Skin and the Limits of Cross-Species Sympathy in The Jungle Books

Eleanor Reeds is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Connecticut, where her research focuses on voice, genre, and the reader in nineteenth-century British literature. She has published articles in Victorian Review, Twentieth-Century Literature, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, and The Lion and the Unicorn. Eleanor blogs at The Ivory Tower:


In 1926, American children were introduced to the eponymous hero of Bomba the Jungle Boy, the first in a series of syndicated novels and films to feature the adventures of a white boy in the Amazon. Although Bomba befriends parrots, monkeys, and pumas, he still longs for human company:

“…Bomba must go. He must find the men who have souls… For Bomba has a soul. And he must find the white men. For Bomba is white.”
He tore the puma skin aside and displayed his chest.
“Look… Look all of you…. I am white! Bomba is white!” (qtd. in Kidd 107)

Following in the lineage of characters cast away from civilization since at least Robinson Crusoe, Bomba wears clothing made from animal skins. His friend Pololu is a puma, yet, in the above excerpt, Bomba clearly distinguishes himself from such a friend by casting off his puma coat to display the hairless human skin below. Bomba can revoke his membership of the animal community merely by taking off the temporary animal skin. While his insistence on the racial marker of “white” is uncomfortable to read in its implication that people of color are to be associated with animals, the allegory of human difference thus suggested in this passage does not occlude the concrete reality of its presentation of difference between animals and humans. Bomba is human because he only wears an animal skin—as humans have and continue to do while the fur and leather industries still provide garments for consumers—and can always be distinguished from his animal companions through his hairlessness.


First hardcover edition. Roy Rockwood was a pseudonym used by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Image Credit: Amazon

Bomba’s most famous literary precursor is, of course, Mowgli, who appears in many of the stories by Rudyard Kipling that were collected in The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895). Mowgli’s inability to assimilate into the animal world is repeatedly indicated by his skin. For example, in “Red Dog,” Mowgli attempts to convince the wolves that he should assist them in resisting an impending attack by stating that “if the dhole come, Mowgli and the Free People are of one skin for that hunting” (282). Such a speech fails to convince the solitary wolf Won-tolla, a stranger who describes Mowgli as “a hairless one” (283). Indeed, wearing an animal skin is what marks Mowgli as a human rather than a wolf when he skins Shere Khan in “Tiger! Tiger!” This act of skinning is the fulfilment of his threat to “come to the Council Rock, as a man should come … with Shere Khan’s hide on my head” (19) and so it ultimately marks Mowgli as human. Mowgli’s internal conflict—between being a man and a wolf, being “of the Jungle and not of the Jungle” (199)—can never thus be resolved in favour of his animalistic identity because the fact of his human skin prevents it. While Bomba may be able to put a puma skin on and off at will, Mowgli can never fully embody his performance of animality as his human skin will always lie underneath. Unlike the animals who replenish their coats in the spring (306), Mowgli, even when clothed by the villagers, is unable to modify his bodily state and is thus unable to escape from his identity as a man.

Such an emphasis on the irrevocable identity marked by one’s skin may have troubling implications if one reads The Jungle Books as primarily allegorical. While Rudyard Kipling’s insistence on the skin as demarcating the boundary between species such as humans and wolves might lead some to assume a similar insistence on such a boundary between human races, his very assertion of species difference implies otherwise. The failure of the skin to successfully demarcate race is foregrounded by the skin’s contrastingly robust role in reinforcing the impossibility of mistaking humans and animals. By emphasizing the differences between man and animal, Kipling refutes the possibility of using animals as ciphers for humans: however anthropomorphized, animals are not humans and continually resist their interpretation as literary representations of humans through their non-human embodiment.

The most discomforting moments in the Jungle Book tales are when the anthropomorphized animals with whom we have come to identify behave in strikingly animal ways. For instance, the charming middle-class domesticity of Kotick’s parents in “The White Seal” is eminently recognizable as Matkah, the “wife,” is reprimanded for her lateness and she then tries to placate her husband by thanking him for being “thoughtful” in “tak[ing] the old place again” (68). This façade of stereotypical human behaviour has a brutally forced crack in it, however, as the male seal, Sea Catch, is described as “scratched and bleeding in twenty places; one eye was almost blind, and his sides were torn to ribbons” (69). Violence and its visibility on the skin bring a reader up short: these seals are not like us, after all. As Colleen Boggs has noted, nineteenth-century children’s literature often utilized this “double sense” as animals “stand in for children” yet also “remain animals, whose vulnerability and exposure to potential cruelty teaches children to be kind” (536). Kipling’s construction of empathy and reader identification with animals is paradoxically accompanied by his insistence on their otherness throughout The Jungle Books, reflecting the late Victorian reception of evolution in which the theory’s promise of commonality between man and animal was undermined by its identification of differences that could be utilized to justify not only cruelty to animals but to other races seen as sub-human.

Edward W. Said begrudgingly admitted in Culture and Imperialism that Rudyard Kipling was able to “get into the skin of others with some sympathy” (145). Throughout the series of short stories collected as The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, however, Kipling’s depictions of men literally “getting into the skin” of animals demonstrate the limits of such sympathy. In “The White Seal,” Kipling makes an emotive case for the cessation of the fur trade in the Artic Circle as he invites readers to share the pain of the eponymous Kotick when his friends fall victim to the men “with their heavy boots made of the skin of a walrus’s throat”: “Ten minutes later little Kotick did not recognize his friends any more, for their skins were ripped off from the nose to the hind flippers—whipped off and thrown down on the ground in a pile” (75). The seals are not merely killed but literally stripped of their individual identities as the men gather skins for profit. The fur industry’s gathering of animal skins brutally divides humans and animals as seals and other creatures are perceived as commodities.


Illustration by Henry W. Elliott, whose reports on Alaska were key sources for Kipling. Image credit: The Internet Archive.

The potential for us to overcome such a divide between man and animal through rhetorical means is questioned by other stories in which Kipling reveals the limits of cross-species sympathy. This is most evident during the joking around between Mowgli, Baloo, and Bagheera when they gather by the water in “How Fear Came.” Mowgli is trying to affirm that he and Baloo are equally starved in appearance but that it can’t be seen unless Baloo’s “hide were taken off” (155). While Baloo pretends that his modesty has been affronted, playing the part of the human who would be naked if his clothing was removed, Bagheera draws attention to the suggestion’s force for an animal without such an ability to lose its coat, joking that “Baloo is to be skinned” (155). Mowgli’s distinction between Baloo as “the cocoanut in the husk” while he is “the same cocoanut all naked” (155) suggests a commonality, a state of being of one skin, between animal and man, but Bagheera’s humorous misinterpretation of Mowgli’s suggestion works so well because this benevolent act of finding commonality is achieved metaphorically by the violent act of skinning. Mowgli’s rhetorical gesture of commonality only serves to remind a reader of the embodied reality of difference between species, revealing Kipling’s own recognition of literature’s limited power to get readers under the skin of those different from us.


Still from the 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book. Image credit: Disney


Works Cited

Boggs, Colleen Glenney. “Emily Dickinson’s Animal Pedagogies.” PMLA 124.2 (2009): 533-541. Print.

Kidd, Kenneth B. Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2004. Print.

Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Books. Ed. W.W. Robson. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.


2 responses to “Skin and the Limits of Cross-Species Sympathy in The Jungle Books

  1. Pingback: Guest Post for The Victorianist | The Ivory Tower·

  2. Pingback: Blog post examples | Geographies of Nation and Empire·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s