowgli other than the fact that he cares about him.

    Kotick might be the only seal with principles. He risks his own life for the lives of the other seals, even though those seals don't care for their own lives.

  • Betrayal

    You may have already read all the stuff we had to say about principles elsewhere in this section.

    But if you have, well, then you can go ahead and scratch that. Unless you're Shere Khan, of course, in which case please keep your claws to yourself, mister.

    See, not all the animals have principles in The Jungle Book. In fact, there's often a betrayal that happens in each of the short stories. The Lion King may have the Circle of Life, but The Jungle Book has a cycle of betrayal and revenge, so be careful whom you trust.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. How does the Wolf Pack betray Mowgli? Does he forgive them? Does Mowgli betray them?
    2. Does the village of man betray Mowgli in the same way? Does Mowgli betray the men, like Buldeo the hunter? Do they deserve it?
    3. Why don't the seals want to follow Kotick after he works so hard to find them a safe beach? Does he consider this a betrayal?
    4. Does Toomai betray Kala Nag by telling Petersen Sahib the location of the Elephant Dance? Why or why not? To dig deeper, read up on the Elephant Dance in the "Symbols" section.

    Chew on This

    Mowgli wouldn't rejoin the wolves if they begged him, because their betrayal in kicking him out is too great to forgive.

    On the opposite side of things, even though the seals laugh at Kotick when he basically saves all their lives, he continues to try to save them instead of going away on his own.

  • Family

    The jungle isn't all death, destruction, and disease in The Jungle Book, and animals often stick together. Wolves have their packs, seals have their pods, and mongooses (unofficially) have their troubles, although you don't have to remind Rikki-tikki-tavi of that.

    Although most of these families only care about their children until they're old enough to fend for themselves, they play a critical part in raising these kids to survive in the wild. The animals who stick together, survive together.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why do Mother and Father Wolf decide to take Mowgli in and raise him? Why can't they do anything to allow him to stay in the pack?
    2. Why does Mowgli have a hard time finding a family? Why does he end up alone in the end?
    3. Could Messua be Mowgli's actual mother? Why or why not?
    4. How is Toomai's relationship with his father similar and different to Kotick's relationship with his father, or Mowgli's relationship with his ersatz families?

    Chew on This

    While our protagonists—Mowgli, Kotick, Toomai—each have a family (or foster family), they all have to go off on their own in order to achieve their goals.

    Mowgli and Rikki-tikki have something in common: Neither has a family, but they get taken in by a family of a different species.