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As in real life, the human-animal relationship in children’s literature is often antagonistic. In the two texts, ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies,’ and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the hostility is not only felt in one direction, but is experienced by the animals and the humans toward each other. However, because Beatrix Potter wrote ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’ for a younger audience, she handles the human-animal enmity in a more simple and comforting manner. Her words along with her self-illustrations work together to present a straightforward story. In Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, author Robert C. O’Brien opens with a story similar to Potter’s featuring an animal family, but then, by adding a second plot about lab rats, complicates his narrative and engages older readers as well. Along with the introduction of scientific experimentation, O’Brien adds different forms of hostility, not only instinctual, to create a complex story of human and animal relationships. When the humans inject the rats with fluid to make them more intelligent, it goes beyond the typical antagonistic relationship and creates a whole new dynamic. Analyzing Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH in light of ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’ enables a reader to understand levels of complication in a children’s book that can win it a Newberry Medal.

Even during points of human conflict, the prose in ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’ is written in a comforting manner for children. When Mr. McGregor first approaches the bunnies, they are not frightened at all, but rather are “smiling sweetly in their sleep under the shower of grass” (Potter 47). Potter uses soothing alliteration along with carefully chosen words to infuse the story with a feeling of sleepiness and comfort. Then, when Mr. McGregor actually kidnaps the bunnies and drops them in his sack, the bunnies aren’t even awake; instead of sensing the danger they are in, they peacefully dream that it is their mother turning them over in bed (Potter 48). By doing this, Potter is alluding to Mrs. Flopsy, who is a reassuring figure in the story. Potter purposefully keeps the Flopsy Bunnies sleeping throughout most of the story so that they never feel real pain or fear. Throughout the tale, Potter repeatedly uses words such as soporific, sleepy, and slumber to lull children into a tired state. In fact, she makes no less than eleven references to the act of sleeping in her short story. These words contribute to a feeling of comfort for the young reader.

Additionally, Potter uses specific word choice to inject humor into her books as well as warmth, to reassure the reader. When Mr. McGregor actually spots the bunnies, he only sees “funny little brown tips of ears sticking up” through the grass (Potter 47). Potter deliberately writes the scene in an amusing way to delight her readers rather than scare them. The scene ends up reading more like a playful game of hide and seek than a predator situation.

The accompanying images in the ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’ story are comforting in times of conflict as well. When the bunnies are being kidnapped, the illustration is surprisingly one of the most tender pictures in the story (Potter 48). Instead of being shoved into a dark, wiry cage, the sleeping bunny is gently being scooped into a soft-looking sack. The colors of the illustrations are warm and mellow, which reflect the Flopsy Bunnies’ overall emotional state, despite their dangerous predicament. The bunnies are also always seen together, evoking a feeling of family warmth and support even through scary moments. Even after they’re rescued, the Flopsy Bunnies never seem especially alert, instead retaining their sleepy facial expressions. These soothing images alleviate any type of concern a reader may have for the fate of the bunnies.

Perhaps the greatest indication of a younger audience is the absence of any real trauma during or following the interaction between the bunnies and the humans. Throughout the entire ordeal, the bunnies never show real signs of fear. When they do finally manage to get free, they do not run in the opposite direction and lay low in their house. Instead, their curiosity and mischievous spirits leads them to follow Mr. McGregor back to his home. They even go as far as to creep up to his window to better see what’s happening (Potter 51). Only after satisfying their curiosity, do the bunnies go home. In the end of the book, what is not written is more telling than what is on the page. The bunnies never think of themselves as victims nor do they stress about the situation in any way afterward. The fact that the bunnies feel comfortable enough to follow the human that wanted to have their fur skinned shows that they never felt they were in any real danger. Because of this, the child reader does not worry about the fate of the bunnies either.

The child also does not fear because ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’ is the third story in the series. After reading the two other stories, the child is well aware of the patterns in Potter’s stories. The rabbits may get into some trouble, but it never lasts long. The reader ultimately knows that all will end well for the bunnies and they’ll be safe and warm.

Similarly to ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies,’ the book Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, is also partly intended for a young audience. The younger child will enjoy the simple ideas of warmth and family that is also present in ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.’ Yet, the most important part of Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is intended for an older audience. O’Brien begins with a family story, but develops the novel with a more complicated study of scientific experimentation on rats. This is done through flashbacks which take up a large chunk of the book. The complexity of the rat storyline can only appeal to an older reader who can understand the complicated human-animal relationship presented.

The language used in Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH during the interaction between the humans and animals is insidious and frightening, especially compared to ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.’ Like the Flopsy Bunnies, the rats are enticed by the food, which ultimately leads to their downfall. But unlike the bunnies, the rats are not asleep when being kidnapped, instead they are frightfully aware of their surroundings. O’Brien devotes a lot of space to the kidnapping scene, using harsh, jarring phrases such as “bright, blinding searchlights” and nets that “entangled my legs, then my neck” (O’Brien 102) to set the mood and paint a scary picture. He deliberately takes a few pages to fully describe the terror of the rats. O’Brien repeatedly uses the words “prison” and “cage” to evoke a feeling of tension and being trapped. Adding to the terror, is the suspense of the scene. The reader and Nicodemus have no idea why they’re being kidnapped. The rats just know that this is not a typical situation between rats and humans. Because of this, they’re powerless over how to proceed.

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Unlike ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies’ and even the Mrs. Frisby portion of the book, the flashbacks are written in first person point of view. This places the reader directly in the action, and makes them feel the terror along with the narrator. This type of narration also allows the reader to discover the human purpose for kidnapping the rats along with Nicodemus.

When Nicodemus describes Dr. Schulz, his captor, he uses specific word choices to highlight his fear and also emphasize their complicated relationship. “I did not know it then, but I was to be his prisoner (and his pupil) for the next three years,” he says (O’Brien 107). In this statement, Nicodemus takes on two roles. He identifies himself a prisoner, because he is trapped against his will. Yet, more interestingly, he also calls himself a pupil, because Dr. Schultz has become his teacher and is teaching him information. However, by putting “pupil” in parenthesis, Nicodemus makes it very clear that being a student is only a secondary function. While he may be learning important information that would ultimately lead to his release, he felt like a prisoner, at the mercy of the human. By using both terms, Nicodemus is imparting to Mrs. Frisby that he and the humans did not have a typical relationship. It was a relationship filled with learning, but also permeated with fear.

Like the words in Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the images in the book do not serve to create any sense of comfort to the reader. Instead, the images convey a realistic story of uncertainty and danger. Unlike ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies,’ there are no warm colors. Instead, all the images are black and white, which creates a colder, more serious feeling. Also unlike the bunnies, the rats are not drawn in an especially cute way. Instead, they are skinny and their fur texture looks rough and prickly. Additionally, great many of the illustrations depict the animals in precarious situations. There are images of a crow entangled and trapped in string, Mrs Frisby frighteningly close to an owl, a rat trying to escape through a vent with a human on his tail, Mrs. Frisby stuck in a cage, and many other sticky situations (O’Brien, 23, 57, 118, 191).

One specific image in the book is intended to show the human-animal relationship in the harshest light. It depicts the scene where Dr. Schultz is preparing to trap Nicodemus in his cage. The image takes up the entire page for maximum effect. It shows a human hand tightly gripping the rat, seemingly crushing its bones. The angle is strange and tense, with the rat being held upside down and his feet and tail sticking up in the air. This dramatic image is quite a departure from Mr. McGregor gently scooping of the bunnies. In ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies,’ the bunny being kidnapped looks comfortable and is asleep whereas in this book, the rat’s eye looks huge and alarmed. The image shows the distressing mood and raises the tension in the story. The human is forcing the rat to do his bidding, while the rat cowers in fear and confusion.

The greatest sign that Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is primarily intended for an older audience is that the reader needs to be able to comprehend the great trauma that the rats live with after their interaction with humans. While, the rat-human relationship is often instinctually hostile, the relationship presented in the book is entirely different. Instead of a typical predator-prey situation, the humans inject the rats with an intelligence serum, altering them and their relationship to humans forever. Though the rats manage to escape the laboratory where they were imprisoned, they never manage to escape the memory of it. Unlike the Flopsy Bunnies who quickly recover from their kidnapping, the rats can’t seem to shake off their encounter. They ruminate on it and it plagues their days and consumes their thoughts. They readily admit that the experience with the humans forever changed them. Though they only spent a few years at the lab, Nicodemus tells Mrs. Frisby that for “twenty of us those injections were to change our whole lives” (O’Brien 111). Not only did it change their mental capabilities, but the injections had made their physical appearance change as well. Because of these changes they isolated themselves not only from humans but from other animals as well. As Nicodemus tells Mrs. Frisby that “although the world outside the laboratory was the same, we ourselves were different” (O’Brien 143).

A significant proof that the human interaction forever changed the rats lies in the very name they choose to call themselves afterwards. They refer to themselves as the “Rats of NIMH.” NIMH stands for the National Institute of Mental Health, and it was the laboratory that they were experimented on. After escaping, they do not expunge the memory from their minds. Instead, they define themselves by this experience. It is not just the original rats who do this, but their descendants too. When Isabella sees Mrs. Frisby, she asks her immediately if she’s a spy from NIMH. The children of the rats have been conditioned to be suspicious of the humans in the lab. Before this incident, the rats never probably thought about scientists at all. After the experimentation, they develop a whole different type of unusual distrust of humans that is passed down through the generations. The story of the lab has become integrated into the rats’ life narrative and also forever cemented into their history. Isabella even tells Mrs. Frisby that the NIMH lab “is where we come from” (O’Brien 86). This statement is not true, as the rats actually lived near the farmer’s market before being taken. Yet, it’s the most salient experience for the rats and is where their lives were changed irrevocably. Isabella saying that the lab is where she came from, signifies that NIMH is the place where the rats took on new identities.

As a result of the human experimentation, the rats develop a whole new outlook on life, seeing the world as a dangerous place for them to live. They experience a constant state of fear and anxiety that the humans will come back and recapture them. They’re scared to make a move for fear of being killed or sent back to the lab. Because of this, they’re forced to become militant creatures. They train an army for self-defense and have installed alarm signal protocols. Gone is their sense of freedom. They eventually come to the conclusion that the only way to live life would be to create a whole new civilization, away from all other creatures.

The epilogue in the story is the final way that O’Brien shows the effects of the rats’ relationship with the humans. Typically, an epilogue is a literary tool that the author uses to tie up loose ends. The book does this for Mrs. Frisby and her children, but leaves the rats’ ending completely open-ended, stripping readers of a sense of closure. The reader never learns if the rats are successful in their new civilization or if the humans ever find them. Readers also do not get a sense if the rats ever recover emotionally from their trauma. Because of the open ending, it feels as if that the rats never truly get over what happened to them and will forever carry it with them.

“The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies” and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh both deal with the exploitation of animals. Readers of both texts are supposed to take note of the human-animal dynamic and think about why this opposition exists. Yet, because of the intended age differences the texts serve different purposes. “The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies” is meant for younger readers to subconsciously contemplate the instinctual hostility between animals and humans. In contrast, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH expects older readers to consciously grasp a more complex aggression. They’re encouraged to think for themselves about human control of animals that goes beyond survival, and the fairness of that control.

Work Cited

  1. O’Brien, C. Robert. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1970.
  2. Potter, Beatrix. ‘The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.” The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit, Warne, 1909, pp. 41-54.

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