The Existential Rats of NIMH

mazes and roses

“The cage was my home for a long time. It was not uncomfortable… Yet just the fact it was a cage made it horrible… [but] by teaching us how to read, they had taught us how to get away.”

It is impossible not to instantly fall in love with a rat that spends his life musing so deeply about the most significant matters of existence. Although the tale of these field rodents revolves around Mrs. Frisby and her children, it is clearly Nicodemus who steals the spotlight.

While being held captive at The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Nicodemus and his friends struggle with a gamut of emotions: fear for their lives, uncertainty over their fate from day to day, hope for their freedom… it is, of course, hope that keeps them going through the electrified maze, despite the depressing realization that only a metal gate awaits at its end. It is the illusion that at some point freedom can be attained that pushes them to explore their surroundings, keep track of the scientists’ routines, and finally leads them out into the world. However, it is learning to read that truly changes these rats’ destiny. Reading… “using symbols to suggest a picture or an idea. From that time on it gradually became clear to me what these lessons were for, and once I understood the idea, I was eager to learn more.” It is reading that provides both the way out and the way to a more complicated existence.

“The real point is this: We don’t know where to go because we don’t know what we are… Where does a group of civilized rats fit in?” Being different, being self-aware, and being eager to learn made these rats a new breed… it made them want more out of life, and it made Nicodemus in particular wonder and worry “about the fact that whatever we ate, whatever we needed, must always be stolen. Rats had always lived that way. And yet — why?” There is that tiny yet powerful question… WHY? Why steal what isn’t theirs to take? Why live as thieves when they are such intelligent creatures? Why scrounge off society when they could be useful and self-sustaining instead?

To feed their curiosity and thirst for knowledge, the rats read within the study of a temporarily vacant home. Nicodemus learns about what he calls “the People Race” — since “the Rat Race” has nothing to do with rats at all– ” a race where, no matter how fast you run, you don’t get anywhere.” The rats were stuck in a rut — life had become too easy: they could steal food, electricity, tools, water, even air! A lack of work made the rats far too complacent in their lethargic existence. “We did not have enough work to do because a thief’s life is always based on somebody else’s work.” This is what bothered Nicodemus: the rats enjoyed the fruits of someone else’ labor while doing nothing for themselves. Sadly, thievery and laziness are not the grounds upon which great civilizations are built. A hard choice that to be made, and thus, The Plan came into fruition: to live without stealing. Unfortunately, not everyone agreed with Nicodemus’ plan for greatness. Many where perfectly happy and content with living like “fleas on a dog’s back” and doing nothing in exchange for their existence. For instance, Jenner complains about Nicodemus’ idea that “we’ve got to start from nothing and work hard and build a rat civilization.” That was far too much effort to achieve very much the same level of comfortable living — Jenner only cared about the end, but Nicodemus truly valued the means.

Clearly, Robert C. O’Brian drew many parallels between human beings and these fascinating rats. There are those who are aware of their responsibility to society and take pride in their hard work, while there are others perfectly satisfied with contributing nothing and taking as much as possible. Yet he is not pontifical about it — Nicodemus understands that it isn’t laziness that prevents Jenner from buying into his plan, it is his cynicism. Although Jenner and his group of dissenters die electrocuted while trying to steal some tools, it isn’t a moralizing death — after all, it seems Justin dies too while trying to save his friend. Nonetheless, there is a lesson to be learned and questions to be asked: what are we willing to die for? What do we contribute to the world? What do we value? … and lastly, WHY?

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Filed under Book Review, fable, fantasy

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