In “Mowgli’s Brothers,” Rudyard Kipling tells the tale of his celebrated “man-cub,” who is rescued from certain death as an infant and raised by a pack of wolves. Although a human being, Mowgli effectively becomes a “wolf cub” in nearly every other respect and grows to adopt the Law of the Jungle as his code of behavior. However, through his innate ability to reason, Mowgli soon recognizes the existence of the Law of Man as a distinct code of behavior, a recognition that immediately gives rise to a conflict between codes, sending Mowgli into an existential crisis. Mowgli is, essentially, a character trapped between the Law of the Jungle and the Law of Man. Mowgli’s struggle to resolve this crisis represents the tension between the opposed philosophical doctrines, empiricism and rationalism. Mowgli makes choices, defines his being, and is an existentialist as he exercises his will outside the structure of a particular dogma, making Mowgli a prototypical existentialist.
The Law of the Jungle, as explained explicitly in the story, is the set of rules that dictates the education, movements, and interactions of different groups of animals within the jungle and animals’ relationships to humans outside the jungle. While an important part of the communication between the beasts in the jungle is each animal’s need for food, the most important code pertains to killing man. The Law of the Jungle greatly limits an animal’s right to kill man because frequent hunting of humans brings “the arrival of white men on elephants, with guns and hundreds of brown men with gongs and rockets and torches” and disrupts the balance of the jungle. The Law of the Jungle also imposes rules that are particular to classifications of animals. On a wider scale, cubs are taught the Law of the Jungle through experiences within the jungle. With the help of elders and friendly beasts, such as Baloo the Bear, Mowgli develops his understanding of the Law of the Jungle and is able to build his position in the jungle through experience. Through this empirically gained identity, Mowgli is able to adhere to the Law of the Jungle and see himself as part of the pack. An analysis of Mowgli’s position as “Mowgli the Wolf” and his realization of “self” through his interactions with the jungle creates an empirically determined identity. As a philosophical doctrine, empiricism is defined by the contention that all knowledge of matters of fact (e.g. the jungle or the village) distinct and separate from the relation of concepts (e.g. mathematics or philosophy) is based upon experience. In short, all knowledge, outside purely conceptual relations, has its source in what is experienced, not what is simply imagined or thought. John Locke, often considered the father of British empiricism, argued in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding that in experience “all our Knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself.” Therefore, Mowgli’s knowledge of the jungle and of what it means to be a wolf comes from the empirical data that bombard his senses through his interactions with the jungle.
The Law of Man does not necessarily contradict the code followed in the jungle, but it certainly In this momentary separation from the Law of Man and the Law of the Jungle, Mowgli is a unique creation: he is an existentialist.” occurs exclusively and separately from the Law of the Jungle. Man, after all, exists outside the jungle, just as beasts exist outside the village. In the story, the codes of man, unlike the codes of the jungle, are revealed through negation and rational deduction. The Law of Man is not explained in the text like that of the Law of the Jungle; instead it must be understood through the way Kipling and other British people lived during the Victorian period. It is reasonable to assume that the codes humans follow in Kipling’s stories are the same codes that dictate human interactions in his era. A code of man, for instance, can be deduced as follows: when beasts from the jungle kill man with too great a frequency, the Law of Man dictates that the jungle should be torched and that animals should be killed or driven deeper into the woods. The code followed by man is, in the broad sense, about self-preservation.
The Law of Man during this late-Victorian era is primarily commanded by rules established by courts and by ethical and moral codes outlined by the church. The courts mandate that certain crimes, such as murder, are illegal. These types of actions are in opposition to the Law of Man and are, thus, punishable. The church defines moral human behavior with rigid statements about family values and individual obligation to God: fathers are expected to provide for their children and wives; mothers are expected to raise their children and support their husbands; and all of mankind is expected to respect God and his creations. Although there is little interaction with humans in the story, Mowgli does come into contact with one group of humans when he is attempting to acquire fire. It is Mowgli’s first exposure to a nuclear family, and he comments, “they are very like me.” The description of the family, although brief, suggests the importance of family and its place in the code of man.
Mowgli does not live under the Law of Man, yet it is apparent to the inhabitants of the jungle that he is different. It is not his sheer physical appearance that dictates this determination; it is something additional, something in Mowgli. During a conversation with the panther Bagheera, Mowgli has his first revelation. Bagheera, like Mowgli, spent his earliest years outside his inborn identity; men raised Bagheera, just as beasts raised Mowgli. Everyone in the jungle fears “Bagheera—all except Mowgli.” Kipling writes: In this exchange, Kipling presents the rational, innate beings of Mowgli and Bagheera: Mowgli’s innate being, regardless of the wolf identity he has gained through experience, is that of man; Bagheera’s innate being, regardless of the understanding of man he gained through his captivity, is that of the beast. The Black Panther, although feared in the jungle and aware of the code of man because of his upbringing, is still unable to withstand the power of the stare of “Mowgli the Man.” An analysis of Mowgli the man through his revelation near the end of the story creates an identity founded upon rationalism. Rationalism states that all knowledge can be obtained from reasonable deduction, from thought alone, independent of that which is experienced. Benedictus Spinoza, a seventeenth-century rationalist, argued in Tractatus Theologico-Politicus that “the natural light of reason does not demand anything which it is itself unable to supply.” Essentially, Spinoza states that everything people know is determined by and springs forth from universal laws and exists and acts in a certain and determinate way. Thus, Spinoza would see Mowgli’s return to the Law of Man as a self-determined necessity—Mowgli is man, he is not beast—it is mandated by universal laws that he returns to the Law of Man. During his final visit to Council Rock, Mowgli finds himself in a difficult situation. Here both Mowgli and Akela are to make a last stand before the pack. Mowgli is to be banished from the jungle, and old Akela’s position as leader is to be challenged by the pack because he missed a kill. Both situations arise from Shere Kahn’s hatred of Mowgli and from his manipulation of the wolf pack.
Both Mowgli and Akela can expect death as the outcome of their situations. However, because he is privy to Shere Kahn’s devious intention, Mowgli has other plans. Upon his arrival at Council Rock, “more than half the Pack yelled: ‘A man! a man! What has a man to do with us? Let him go to his own place.’” Shere Kahn responds, “No, give him to me. He is a man and none of us can look him between the eyes.” Akela then outlines Mowgli’s empirically understood identity as a wolf by saying, “He [Mowgli] has eaten our food. He has slept with us. He has driven game for us. He has broken no word of the Law of the Jungle.” The argument within the pack, between Shere Kahn and Bagheera, exemplifies Mowgli’s conflict. He is both man and wolf; he is a construct of two mutually exclusive beings. At this moment Mowgli begins to accept his future as man. He proclaims to his naysayers, “Ye have told me so often tonight that I am a man (and indeed I would have been a wolf with you to my life’s end), that I feel your words are true. So I do not call ye brothers any more, but [dogs], as man should.” Interestingly, though, Mowgli is neither man nor wolf in this instance; instead, he takes on a separate being in the revelation that his being is based on neither the empirically gained knowledge of wolf nor the rationally gained knowledge of man. Here Mowgli is not of a particular system; he is separate from the codes of the jungle and the codes of man; he is distinct and separate from any one dogma. In this momentary separation from the Law of Man and the Law of the Jungle, Mowgli is a unique creation: he is an existentialist.
Existentialism has its roots in the first half of the twentieth century, an era much later than Kipling’s. Existentialism is in opposition to empiricism and rationalism. For the empiricist or rationalist, knowledge gained through experience or reason can be obtained by any contemplative observer. However, the existentialist view of the problem of being is separate from and must take precedence over the philosophical investigation of knowledge, its acquisition, and its relation to being. For the existentialist, being cannot be an object of simple inquiry. Being is only revealed to the individual. It is not mandated or determined by laws or natures; it cannot be acquired through experience or through reason. Mowgli’s existence at Council Rock is basic: he is present at that moment in a volatile world. He understands his being in terms of the moment of his existence, not in terms of his significance as abstraction. This is apparent because Mowgli makes decisions in terms of their impact on that particular existence. As he stands at Council Rock, naked and longhaired like a wild animal but wielding flame like a powerful man, Mowgli is aware of his freedom of choice, but he is ignorant of his future. At Council Rock, after sending Shere Kahn whimpering into the jungle with a singed brow, Mowgli demands of the pack that wants to banish him that “Akela goes free to live as he pleases. Ye will kill him, because that is not my will. Nor do I think that ye will sit here any longer, lolling out your tongues as though ye were somebodies, instead of dogs who I drive out—thus! Go!” Here Mowgli is not bound by a code or by a predetermined duty to save Akela but is compelled to assume the responsibility of making choices.
In these final moments between the Law of the Jungle and the Law of Man, Mowgli anticipates a philosophical trend that followed Kipling’s time. Perhaps it is unintentional on the author’s part, but Mowgli is a character of great complexity, so much so that Mowgli’s pursuit of being connects the philosophy of Kipling’s predecessors and the great thinkers who followed his era.
Anthony Martinelli, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Rudyard Kipling, Published by Gale Group, 2010