STUDY OF THE TALE THE CONCEITED LITTLE RAT
RESEARCH WORK ERASMUS PLUS “EUROPEAN TRADITIONAL TALES ON STAGE”. YEAR 2015-16.
High School: IES LA FLOTA, Murcia (Spain).
Group: 1º bachillerato.
Subject: World Literature.
Students: Aiona Benavente Manzanares, Alba Clemente Jiménez, Laura Mª Fernández Lucas, Rosa Mª Galindo Mompeán, Marta Luengo Rivas, Enrique Martínez Delgado, Pablo Nicolás Ponce, Teresa de Paco Carrasco, Nuria Poveda Agustín, Macarena Rodríguez Jiménez, Alejandro Sánchez Fuentes, Laura Serrano Espín.
Teacher: Javier Sánchez Martínez.
STUDY OF THE TALE THE CONCEITED LITTLE RAT
(As with all traditional tales, this one has different versions. We have chosen the one which students were more familiar with).
Once upon a time there was a conceited Little Rat. She was pretty and good, and her worst fault was that she was really, really conceited.
One day she was sweeping the floor in the street by her doormat while she was singing a song. One of her neighbours, a mouse that was secretly in love with her, saw her and came to talk to her. “Good morning, Little Rat. You look happy today”, he said. “Yes, Mr Mouse. I’m happy. How are you?” the Little Rat asked”.
The mouse tried to answer, but the Little Rat didn’t pay much attention to him. She saw something on the floor and went to see what it was. And surprise! It was a gold coin! “What shall I buy with it?” she wondered. Her secret admirer suggested different possibilities to help her. “Why don’t you buy some sweets?” he said, but not very politely, the Little Rat answered: “ Sweets? No way ! They’ll ruin my teeth”.
The mouse suggested something else: “Why don’t you buy some apples?” and the answer had the same disdain: “Apples? No way! I’m not ill”. The mouse suggested a third possibility: “Why don’t you buy a brooch ?”, and the Little Rat’s disdain was even bigger: “A brooch? No way! I can prick my fingers with it”
Tired, the mouse said goodbye as he though he couldn’t help her any more, and off to work he went. He said goodbye to the Little Rat, but she didn’t even hear him, as she was busy thinking of how to spend her gold coin. Finally she had an idea: she would buy a red ribbon to wear on her tail. She wanted it red to match the spots on her shirt. She was so conceited that she could already see everybody looking at her and saying how pretty she looked. Not wanting to waste one more minute, off to market she went to buy her red ribbon.
Very early the following morning the Little Rat went out to the street. She was really impatient to start sweeping by her doormat so that everybody could see her with her brand new red ribbon on her tail.
So there she was, sweeping and singing, moving the ribbon on her tail conceitedly as she swept when a cock passed by. “Good morning, Little Rat. You look beautiful today. Will you marry me?” The Little Rat wasn’t really surprised at this proposal; for she was sure she looked pretty with her brand new red ribbon, but she didn’t want to accept just the first suitor that asked; and said “That depends. What will you do at night?” Showing off like a good cock, the cock raised his head and very proudly answered: “I’ll sing my song” and started crowing “cock-a-doodle-doo , cock-a-doodle-doo, cock-a-doodle-doo”.
Horrified by such a loud noise, the Little Rat answered not without certain disdain: “No way! That will frighten me!” and went on sweeping the street without paying any attention to the cock. Humiliated by the rejection, the cock went away without saying any other word.
And on and on the Little Rat continued sweeping and singing, moving the ribbon on her tail conceitedly as she swept. Not long afterwards a fierce dog passed by. “Good morning, Little Rat. You look beautiful today. Will you marry me?” The Little Rat wasn’t at all surprised at this proposal; for she knew she looked pretty with her brand new red ribbon, but she didn’t want to accept the second suitor that asked; and said “That depends. What will you do at night?” Nobly, the dog sat straight and very earnestly answered: “I’ll sing my song” and started barking “woof , woof, woof!”
Horrified by such a loud noise, the Little Rat answered not without certain disdain: “No way! That will frighten me!” and went on sweeping the street without paying any attention to the dog. Humiliated by the rejection, the dog went away without saying any other word.
And on and on the Little Rat continued sweeping and singing, moving the ribbon on her tail conceitedly as she swept. Not long afterwards a brave horse passed by. “Good morning, Little Rat. You look beautiful today. Will you marry me?” The Little Rat wasn’t at all surprised at this proposal; for she knew how pretty she looked with her brand new red ribbon, but she didn’t want to accept straight away the third suitor that asked; and said “That depends. What will you do at night?” Bravely the horse stood straight and very earnestly answered: “I’ll sing my song” and started neighing “neigh , neigh, neigh”
Horrified by such a loud noise, the Little Rat answered not without certain disdain: “No way! That will frighten me!” and went on sweeping the street without paying any attention to the horse. Humiliated by the rejection, the horse went away without saying any other word.
And on and on the Little Rat continued sweeping and singing, moving the ribbon on her tail conceitedly as she swept. Not long afterwards a cat passed by. “Good morning, Little Rat. You look beautiful today. Will you marry me?” The Little Rat wasn’t at all surprised at this proposal; for she knew how pretty she looked with her brand new red ribbon, but she didn’t want to accept straight away the sixth suitor that asked; and said “That depends. What will you do at night?” Coming close to her, the cat said “I’ll sing my song” and started meowing softly in her ear: “meow , meow, meow”.
Happy to find at last a suitor that was good enough for her, the Little Rat answered “That sounds like heavenly music to me. I’ll marry you”. Happy to see how easy it was to cheat that conceited Little Rat, the cat prepared a plan to take her away from home and be with her alone, so he invited her out for dinner whispering in her ear “Let’s celebrate it then! Let’s go out for dinner tonight!”
Delighted to have such an experienced suitor, and thinking how pretty she would look in an expensive restaurant, the conceited Little Rat immediately accepted, and after fixing a date for eight o’clock she waved goodbye to the cat and went into the house jumping with joy.
The time came for the Little Rat to go out for dinner with her suitor, and as the clock struck eight o’clock the cat knocked on her door with a beautiful bunch of flowers. How pretty the Little Rat looked! And how happy she was to find herself honoured with such a present!
“Good evening, Little Rat. You always look pretty, but today you look even prettier” said the cat as he gave the bunch of flowers to the Little Rat. “Are you ready for a smart dinner this evening?” The little Rat couldn’t believe her ears, but pretending to be used to such manners, she answered “Of course I am; Mr Cat. Are we going to an expensive restaurant?” “Yes, indeed ” was the cat’s answer. “Please, please, Mr Cat, tell me which”, begged the Little Rat, “I can’t wait. I just can’t wait to sit at a table in a really expensive restaurant for a really especial meal”. “Wait and see, Little Rat” the cat answered, “but I promise that you’ll have the most important place in the dinner. Just hold on to my arm. We’ll be there in the blink of an eye ”.
So off they went, the Little Rat holding the cat’s arm, feeling the happiest rat in the world to be wooed by such an experienced suitor. Not long afterwards they arrived at the cat’s house, where they found a table smartly set with a smart tablecloth, a candle, and just one plate, one fork, one knife, one glass and one chair next to the table. Confused, the Little Rat said: “But the table is set just for one, Mr Cat” Not in the least surprised, the cat answered, “ Yes, because only one of us is having dinner, Little Rat” Even more confused, the Little Rat replied: “But that’s a mistake, there’s two of us, Mr Cat”. But the cat was not confused, or mistaken or even surprised and very calmly answered: “It’s no mistake, Little Rat”. The Little Rat’s confusion was bigger and bigger, but she was starting to get angry as well, so she cried: “But you said that I would have the most important place in the dinner” “And you will…” the cat answered jumping onto her, “because dinner is you!”
The Little Rat started to run and cry “Help!, Help!”, “Help!, Help!” and luckily managed to get out to the street. The noble and the mouse that wanted to marry her, heard all this noise and immediately came to help her. He took a burning stick and hit the cat, that ran away terrified and shouting.
She felt relieved to see him and she greeted him softly and with no conceit. When the mouse asked her how she was, she said: “I’m happy to be still alive , Mr. Mouse. The cat wanted me for his dinner” The mouse understood the situation very well and told her softly and compassionately “Cats are no good company for rats or mice, Little Rat. They can make us no good”. “I know now, Mr Mouse”, she said softly, almost crying.
For the first time in his life, the mouse thought that he had a possibility of winning the Little Rat’s heart and asked “Will you be my wife, Little Rat?” Very softly, she answered: “I don’t know. What will you do at night?” “Why? , he said laughing, “Sleep in silence”. “Sleep in silence, Mr Mouse? Then, I’ll be happy to be your wife” she said, almost crying. The mouse kissed the Little Rat on her cheek, and taking each other’s hand they went away home to get everything ready for their wedding. And everybody says that they lived very happily ever after.
2-STUDY OF THE TALE
Now we are going to do some research work on this traditional tale based on the notions and content studied in Literary Criticism as part of our subject World Literature.
Most traditional tales have several versions due to their origins and also the way they have been transmitted.
The most popular versions of our tale are the following:
- The main character changes from some tales to others. The two which feature most frequently are an ant and a cockroach.
- The Little Rat is eaten by the cat.
- The mouse falls into a boiling pot and dies while trying to save the Little Rat.
- The other suitors can be different animals: a duck, a donkey, a horse, a toad…
Most traditional tales have an “unhappy”, sometimes cruel, ending in order to teach children what is right and what is wrong in life. However, modern versions of traditional tales have happy endings to avoid shocking young children.
2.3-ORIGIN, SOURCE AND TRANSMISSION
As with all traditional tales, the origin of our tale is unknown and was orally transmitted. This is the reason why there are always several versions.
Literary Criticism considers that all cultures have ancient popular tales. Some examples are the following: Panchatantra in Indian Literature, Biblia in Hebrew Literature or Popol Vuh in American Literature.
People in these ancestral civilizations were illiterate, so their literature was orally transmitted from one generation to the next. Tales had a double purpose (the Latin poet Horacio called this docere et delectare): to teach, because they all have a moral, and to please.
Thus, the popular, unknown origin and oral transmission are the reasons why there are the several versions and that is the difference with non-folktales, which are written and have an author.
One of the first writers to put our tale to paper (The conceited Little Rat) was Cecilia Böhl de Faber (whose pen-name was Fernán Caballero) in her work Cuentos, oraciones, adivinanzas y refranes populares (1877). In her version the main character is a little ant and the mouse is called Ratón Pérez, who will turn into our Tooth Fairy. This version has some similarities with English fairy tales like Titty Mouse y Tatty Mouse, complied by Joseph Jacobs in his work English Fairy Tales (1890).
2.4-TYPE OF TALE
Our tale is a traditional folktale and a fable, given that the characters are animals used to represent human behaviours. Fables come from tale tradition in World Literature, and the first fables known are by the Greek Aesop (VI Century BC) and Panchatantra (about III Century BC). The latter belongs to Indian literature and was translated into Spanish by King Alfonso X in 13th century. Fables are also found in The Middle Ages (Arcipreste de Hita in Spain) and get to Neoclassicism with French writer La Fontaine and the Spanish writers Iriarte and Samaniego.
The main themes in our tale are love and death, which are the most important topics in World Literature.
In our version, which has a happy ending, love has to do with the modern idea of romantic love because the Little Rat and the mouse end up getting married. This is a false version of romantic love in literature, considering that love and death always go together (as we can see in lots of literary works: Romeo and Juliet, La Celestina and many works from the Romantic Period).
Like many others, our fable represents the conflict between good and evil, right and wrong. We can also consider that the cat may symbolise beauty as opposed to the dog, the cock and the mouse, which may represent ugliness.
Moral is a teaching that is used in traditional tales to show a moral lesson either explicitly or implicitly. The Conceited Little Rat teaches women that they must not be impulsive, hurried, reckless when they choose a husband, because they have to make sure their decision is the right one.
Our tale also teaches, in an implicit way, that we have to look beyond appearances because the most important thing, especially in traditional marriage, is to know if the future husband is a good or a bad person. Women don’t have to be carried away by “men’s nice words”, but they must consider and know their future husband’s moral values in order to make a good choice and to become a perfect wife.
2.7-CHARACTERISTICS OF THE NARRATION
A tale is a story and as such it belongs to the narrative genre. Next, we are going to study the characteristics of our tale, following the theory of one of the most important literary critics: José María Pozuelo Yvancos and his work Teoría del lenguaje literario.
In terms of external structure, The Conceited Little Rat has only one part with no chapters.
As for the internal structure, this tale is divided into the three classic parts: beginning, development and end.
The beginning is when the Little Rat is sweeping her doorstep, finds a coin and buys a ribbon. The development is when she talks to the animals and she chooses the cat. And the ending is when the mouse saves her and marries her.
As Aristotle said in his famous work Poetics, all narration is a story told by a narrator.
In all traditional tales, the narrator tells the fable in the third person and from outside the story so, as the great critic Genette determined, the narrator is heterodiegetic and has zero focalization. (S)he is not omniscient either and is, therefore, objective. In other words, (s)he only tells the reader what the characters do and say.
In our tale the characters are animals and thus it is a fable, as we have previously stated.
Tales and fables use stereotypical and paradigmatic characters, that is to say, they are archetypal and there is no psychological evolution because, according to Vladimir Propp and his famous work Morfology of the tale, they are not round but flat.
The main characters of our tale are: the little Rat, the mouse and the cat:
- The Little Rat is the main character. Physically, she is very beautiful and psychologically she is very conceited, coquettish, frivolous and hurried.
- The mouse is the hero because it saves the Little Rat so it represents good; it is respectful, protective and good.
- The cat is the antagonist and the villain because it represents evil and wants to eat the little Rat. Physically, he is very attractive and psychologically he is arrogant, cynical and a liar.
- The other characters (the dog and the cock) are secondary characters and represent common and ordinary men.
Time and space are the settings of the story.
– External time: most traditional tales represent a timeless age because there are no explicit or implicit notions of time. This is because they show eternal and universal values. In other words, they are relevant in all ages, cultures and for all people.
-Internal time: traditional tales are simple and classical stories so they are linear narratives. Therefore, they have neither flash-back nor flash-forward.
–External space: as with the majority of folktales, our fable is not situated in a specific place, country or region because it is useful for all cultures and people.
–Internal space: there are two spaces used inside our story: the cat’s house and the Little Rat’s front door and the forest. This one is coherent with the plot because outdoors spaces are used for courtship scenes. In traditional societies women choose their future husband, but they have “to defend their virtue and reputation” waiting for him. This is to say, they can’t go and look for men in the same way men go and look for women.
A folktale is a narrative text that uses two other textual styles: dialogues and descriptive text.
–Dialogue: as in all stories, dialogue between the characters is also used in our fable. The narrator uses direct speech with verba dicendi: “she or he said, anserwed”…
–Description: in traditional tales description is very limited and mainly uses adjectives. In our fable, the most relevant example is the adjective conceited to describe the Little Rat, as in the title.
2.8-STYLE AND LANGUAGE
We have to make a distinction between the style used by the narrator and the one used by the characters. Both are simple, but the narrator uses a formal style and the characters use an informal one to match its informal context.
Our tale is not a tale written by an author because its origin is popular and the recipients are ordinary people (most of them illiterate). There is simplicity in every language level: morphology, simple syntax and vocabulary (no highbrow words).
Other characteristics of the folktale style are:
- Formulaic style: repetitions and repeated phrases (beginnings: “once upon a time”, “and on and on”; endings: “they lived happily ever after”).
- Pattern: folktales almost always contain a pattern in order to represent and symbolise ideas. In The Conceited Little Rat the pattern used would be number three, because these are the animals rejected by the little Rat.
- Parts of speech: as with every story, the most important parts of speech are the noun and the verb:
- The noun: most of them are concrete ones and refer to characters (mouse, cat…) and spaces (house).
- The verb: the majority are action verbs (sweep, buy, go, save, get married…) because a tale tells of events that happen to characters. There are also verba dicendi in the direct speech: say, answer…
- Rhetorical figures: folktales do not have many rhetorical figures because, as we have explained before, the style is based on simplicity. In our fable the most important ones are repeated sentences (Will you marry me? What will you do at night?) and symbols, which in fables would be the animals themselves: the mouse represents good and the cat, evil.
2.9-MORAL AND SOCIO-CULTURAL ASPECTS
Our tale, like all tales, has a traditional and ancestral view of the world, that is, it doesn’t represent the liberal values of our contemporary democratic societies. On the contrary, they are based on the conservative and primitive principles typical of ancient people and cultures.
In The conceited Little Rat we can find sexism, based on the inequality between men and women. Women have to be very beautiful, well-dressed and wait for their future husband. The money they get is used to buy the best dresses and they always have to look attractive to men’s. In our tale, the woman is represented as a very impulsive person, who can’t see the difference between good and evil. She is also weak because she needs a brave man to live with.
It also represents a world that values physical appearances (the Little Rat loves the cat’s strength and the animals love her because she is very beautiful). However, as stated before, our tale values security, goodness and bravery over physical beauty.
As we have studied, The Conceited Little Rat has the typical and classical features of all traditional folktales: brevity, numerous versions, simplicity in both the narrative genre (heterodiegetic narrator in third person, classical structure, flat characters, descriptive text and dialogue) and in the style and use of language.
All of the students who have carried out this research work consider that it has been very productive and gratifying because we have had the chance to put into practice the theoretical contents studied in World Literature. This work has helped us to understand the folktales that our parents used to read to us when we were little, especially in terms of symbolism, view of the world and morality.
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-Pozuelo Yvancos, J. M. (1988). Teoría del lenguaje literario. Madrid: Cátedra.
-Vladimir Propp, V. (2000). Morfología del cuento. Madrid: Akal.