“The Ratcatcher” is a short story by Roald Dahl, the first of four stories in a series named “Claud’s Dog”. All four stories are included in Someone Like You, first published in 1954.
SETTING OF “THE RATCATCHER”
If you’ve read Danny The Champion of the World, Dahl has set this story in a similar setting: Working class people living in and around a village, with an aristocratic family living nearby.
Dahl likes to remind us that, despite human hierarchy, we are all human, all equal. Little is said about the aristocratic family in this story, except to say that even rich ladies attract rats.
Early to mid 20th century
The story is a conversation and is basically isochronic, meaning the time it takes to read the story is about equal to the time it takes for the story to play out. (Gerard Genette came up with the term.) Of course, you never get a one-to-one exact match.
We are told this story takes place in Buckinghamshire. Most of us associate this area with Buckingham Palace, where aristocracy is propped up by regular folk who scurry around outside the limelight, keeping the place ticking over. (See where I’m going with that? The royalty symbolism is intentional, I believe.)
NARRATION OF “THE RATCATCHER”
Roald Dahl was careful with his narrative choices because this short story verges on the edge of revelry in animal cruelty. As I read, I felt increasing empathy for the rat victims. Dahl clearly had a fascination for certain types of cruelty and vengeance. Here we see his interest in feeding things to animals which think they’re eating something else (e.g. the raisins and pheasants in Danny, The Champion Of The World.)
To shield readers slightly from the gruesome parts, and also to avoid the impression of a storyteller revelling in animal cruelty, Dahl has written a first person viewpoint character who mostly looks on (in disgust) as events play out between another guy called Claud and the ratcatcher.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE RATCATCHER”
You probably already know the term which describes when things are compared to humans, and when animals are compared to humans. (Personification and anthropomorphism.) But do you know what we call imagery comparing humans to things? The term for that is far more esoteric.
Also in that post you’ll learn the term for imagery comparing humans to animals, which is what we have here: A man who has spent so much time with rats he is basically a rat himself.
In English we have idioms which speak to an early understanding of how environment forms character: If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.
- Similar Chinese advice: 近朱者赤近墨者黑 (If you use a pen with black ink, you’ll be stained with black; if you use a pen with red ink, you’ll be stained with red.)
- From the Old Orient: Make a friend for 40 days and you will become like them. (The number forty comes up a lot when delving into djinn mythology.)
- Spanish: El que se acuesta con niños, amanece cargado. (He who goes to bed with children wakes up wet.)
- An Italian version is ridiculously ableist: Hang around with the lame, you start limping.
At first I assumed there had been some supernatural storyworld thing in which this guy is part man, part rat and he’d come to liberate the rats so they could all take over the humans, or something. But as the story progressed I changed my mind. It now seems that within the world of the story, this guy is monotropically focused on rats to the point where he must think like one. And once you think like someone, how are you any different from them? Who are we, if not the way we think?
This rat catcher considers rats very smart. He therefore considers himself very smart for being able to fool them. The trickster archetype is straight out of fairytale, and Roald Dahl made heavy use of trickster plots.
Claud wants rats from the hayrick gone. The ratcatcher is clearly not driven by money. He is motivated by status. Comically, he earns status by being smarter than rats, and showing off to other men about his deep knowledge of how they work.
This very human tendency is easy to send up, because we all do it, and all of it is ridiculous.
If you think you don’t, look out for The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It by Will Storr.
Or listen to this interview between Will Storr and David McRaney at the You Are Not So Smart podcast. The story of the guys with the massive yams is a real historical thing, and just as ridiculous as this ratcatcher showing off about rats.
The rats are not the opponents. Claud and the narrator can either give the ratcatcher what he craves: Glory and masculine attention, or withdraw it.
The dialogue in this story is fun to read aloud. When you do that, it’s clear how the ratcatcher has developed a spiel, saying over and over to every customer (and also over and over to the same customers) how you have to know rats if you want to catch them.
As part of his marketing spiel he has crafted some ridiculous tricks. Like an unexpected magician he is able to pull a rat and a ferret out of his pocket at any time.
Note that the magician is also an old storytelling archetype. But this guy is a wannabe magician. He’s actually a failed magician and also a failed trickster, as we will find out.
THE BIG STRUGGLE
The ratcatcher considers himself a trickster, but in an unusual subversion, there wasn’t really any trick. Instead, the ratcatcher who considers himself really smart has shown himself to be gruesome, and also quite stupid, because he’s sacrificed his own dignity to win a bet on a shilling, reminiscent of a seven-year-old boy in a schoolyard.
Notice how Roald Dahl doesn’t tell us exactly what the ratcatcher did to the rat. We only know teeth were involved. We could say he mystery boxed it. But he’s utilising a much older technique from cosmic horror: What readers imagine is always worse than whatever is described.
Because we’ve got a more reserved narrator, like us disgusted by these events, we feel he is legitimately holding back details to spare us.
This is a bit of a shaggy dog story, because the ratcatcher simply isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and isn’t able to shock and surprise the humans (including readers).
Enjoyment of this story comes instead from wondering what the eccentric fellow is about to pull next. And although I’ve never met such a man myself, his mien is absolutely familiar to me. There’s a strong tradition of tall tales and leg-pulling among boomer men here in Australia. If you journey to The Outback you’ll meet odd men who run their spiel on you, sitting back to see if you buy it, taking delight if you do.
No doubt the ratcatcher will continue the same spiel into perpetuity. Where there are people there are rodents. It has always been so. The character of the ratcatcher has a repeating timelessness about him.
Three decades later, when writing The Witches (1983), Dahl returned to the topic of rodents and humans who become rodentlike. The boy captured mice — not for the purposes of cruelty, but to train them for a mouse circus. Dahl switched empathy from human to mouse in that children’s novel, and also relied heavily on nasty creatures who trick children by offering sweets which are no such thing.
But fear of food and its potential to alter your state has its outworkings in very old stories.
Take “The Juniper Tree“, a literary fairy tale about men’s fear of what their wives — with full control of the kitchen — might be doing to their food when they are not around to supervise and control. Until about a century ago, consumers were able to buy arsenic straight off the shelf. Arsenic happens to be a long, painful way to go, and was largely undetectable when added to food. (Of course, the poison was sold as ‘rat poison’, but it mostly comprised arsenic.)
I read all about this in the biography of Louisa Collins by Caroline Overington, the last woman hanged here in Australia.
Women around the world still bear the brunt of most household cooking, so the cishet masculine fear of poison-by-wife probably hasn’t gone away.
But for those living in wealthy countries without food insecurity, our fear of food is transferred away from the home cook to the corporation. We worry about sugar content, gluten and other contaminants making us ill if we don’t carefully read the back of packaging and reclaim the illusion of control. And even when we read the ingredients of modern food, we don’t understand what the words even mean.
The Simpsons parodied this specific fear with the ‘milk’ served as part of school lunches. Homer later discovers the ‘Vitamin R’ masks a terrible reality: milk is coming from rats.
That gruesome header illustration is made with Midjourney AI art generator using the prompts: half man half rat, portrait, detailed, unreal engine, realistic –ar 2:3
THE MEANING OF RAT-CATCHER IN HUNTING LINGO
In fox hunting, costume has also assumed importance for a proper hunt. A “ratcatcher” refers to someone who is informally dressed, which would be frowned upon in good hunting circles.