The mouse is the all-American animal, a mascot for democratic man.
Everyman Mickey, gallant Mighty and so on. Brazen Ignatz in the old "Krazy Kat" comic strip. Speedy Gonzales and his cousin Rodriguez. (Arriba! Arriba!) Hounded Fievel Mouskewitz, the immigrant in "An American Tail." E.B. White's Stuart Little. Cute Jerry outsmarting Tom. Blabbermouse. Dangermouse. Pixie and Dixie. On and on, a rabble of democratic totemry.
Now it's mouse season, with winter coming on and the mice coming under the shingles and into the kitchen. Eek. But while we hate seeing them under the sink, the kids in the living room are singing the "Mighty Mouse" song again -- here he comes to save the d-a-a-a-y on his new TV show. We love mice, we hate mice. It's very complicated.
It's hard to imagine another animal holding the mouse's place in American mythology. Bugs Bunny as Everyman? Donald Duck? Rocky the Flying Squirrel? Felix the Cat? It takes a mouse. The eagle may be the national bird, being noble, lofty and fierce, but given an open field with an eagle swooping down to kill a mouse, most Americans will root for the mouse.
Maybe facelessness is why we like mice and use them for fictional heroes. They're so much like us, in the age of bureaucracy, network television, polls, mail addressed to "Occupant," loudspeakers saying "Attention K mart shoppers," Social Security numbers, traffic jams, judges who determine our constitutional rights by studying statistics, and our pride in immersing ourselves in huger and huger crowds -- Woodstock, domed stadiums, Hands Across America ... Like democracy itself, mice seem to have a moral claim, even a heroic claim, but it's hard to say what or why, except that there is something thrilling about seeing Mighty Mouse rise into the sky with that determined little fist stuck out in front of him.
In 1928, Mickey Mouse appeared in his first animated cartoon, which was called "Steamboat Willie." Four years later, a movie historian named Terry Ramsaye wrote that Mickey "is at one with the Great Common Denominator of the great common art of the commonality in terms of expression ... The triumph of the boob, the cosmic victory of the underdog, the might of the meek ..."
Tocqueville wrote that "nowhere do citizens appear so insignificant as in a democratic nation," a thought that psychologist Erich Fromm echoed when he wrote that "the extent to which the average person in America is filled with the same sense of fear and insignificance seems to find a telling expression in the fact and popularity of the Mickey Mouse pictures ... the spectator lives through all of his own fears and feelings of smallness and at the end gets the comforting feeling that, in spite of it all, he will be saved and will even conquer the strong one."
On the other hand, an American kid can spend all day watching cartoons about heroic mice, mice battling huge, impersonal forces -- and then pull a real mouse out of a cage and toss it to a pet boa constrictor. Mickey, Mighty, dinner. Nobody cares about pet mice in the flesh the way they care about horses, cats or dogs. Mice are the throwaway mammals, the nonreturnable bottles of the totem-animal world. Nor do people care about wild mice the way they care about eagles, lions or wolves.
This is partly because so many wild mice aren't really wild -- they live in our houses and we see them as vermin, filth. And it is partly because real mice, pet or wild, don't symbolize virtues like pride, bravery, loftiness, obedience or tenacity. Mice are anonymous and bland. They are nothing but consumers.
The way we think about mice is so complicated that when the d-Con people brought a new mousetrap to the world last spring, they rented the Sara Delano Roosevelt house on New York's Upper East Side and hired a historian, a biologist and a clinical psychologist to talk about mice. There was also a woman in a mouse costume who trailed after a flutist in a Pied Piper costume -- the costume wasn't pied, but it conveyed the nasty rectitude of the piper of legend.
"Over 10 million American homes have rodents as uninvited guests each year," said d-Con President Earle K. Borman. He unveiled a cage of mice. "Hi there, guys. Aren't you cute?"
Yes and no.
On the "no" end of the equation was William B. Jackson, professor emeritus of biological sciences at Bowling Green State University.
"That the mouse is viewed as 'cute,' rather than ugly or vicious as a rat, perhaps can be traced to Walt Disney's propagandist, Mickey Mouse," Jackson said with lugubrious relish.
Jackson warned of mouse-borne diseases, such as salmonella, typhus and plague. He spoke of fires of "undetermined origin" that were caused by mouse-gnawed wiring. He spoke of mice who "often live unnoticed in pantries, closets and cupboards, where they clamber over and scavenge through our cereals, crackers, chips, cookies and even cheese and cough drops. The pungent and penetrating odor of house-mouse urine, mice running across the floor or fleeing from suddenly opened cabinets, or night sounds from their fighting within the walls are contaminants to our esthetic environment." Jackson even described a turkey farm where the turkeys were penned in so tight that a mouse dropped down from the ceiling and ate its way into the back of a living bird. Horrible. It seemed unfair, even unsporting of Jackson to bring it up. We prefer to believe such things are true only of rats.
Clinical psychologist Elliot Weiner claimed that Americans place mice third on their list of objects of phobias -- just behind dentists and public speaking. This problem is called "musophobia," and is generally represented by cartoons of women standing on chairs while quizzical little mice stare up at them. He said that "Freud pointed out that animal phobias are often directed toward creatures in which the child has taken a lively interest."
John Canemaker, a historian and animator, dated our lively interest to around 1915, when "animators began to fill the movie screens with tiny, round rodents. All of them were anonymous, except Ignatz the Mouse, who stood out because he was based on a character in the famous George Herriman comic strip."
Canemaker demonstrated another reason for the popularity of mice in cartoons: They're easy to draw -- a couple of circles, a triangle, a few dots. He then showed a 1924 Disney film called "Alice Rattled by Rats." Despite the title, it's a about swarm of mice that teases a cat, who skids on soap, falls on cactus and so on in a series of sight gags.
Mickey Mouse sums up a lot of the history of both American culture and its attitude toward mice in the last half century or so.
In a history of Disney's work, Christopher Finch writes that Mickey became "virtually a national symbol, and as such he was expected to behave properly at all times. If he occasionally stepped out of line, any number of letters would arrive at the studio from citizens and organizations who felt that the nation's moral well-being was in their hands ... Eventually he would be pressured into the role of straight man."
So Mickey mellowed. The sadist who made music by squeezing farm animals' teats and tongues in "Steamboat Willie" became the prankster of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," and finally evolved into the Mr. Front Porch USA of the last cartoons. Now he's a greeter at Disneyland, like the docile old boxers who stand around Las Vegas casinos shaking hands with people. And his name is a synonym for oppressive bureaucratic trivia, as in: Why do we have to put up with all this mickeymouse nonsense?
Oddly enough, as Mickey matured into a solid citizen, he grew more childlike in looks. The Mickey of "Steamboat Willie" had smaller eyes and a narrower nose than the genial host of the Mickey Mouse Club. In an essay called "Homage to Mickey Mouse," Harvard biologist/geologist Stephen Jay Gould argues that the Disney studio sought to make Mickey more babylike, therefore more lovable. He says that "children, compared with adults, have larger heads and eyes, smaller jaws, a more prominent, bulging cranium, and smaller, pudgier legs and feet."
That was how the Disney artists drew him, more and more, the epitome of cheery go-along-to-get-along citizenship, a grateful child of the welfare state. Perhaps it was this image that had angered James Michener so when he attacked Mickey in 1968, saying in The New York Times that "one of the most disastrous cultural influences ever to hit America was Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse. That idiot optimist ... I suppose the damage done to the American psyche by this foolish mouse will not be specified for another 50 years but even now I place much of the blame for Vietnam on the bland attitudes sponsored by our cartoons."
Paul Terry's Mighty Mouse, capable of godlike feats in defense of truth, justice and the American way, was smaller than Mickey, and had a humorless innocence that put him light-years away from the early anarchists such as Ignatz.
Disney adjusted the mouse persona in non-Mickey cartoons, and harped on the theme that mice shouldn't get too uppity. A country mouse visiting his cousin the city mouse gets drunk on champagne, finds himself terrorized by city traffic and flees back to Podunk. A gluttonous mouse in "Cinderella" tries to carry too many kernels of corn and almost gets caught by a cat. Another mouse, very rounded and infantile, is given his wish of wings by a good fairy, and is shunned by his family for looking like a bat. The mouse had to stay the little guy, with a humorous potential for upsetting the powerful. As the narrator of a Disney television show points out, the mouse is the underdog, but it "can stampede a whole herd of elephants" -- this being a reference to folk tales of elephants fearing that mice will run up their trunks.
The taming of the mouse image in the 1930s and afterward jibed well with an age in which government became more parental and popular, and cranky individualism, as an admired American character trait, vanished in the team play of World War II and what critics called the "conformity" of the 1950s.
But why did mice become heroes and protagonists in the first place? Their early history would seem to make that impossible -- they were seen as parasites, omens of disease, nuisances.
House mice evolved on the steppes of central Asia. They weigh from about half an ounce to an ounce, are two-and-a-half to three-and-three-quarters inches long from nose to rump, and produce litters of four to seven young five or more times a year. In captivity, they can live to be six years old. They have consorted with man at least since the late Pleistocene period -- the evidence is house-mouse remains in Crimean caves. Later, Babylonians and Greeks built mousetraps, to judge from excavations.
Mice spread to the New World on the ships of European explorers. Like man, they lack physical magnificence but they survive, they spread. Nowadays, according to Natural History magazine, house mice "inhabit coconut groves on Guam, and penguin rookeries on Macquarie Island. They shelter in the equatorial lava flows of the Galapagos and in the concrete labyrinths of the world's large cities. Some populations inhabit cold-storage plants where the temperature is always well below freezing and the darkness nearly continuous, others occupy the hot tropical deserts of north-central Australia, and still others the mist-shrouded cliffs of the Shetland Islands."
They've gotten a mixed press.
Leviticus 11:29: "These also shall be unclean unto you among the creeping things that creep upon the earth; the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise after his kind ... "
But a woman in Chaucer could feel sorry for them.
She wolde wepe, if that she sawe a mous
Caught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
An illustration of I Samuel executed about 1250 in Paris shows "the mice that mar the land." The mice appear in the story of how the Philistines profaned the Ark of God, and were smitten with plague as well:
"And he smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had emerods in their secret parts." In 1894, science would discover that rats and mice carried the plague bacillus. One hopes research is going forward on emerods.
The Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art defines mice in western art as "a symbol of decay, hence of the passing of time." In the 18th century, folklore had it that mice were born of dirty laundry, the way frogs were born of mud. At the same time, Robert Burns could write "To a Mouse" in 1785, and give a sympathetic picture of a "wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie" whose nest had been overturned with a plough -- with overtones of the common man turned out of house and home by the ruling class, industrialization, whatever.
In 19th-century Russia, Tchaikovsky's aristocratic audiences were given a villain in the form of the Mouse King, in "The Nutcracker." In "Four Quartets," T.S. Eliot, who was no friend of modern democracy, returned to the theme of decay when he described our age as:
a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots.
Hitler said that Mickey Mouse was "the most miserable ideal ever revealed ... mice are dirty." Otto Messmer, creator of Felix the Cat, said: "To me, a mouse is a repulsive thing." When cartoonist Art Spiegelman, coeditor of Raw magazine, drew a series of cartoon strips about his father's journey through the Holocaust, he chose cats for the Nazis, pigs for the Poles and mice for the Jews. The first volume is called "Maus," and it is harrowing and powerful.
In 1984, Pravda attacked a prosperous 16-year-old girl named Alisa for having antidemocratic tendencies when she and her friends, looking down on their less-fortunate schoolmates, said, "All those little gray mice simply can't understand our conversations." This arrogance, said Pravda, is "a far cry from the ideal toward which we all are striving."
Exactly. Here is the key. To ruling classes, aristocrats and dictators, mice have seemed much like the horrible masses, the mob trotting after the tumbrels in revolutionary France, the lower orders whom the English landowners drove from their cottages in Ireland, the turn-of-the-century populist hordes who heard William Jennings Bryan attack -- what else? -- fat cats, those arch-fiends of democracy.
It was the genius of the cartoonists early in this century to turn this ruling-class opprobrium on its head. If mice were like the masses, they seemed to say, shouldn't we like them, even admire them?
However, this does not explain how we can have a mythical hero whose live counterpart inspires phobias; whose sufferings arouse apathy; and whose slaughter has become a synonym for progress and good business: "If a man write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse-trap than his neighbour, tho' he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door," said Emerson in a lecture, according to Mrs. Sara S.B. Yule, who said she heard him. (There was a lot of arguing over this, much of it coming from one Elbert Hubbard, another 19th-century figure who spent years claiming that he'd said it first.)
If there weren't any real mice, we could be sure about the mythical mice, the way we're sure about unicorns. But there are real mice. There are real pandas and great white sharks, too, and we're sure about them, but that's because we hardly ever see them. We see mice all the time. They live with us.
They're not quite wild, not quite tame. Writing recently in The New York Review of Books, Stephen Jay Gould mentioned "the two cardinal uses of animals in human society -- eating and petting." Mice aren't any good for either, so they end up in a sort of limbo. Also, unlike pet snakes or pet birds, pet mice don't make us feel guilty that they might be happier in a state of nature. The state of nature for a house mouse is a house, and even field mice like to come in from the cold now and then.
And then you hear them running through the walls, that phantasmic scuttling that sounds like what you'd hear if you were just starting to go crazy. You set a trap. You lie awake all night in panic that it will snap. It does. You feel guilt. Then dread. In the morning you will have to get rid of the mouse, pull it out of the trap by its tail, the feeling of which will linger on your skin like a gruesome great-aunt kiss.
This is true of rats too, of course. So many things that are true of mice are true of rats, technically speaking. To a man from Mars, they would seem to be much the same -- in fact, "mouse" is an imprecise term that includes some small rats and voles. But in our minds:
Mice are timid and rats are sneaky.
Drab women are mousy and the men who break their hearts are rats.
It's rats, not mice, that we speak of as being the size of cats, of ice chests, of UPS trucks.
It wasn't mice that the weirdo in "Dracula" liked to eat, it was rats. It wasn't rats that the hero of "Never Cry Wolf" liked to eat, it was mice. In a movie called "The Great Mouse Detective," the archenemy is the evil Professor Rattigan.
When we walk our fingers up a baby's stomach, we say, "Creepy, creepy, little mouse, come to live in baby's house." We do not say, "Creepy, creepy little rat, come to live in baby's hat."
When our cats catch mice, we're sorry. When they catch rats, we're proud.
And no rat ever comes along to save the day, but Mighty Mouse is on the way in his new CBS incarnation.
It's all very complicated. As Karen Hauser says, and she's president of the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association, "That's the way it is.