In Praise of the Great Rats in Literature. Literally.

charlotte's web

Rats on the sidewalk in the middle of the day: just another sign that the COVID-19 pandemic turned life upside down. It seems that when people went into hiding, rats came out. The cessation of normal commerce deprived city rats of dietary staples like restaurant refuse and subway litter, and hungry rats came up in search of something to eat. As vaccinations restore dining and travel, replenishing the old rat supply chains, rats will presumably return to their accustomed, more secretive lifestyle. Few city dwellers can be expected to regret it.

But I’ll still be thinking about rats. With a name like Ratner, it’s sometimes hard to avoid. What’s more surprising, perhaps, is that across the globe and across literary history writers not named Ratner have expended so much ink on rats. That reflects a central fact of rats’ existence: with the possible exception of dogs, no mammal depends more on humanity than the rat. Robert Sullivan observes in his book Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, “Rats live in man’s parallel universe, surviving on the effluvia of human society; they eat our garbage.”

Wherever humanity goes, rats follow. There will probably be rats on the moon some day and rats on Mars, weird ones living below us in tunnels and sewers, hiding and stealing and doing whatever they must to survive. The indelible association between us and “our mirror species,” the rats, has according to Sullivan given them a “perverse celebrity status” in our culture. Indeed, from the Chinese zodiac to Shakespeare’s plays to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, human stories have always been, like human cities, infested with rats.

The prodigious rat literature is a joy to read, but it’s not really about rats. As you may have guessed, it’s really about us. We seem to see in rats a secret part of ourselves. And why not? The first mammals, the morganucodontids that arose over 200 million years ago, were probably not dissimilar to rats. Rats represent that which is alien to us yet lives in our midst, what is repugnant to us yet resembles our innermost and earliest selves.


The Rat in Elsinore Castle

As the subtitle of Sullivan’s book attests, nobody likes rats. According to the rat Nicodemus in the 1971 children’s classic Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, they are “about the most hated animals on earth.” Nicodemus attributes rats’ woeful reputation to their stealing, but any rat press agent must also contend with rats’ history of spreading diseases like bubonic plague and their habit of swimming up out of toilet bowls. They are dirty and wild and they infiltrate our sacred, civil spaces in the dark of night. Idiom as old as moveable type uses rats to signify hidden corruption and contamination: I smell a rat.

The sense of rat filth and savagery near at hand, scarcely kept at bay in sewer and subway tunnels, has given rats a prevalent role in modern horror fiction.

And yet the idiom always refers to human rottenness. Shakespeare, for instance, seems to have worked the idiom into Hamlet as both a motif representing human sin and a principle of story structure. The inciting incident of the play—Claudius’s murder of his brother King Hamlet—creates an odor of moral rot perceptible to watchman Marcellus in Act I when he famously states, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” The odor turns Hamlet into a literal ratcatcher.

In Act III scene ii, Hamlet forms a plan to catch his uncle like a rodent by staging a play that will prick his uncle’s conscience. He nicknames the play “The Mousetrap.” Immediately afterward in scene iv, Hamlet discovers someone hiding behind the arras in his mother’s room and, thinking it’s Claudius, Hamlet cries out, “How now? A rat?” and stabs the intruder, who turns out to be the busybody Polonius, not Claudius. Hamlet becomes a murderer of the innocent just like Claudius, and catches himself in his own guilty mousetrap. Shakespeare would like us all to know: Hamlet is the rat. We are all the rat.


Rat Horror

How unnatural is the notion we have anything in common with a rat! Dark netherworld thieves and scum divers, garbage-eaters, baby-biters, and boundary-crossers, rats are alien invaders. While they generally observe a respectful distance from us, they also eat, nest, breed, and die in constant proximity to human beings and sometimes exhibit a remarkable lack of fear; I have seen one sauntering across the main concourse of Grand Central Station late at night like a blasé commuter on his way back to Poughkeepsie. The rat traps everywhere in New York City suggest the détente between man and rat is an ongoing negotiation, whose balance could tip in either direction. That sense of rat filth and savagery near at hand, scarcely kept at bay in sewer and subway tunnels, has given rats a prevalent role in modern horror fiction.

Bram Stoker’s 1891 short story “The Judge’s House” is an early classic of the genre. In it, a student named Malcolm Malcolmson determines he must resist the temptations of friends and leisure in order to prepare for his math exams. He isolates himself in a desolate, abandoned house in a town where he knows no one. The problem is that rats make such a racket in the walls of the old house that he can’t concentrate. One particularly big and menacing rat keeps glaring at him with red eyes from atop a dirty, old chair. Malcolmson does what any quick-witted math student would do when faced with a demonic rat: he throws his book of logarithms at it. The conflict escalates (exponentially!) until the rat finally changes from rat to man, revealing himself to be the ghost of the vindictive judge who once lived in the house. The judge, famous in his lifetime for mercilessly hanging everybody, drapes his noose around the math student’s neck.

The rats in this story, like the idiomatic rat in Elsinore, are projections of the character’s inner feelings; they appear to symbolize Malcolmson’s temptations by distracting him just as social temptations distract him in the beginning of the story. At the same time, they’re like agents of conscience that torment him and sentence him to death. Horror-story rats in general follow this pattern: they torment people by, in a sense, turning their own desires around on them at the behest of conscience. If a rat tortures a criminal by running around unpredictably and threatening to crawl up his pantleg, as it does in the Witold Gombrowicz story, “The Rat,” you can bet the criminal himself ran amok, as Gombrowicz’s character Hooligan did.

And if rats eat somebody in a horror story, as they often do, you can bet that character was hungry. The first guy eaten by rats in Stephen King’s “Graveyard Shift” is described as “eating cold hamburgers with great relish” shortly before his death. In George Orwell’s 1984, the secret police torture Winston first by starving him and then by exposing him to starving rats so that he fears they’ll eat him. Likewise, in “The Rat Ship,” a story by Franz Kafka’s friend Ernst Weiss, the prospect of death by hungry rats befalls hungry people—in this case, the crew of a ship locked in Arctic ice. They wait helplessly as rats eat their dwindling rations and convert them into more rats, which eventually eat the crew; through digestion, the people become rats, demolishing the fragile barrier between man and rat once and for all.

We’d rather imagine being chewed on by a rat, perhaps, than acknowledge a taboo feeling of hatred towards a loved one.

Perhaps the quintessential tale of rat horror as an inversion of human appetite, however, is “The Rats in the Walls” by H.P. Lovecraft. In that story, ravenous rats haunt an ancient crypt where the de la Poer family has for thousands of years been practicing cannibalism on human beings kept in cages like livestock. “Why shouldn’t rats eat a de la Poer as a de la Poer eats forbidden things?” Lovecraft writes.

The symbolic pairing of appetite with punishment in these rat stories lines up neatly with one of Freud’s core postulates: conscience turns people’s appetites against them in the form of irrational neuroses and nightmares. The rat-punishment link in horror narratives is not, in fact, particularly subtle in any of these stories. Judges, juries, conscience; in Stoker’s “The Judge’s House,” the rat is the ghost of a judge. In King’s story “Graveyard Shift,” the rats watch the protagonist “like a jury.” Lovecraft describes the rat horror in his tale as retribution for cannibalism and a supernatural expression of morality that’s “greater than that of conscience and the law.” And it’s a retired judge who, in Gombrowicz’s story “The Rat,” tortures a criminal with a rat:

And all the time—the rat.
Without a break—the rat.
Only—the rat.
The rat, and the rat, and the rat.

Since rat-horror exemplifies Freudian ideas so well, it’s fitting that Freud’s classic 1909 case study of obsessional neurosis remains with us in the moniker “Rat Man.” Rat Man suffered from obsessive thoughts of loved ones being tortured by rats. (The particular rat torture in his obsession involved a heat source that would drive a rat to chew its way inside a person’s body—through a sensitive orifice meant principally for egress.) During this patient’s treatment, it became evident to Freud that these thoughts had a latent meaning and psychodynamic function. They consistently arose in the context of other thoughts of which the patient was less aware—thoughts involving desire, frustration, and anger that in turn made him feel guilty. The rats infesting his imagination appear to have burrowed in on behalf of his guilty conscience in order to punish him and vanquish the former feelings.

Guilt is the most unpalatable of emotions, even when it attends sins of thought rather than action—even when, in other words, we merely speak daggers instead of using them. And because guilt is unpleasant, it’s hard to contemplate. We’d rather imagine being chewed on by a rat, perhaps, than acknowledge a taboo feeling of hatred towards a loved one, even though such feelings are natural and as commonplace as the old Bible stories that depict them so vividly; see Cain and Abel. (The Bible features rodents in Leviticus as abominations forbidden to be eaten and in 1 Samuel 6 as a Philistine “guilt offering”!) Rats themselves may seem unspeakably horrific because of the guilt they represent. Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” begins with an allusion to the Giant Rat of Sumatra, a beast so terrifying that Sherlock Holmes declines to tell Watson anything more. It’s a story, Holmes says, “for which the world is not yet prepared.” The most unspeakable terrors are always those inside of us. This is no more than the wisdom of the ancients, which Freud codified into a modern psychology.


Rats Personified

When writers personify rats, bestowing upon them human names and voices as they do in children’s stories, you might expect the rats to say and do terrible things. In fact, quite the opposite. Generally, rats are sympathetic characters, and often they’re heroes. Moreover, with conspicuous frequency writers personify the rats specifically as writers! It seems that many writers identify with rats, taking their side as though to rebut the calumnies against them and to reclaim despised parts of human being with sympathy for those small, scared, dirty, selfish, rodentlike, and hungry parts within us all. Rather than banish the rat part, humane writers attempt to reincorporate it into their idea of humanity.

Nicodemus, who leads the rats with “an air of quiet dignity,” hopes to redeem the rats by founding a new society in which they’ll eat by farming, not stealing.

That’s the case in ancient and modern stories alike. The myths underpinning the Chinese zodiac place the cunning rat in the first astrological position, and in Aesop’s fables, and those of Jean de La Fontaine a millennium later, rats represent forgivable human traits of vanity and egoism. James Joyce, the modern master at reclaiming and redeeming the neglected and despised, charts across his oeuvre a course of increasing sympathy towards rats until, at the apex of his career, he becomes one. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s protagonist Stephen Dedalus associates rats with scum and death but in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom spies an “obese grey rat” in a graveyard crypt and admires his wisdom, empathizes with his treasure hoarding, and honors him as an embodiment of the lifeforce—“the grey alive”—amidst death and inanimate matter. In Finnegans Wake, Shem the Penman’s inkbottle house resembles a rat’s nest and his artistic method is to hoard like a rodent; he lives amidst the “stinksome inkenstink” of “pure mousefarm filth.”

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien are three works of children’s literature that feature talking rats, and in all of them the rats are especially literate creatures invested with authorial intelligence. Grahame’s Water Rat writes poetry and despairs that the ducks do not appreciate it. Meanwhile, the Sea Rat in Wind in the Willows is a storyteller and the only character whose dialogue is indistinguishable from Grahame’s lovely and ornate style of narration.

While Charlotte the spider of Charlotte’s Web is more famous than Templeton the rat for writing—she saves Wilbur the pig from the farmer’s dinner table by writing words of praise for him on her web—she could not have written those words without Templeton. Templeton is “not well liked” by the other barnyard animals, who regard him as selfish, but everybody relies on Templeton to do their dirty work and he always helps, if only because he depends on Wilbur’s food supply. It’s Templeton who provides words to Charlotte by salvaging old magazine ads from the dump where he forages. And just as Grahame assigns authorial speech to the Sea Rat, White gives Templeton the most wordy and fancy dialogue of all the animals. Like the Water Rat auditioning his verses before the bourgeois ducks, Templeton feels underappreciated. “Never a kind word for a rat,” he says.

Finally, O’Brien turns the ratty vice of thievery into a virtue with lab rats who acquire human levels of intelligence from an experimental drug, and go on to steal human knowledge and tools. They learn to read and come to regard books, not garbage, as their “greatest treasure.” Nicodemus, the eye-patched elder who leads the rats of NIMH with “an air of quiet dignity,” hopes to redeem the rats by founding a new society in which they’ll eat by farming, not stealing. Scientists are now teaching rats to drive miniature cars, so perhaps they’re on their way.


The Story of a Ratner

Rat redemption is a noble goal for any writer but, because of my last name, I have an unusually personal stake in it. People have occasionally called me by the nickname “Rat,” like Mike Damone calls his friend Mark Ratner in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The nickname was affectionate, but not exactly an honorific.

If the rat carries humanity’s emotional baggage, repressed and projected onto our mirror species, then it hides at the edge of my consciousness in a particularly personal and insistent way, like a shadow-self gnawing at me from within. An old self-loathing seems to want to use the name rat to mock me, to shove me down into the ratty scummy ditch like Wells the bully shoved Stephen Dedalus.

I don’t remember exactly how or when I became “Austin Ratner” once and for all, but it probably wasn’t my decision.

The facts of my name, however, are far more beautiful, and dovetail inexplicably with some of the redemptive rat literature mentioned above. It’s almost as though Kenneth Grahame and Robert C. O’Brien wrote their rat stories with me in mind—and isn’t that the definition of a classic work of literature? It seems that it was written just for you?

Let me tell you the story of my name. When I was in third grade at Malvern Elementary School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, my teacher Miss Wilk told me to choose my name. I had been writing the name “Austin Gordon” on my homework one week and the next writing the name “Austin Ratner.” That was because my father Norm Gordon had died of cancer five or six years before that, and my mom had remarried a man named James Ratner. It was Miss Wilk who recommended to me all my favorite books, including The Phantom Tollbooth, James and the Giant Peach, Half-Magic, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. The last title seemed to be a hint: embrace your inner rat.

I don’t remember exactly how or when I became “Austin Ratner” once and for all, but it probably wasn’t my decision. There was a court proceeding, I remember, in which my stepfather James Ratner formally adopted me. My old last name “Gordon” moved to my middle name, and my old middle name “Eli” was lost completely like a children’s blanket accidentally left behind at a bus stop. I always felt a tug of regret about the old names. Letting go of “Gordon” and “Eli” seemed to mean letting go of a past life in which my father Norm was still alive and still my father. “Gordon” moved into hiding at the edge of consciousness with its meanings of love and loss, grief and rage and survivor guilt.

I always wanted to be a writer and for a time it seemed like the name “Austin Gordon” might qualify me better than the more overtly Jewish-sounding “Austin Ratner.” Flash Gordon was a superhero with blond hair and the poet Lord Byron, who was a Gordon on his mother’s side, was the Sixth Baron of Rochdale. Those Gordons were descended from kings. My Gordons were descended from penniless Jews in Bialystok, Poland, just like the Ratners, but I figured no one had to know.

It helps to embrace my inner rat that James Ratner, who gave me his name, happens to be about the finest person I know, one who calls to mind the best literary rats. Like the rat in the “Hades” chapter of Ulysses, he brought life into my graveyard. Like the Rats of NIMH, who rescue widowed Mrs. Frisby and her children from the farmer’s plow, he rescued my widowed mom and my brother and me. And he did it with a kind of grace I have not known in anyone else, man or rat, except perhaps in the very fine person of the Water Rat of Wind in the Willows.

The Wind in the Willows is a charming book that cleared the way for later classics like Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne and Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel. (Grahame’s book also gets a shout-out in the Grateful Dead song “Scarlet Begonias.”) Grahame writes in a more adult, rococo, and poetic style than his successors, but he anticipates the psychologically realistic account of childhood in modern children’s literature, leaving in the dust the Victorian moralizing of a batshit-crazy work like Babes in the Wood. He may well have invented the form of psychologically realistic, sympathetic, non-moralizing children’s literature.

Some of the characters resemble adults in Willows like Rat and Badger, and some like Mole and Toad resemble children. The latter receive care, education, and protection from Rat and Badger. In the beginning of the book, Mole ventures forth from his house to see the wide world, makes friends with Rat, and decides to stay with him in his house on the banks of the river. In the chapter entitled “Dolce Domum,” Rat and Mole go exploring and head back to Rat’s house at dusk, but Mole cannot finish the journey. On the way, he catches the scent of his old house and dissolves into tearful nostalgia. Rat accompanies Mole down into the burrow that’s his old home—revisiting his childhood, in a sense—and it’s cold and dark and there’s nothing to eat. Mole despairs, but Rat saves the day.

“The Rat paid no heed to [Mole’s] doleful self-reproaches. [Rat] was running here and there, opening doors, inspecting rooms and cupboards, and lighting lamps and candles and sticking them up everywhere.” Some mice children come to sing carols and Mole despairs that he has nothing to feed them. Rat says, “What a fellow you are for giving in! … [P]ull yourself together, and come with me and forage.” Rat gives money to one of the mice, sends him out for groceries, and provides food for all. They have a dinner party. “The Rat said little or nothing, only taking care that each guest had what he wanted, and plenty of it, and that Mole had no trouble or anxiety about anything.” It’s what Jimmy Ratner would have done. Foraging is one of the great Jimmy Ratner traits. Rat revives Toad with provisions in the same way. “The penetrating smell of cabbage reached the nose of Toad as he lay prostrate in his misery on the floor, and gave him the idea for a moment that perhaps life was not such a blank and desperate thing as he had imagined.”

The rat is survival in the darkness. The rat is life in death. For a writer, there could be no better name.