‘‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,’’ Rudyard Kipling’s famous children’s story about the battle between a mongoose and two cobras, seems to be a straightforward tale in which the hero and villains are clearly defined and good triumphs over evil. However, like most stories that deal with such themes, the methods by which good and evil are defined and represented can serve to make a greater ideological point. Kipling, who wrote during the height of British imperial power, was a well-known proponent of British imperialism, and his ideologies were not absent from his children’s stories. In the case of ‘‘Rikki- Tikki-Tavi,’’ Kipling uses the cobras, Nag and Nagaina, as a symbol of evil in order to demonize the Hindu culture and thereby promote the British agenda of rule over India.
When Nag is first introduced, he is described in simple adjectives that serve to clearly attribute an evil nature to him:
. . . from the thick grass at the foot of the bush there came a low hiss—a horrid cold sound that made Rikki-tikki jump back two clear feet. Then inch by inch out of the grass rose up the head and spread hood of Nag, the big black cobra. . . . and he looked at Rikki-tikki with the wicked snake’s eyes that never change their expression. . . .
Both objective and subjective adjectives are used to describe him: while an adjective like ‘‘black’’ reflects an objective observation, other adjectives, such as ‘‘horrid’’ ‘‘cold,’’ and ‘‘wicked’’ that do the most to cast Nag as evil, are descriptions based not on fact but on the narrator’s subjective bias.
Aside from these subjective descriptions, however, there is little else to indicate why Nag—and by extension, his wife Nagaina—merit the attribution of evil.
The concept of evil itself is, of course, also subjective. It is commonly applied to that which falls outside of the bounds of the laws and morals that govern a particular society. It might be construed that the snakes are evil because they kill—but killing, in the world of the bungalow garden, is not an act that deviates from its laws. The only governing law is the law of survival, by which all the characters, snakes included, are primarily motivated.
The big man who lives in the bungalow does not hesitate to keep a mongoose to kill snakes or to use his shotgun against the snakes as well (as he does twice in the story) in order to protect himself and his family from death. At the same time, Nag and Nagaina would not hesitate to kill the humans in order to preserve their lives and the lives of their children: That survival is their sole motivation in attacking the humans and Rikki-tikki-tavi is evident when Nagaina explains the rationale of their ambush to Nag: ‘‘When the house is emptied of people . . . [Rikki-tikki-tavi] will have to go away, and then the garden will be our own again. . . . So long as the bungalow is empty, we are king and queen of the garden; and remember that as soon as our eggs in the melon-bed hatch . . . our children will need room and quiet.’’
Not only is killing for survival regarded as acceptable behavior, it is exalted as heroic. Rikkitikki- tavi is deemed a hero for bringing about the death of Nag and Nagaina. He even resorts to what would otherwise be considered less-than-scrupulous means to achieve his triumph when he fatally attacks a sleeping Nag. In fact, the only character who expresses any reluctance at killing—Darzee the tailorbird, who refuses to help Rikki destroy the cobras’ eggs—is called ‘‘a feather-brained little fellow’’ for not understanding that the act of taking life is vital to his own self-preservation.
The narrator’s choice of adjectives in describing the snakes, then, is not justified by any evidence of deviant behavior. The perception of the snakes as evil, therefore, is based solely on the snakes’ adversarial relationship to Rikki-tikki-tavi and especially to the human family.
Indeed, the narrative voice’s bias towards the human family’s point of view not only casts the snakes as evil, but it idealizes and, therefore, depicts as good the human family. Rikki-tikki considers himself to be a lucky mongoose for having been taken in by a human family because ‘‘every wellbrought- up mongoose always hopes to be a house mongoose.’’ The narrative goes further than simply idealizing all of humanity, however, in specifying that ‘‘Rikki-tikki’s mother . . . had carefully told Rikki what to do if ever he...
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Like a Drowned Rat Mongoose
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.
Meanwhile, in the Cobra Hole
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.
Bathroom Floor Throwdown
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.
No Venom like a Woman Scorned
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?
All Hail the Warrior
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.