Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

George Orwell: Obsessed with rats

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Dead rat. Photo by Johnmkjt on Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

“Of all the horrors—a rat.”
– George Orwell, 1984

It is said that author George Orwell (1903–1950), born Eric Blair, was “obsessed” with rats.1 Rats are mentioned in his novels, essays, diaries, and letters. As he got older, he became more rat-obsessed. He has been called “a kind of literary pied piper dancing at the head of an unappeasable furry brood that winds from one book to the next.”2

His last novel, 1984, gives rats a critical role. Lovers Winston and Julia are in a “secret” room above an old junk shop. It is apparently one of the few places in Oceania that does not have the ubiquitous telescreen spying on Oceania’s citizens. Julia sees a rat, and begins talking about rats. “Did you know they attack children? …a woman daren’t leave a baby alone for two minutes. It’s the great huge brown ones that do it. And the nasty thing is that the brutes always—”

“Don’t go on!” said Winston, with his eyes tightly shut.

He knew what Julia was going to say next: That the rats always go for the face. He cannot bear to hear this.3

When Winston was a child, during some global war of the twentieth century, he hid with his mother and sister. His mother gave him most of a chocolate bar, and gave a small piece to his sister. He ate his chocolate, snatched and ate his sister’s, and ran away. He returned to the hiding place some hours later, and mother and sister were gone. He never saw them again. In his child’s imagination, he thought that they had been eaten by rats.

The adult Winston runs afoul of Oceania’s dictatorship.4 The state’s interrogator is intent on breaking Winston and on obliterating his very last shred of self-respect. To accomplish this, he sends Winston to Room 101. Room 101 holds whatever a person fears the most, and in Winston’s case, it is rats. A cage of starving rats will be placed on his face, and they will eat him alive. The torturer’s threat works. Winston is broken, and is a debilitated, self-hating wreck.5

Winston hated rats. Orwell, his creator, hated rats. Orwell was born in India, where his English father was a civil servant. Orwell was bitten on the leg by a rat while he was in his crib, he claimed. The year after his birth, plague swept Bengal. Rats are a vector of plague, and Orwell’s mother and children left India.6,7

Orwell was in Burma with the Indian Imperial Police from 1922 to 1927. When he wrote about Burma, he mentioned rats. Rats were everywhere in Burma. In Rangoon he saw mounds of dead rats. In a cemetery there were “large rat holes [that] led down into graves.” In 1921 he wrote about shooting rats in a letter to a friend.

While working as a dishwasher in a Parisian restaurant in the late 1920s, “he saw first thing in the morning…[rats] sitting on the restaurant’s kitchen table and eating from a ham that lay there.”8

Back in England in the 1930s, living among miners, the working poor, and hoboes, he noted that in one lodging house “the rats are so bad that several cats have to be kept to deal exclusively with them.” Another lodging house was “a sewer full of rats.” In a London restaurant Orwell was told that because of rats “it was not safe to venture into the kitchen without a loaded revolver.”9

He fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Always a keen observer, he saw “great bloated brutes…too impudent to run away unless you shot at them.” He hated that rats ran over him in the dark. He remembered an old army song, “There are rats, rats / Rats as big as cats / In the quartermaster’s store!”10 While in a trench in Spain, he shot a rat. The shot started an exchange of gunfire that destroyed two buses.11 Just before World War II he estimated that the rat population of Great Britain was between four and five million.12 The main character (or hero, in the case of 1984) in Orwell’s novels reflects Orwell’s physical and emotional state at the time the particular story was written. Winston was starved, emaciated, physically deteriorated (“rotting away”). He feared that death was near. He hated rats.

Orwell, while writing 1984, had lost so much weight that he looked “skeletal,” and his failing health—tuberculosis had destroyed one lung and half of the other—imposed severe physical limitations on him. He feared for his son’s future as an orphan. Three months before his death he married Sonia Brownell, fifteen years his junior and said to be the model for Julia. And he hated rats.13

Orwell wrote Animal Farm14(1945) before 1984. He called it a “fairy story but also a political allegory,”15 written to describe the “betrayal practiced by the Soviet regime in the twenty years since the revolution.” On an English farm, the exploited animals have revolted, thrown out their human master, and established an egalitarian society. However, a pair of devious pigs have tricked their way into positions of leadership. The animals are all productive and contribute in one way or another to the farm’s economy. A question arises whether the rats should also be considered “comrades” like the rest of the animals. In this tale, rats represent beggars and thieves—part of society but noncontributing and marginal. The animals vote to include the rats. This is unusually mild treatment of rats for Orwell. But then the pigs send the rats to the “Wild Comrades Re-education Committee,” where they are killed by the cat.16

Rats never win chez Orwell.


  1. D.J. Taylor. Orwell: The Life. London: Vintage, 2004.
  2. Darcy Moore. “Orwell’s rats.” Orwell Studies Library, July 23, 2022. https://www.darcymoore.net/2022/07/23/orwells-rats/
  3. George Orwell. 1984. New York: Signet Classics, 1983.
  4. Orwell, 1984.
  5. Orwell, 1984.
  6. Taylor, The Life.
  7. John Sutherland. Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2016.
  8. Taylor, The Life.
  9. Taylor, The Life.
  10. George Orwell. Homage to Catalonia. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1989.
  11. Taylor, The Life.
  12. Darcy Moore, “Orwell’s rats.”
  13. Taylor, The Life.
  14. George Orwell. Animal Farm. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
  15. Taylor, The Life.
  16. Robert Savage. “Are rats comrades? Some readings of a question in Orwell,” Colloquy Text Theory Critique 12, 2006. https://www.monash.edu/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/1761205/savage2.pdf

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Spring 2024



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