The story takes place in modern times at the Fitzgibbon farm. The Fitzgibbon house serves as background for the homes of the animals that live nearby. The animals' abodes are vividly described. Mrs. Frisby and her children, a family of mice, live in a "slightly damaged cement block [that] . . . lay almost completely buried" in Mr. Fitzgibbon's field. The furnishings of this house are "bits of leaves, grass, cloth, cotton fluff, and other soft things Mrs. Frisby and her children had collected." The Frisbys stay here during the winter, when living in the woods becomes too harsh because of the scarcity of food. The farm provides Mrs. Frisby and her family with a home and there are leftover crops for food, but it is also a dangerous place. Mice never forget that this is cat territory, and when Mr. Fitzgibbon begins plowing in the spring "no animal caught in the garden that day is likely to escape alive, and all the winter homes, all the tunnels and holes and nests and cocoons, are torn up."
While Mrs. Frisby's home seems a realistic mouse hovel, the fugitive rats from NIMH have created a fantastic world beneath the rosebush on the Fitzgibbon farm. The rats have established a fully organized headquarters in a cave, using electricity to power lights, an elevator, air ducts, and a radio. They have a fully stocked library and meet in a large assembly hall to discuss the future of their civilization.
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Some of the important literary qualities of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH are the use of humanized animals, character complexity and development, interwoven stories, a flashback technique to vividly portray past events, and a setting that demonstrates themes, personalities, and conflicts. O'Brien presents animals that are "humanized;" that is, they think, feel, speak, and react as humans might. Their conflicts can be seen as analogous to human conflicts. Mrs. Frisby is a believable character who overcomes her fears to develop a sense of independence. Fear and courage, insensitivity and kindness, all are depicted as facets of a character's complex personality.
Beside the entrance way, looking at her with dark, unblinking eyes, stood the biggest rat she had ever seen.
The author skillfully interweaves the conflicts of Mrs. Frisby and the rats, not merely through plot, but also through the intricate development of similar themes and conflicts. Although Nicodemus's account of their years at NIMH fills eight chapters, the tale is told through action and dialogue, making it a story within the main story. Because it is told in flashback and not simply through monologue, the action, suspense, and interest are aptly maintained.
Settings are distinct and often reflect elements of theme, conflict, or character. The details of Mrs. Frisby's home are realistic; she does not wear miniature clothes nor does she have small versions of human...
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O'Brien has stated that, "The mind learns that it is not easy to separate good from bad; they become deviously intertwined. From books [one] learns that not all doors are simply open or shut, and that even rats can become heroes." The novel depicts uses of science and knowledge, yet science is presented neither as all good nor all bad. While Nicodemus tells of the pain of scientific experimentation on animals, neither the scientists nor science itself is seen as evil. Dr. Schultz is criticized because he does not know the implications of the experiments, yet he is not inherently evil; when he holds the rats, he does so "gently but firmly." Mr. Ages is a type of doctor, who helps save Timothy's life with medicines. Moving Mrs. Frisby's home is only accomplished because the rats have knowledge that other animals do not have. The Plan, which requires that the rats leave their comfortable surroundings, still includes the use of science; Nicodemus and others have had to study science in order to learn how to develop their farming community. It would be easy, in a book such as this, to cast science as "bad," but careful reading will show that criticism is coupled with recognition of the advantages, when properly used, of science.
How to use what one learns and how best to live one's life, are perhaps the major concerns of the novel. O'Brien suggests that during today's technological age, using natural resources more responsibly may result in a less physically...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why was the rats' stay at the Boniface Estate an important step between their time at NIMH and living at the Fitzgibbon farm?
2. How is life in the rats' developed civilization on the Fitzgibbon farm similar to their years at the marketplace?
3. Jeremy says that the rats on Mr. Fitzgibbon's farm kept to themselves. What are some of the reasons for that? What do they learn after they escape NIMH that makes them stay away from others?
4. Why had Jonathan Frisby never told his wife about NIMH? Was his decision the right one?
5. What is the definition of "bravery?" Which characters display it?
6. Is there a difference in how the personalities of human and animal characters are described?
7. How is Thorn Valley described? Why is it significant that this setting was chosen for the Plan?
8. Do you think that the rats' plan for a civilization in Thorn Valley will succeed? What problems do you foresee? How do you think they will cope with these problems?
9. What are the uses of science in the novel? Compare its use by Dr. Schultz, Mr. Ages, and the rats.
10. The fate of many characters is not known. For a long time Mrs. Frisby did not know how her husband died. Two unsolved questions at the end of the novel regard Jenner and Justin. What are other unresolved questions? Why does O'Brien allow them to remain unresolved?
11. Some characters, settings, and...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. How important are minor characters, such as Isabella, Jeremy, Owl, or the Frisby children? What do they add to the story?
2. Settings such as the woods, Owl's tree, Thorn Valley, or the NIMH laboratory are used in the novel to represent a conflict, character, or theme. Explain how specific settings achieve this.
3. Jenner and Nicodemus present two different views of life for the rat colony. What are those views? How does each view demonstrate what each has learned from NIMH? How useful is each view?
4. Mr. Frisby used to say, "All doors are hard to unlock until you have the key." All right. She [Mrs. Frisby] must try to find the key. But where? Whom to ask?" What "key" does she and other characters use to solve their problems?
5. Mrs. Frisby is first recognized by Owl, Mr. Ages, and the rats because she was Jonathan's wife, and her first name, unlike other characters, is never given. Justin may think that drugging the cat, Dragon, is "no job for a lady," but Mrs. Frisby does it anyway. What expectations do characters have of Mrs. Frisby? How does she overcome these stereotypes?
6. The movie The Secret of NIMH presents a very different ending to the story. How is the conflict and resolution different from the novel? What themes and ideas are important to each?
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In 1982 MGM/United Artists released The Secret of NIMH, a superb movie with vivid, detailed animation that often uses warm and striking colors to enhance mood. The movie is based upon the novel and largely follows its main plot and characters. Mrs. Frisby's name is changed to Mrs. Brisby, but other characters' names remain the same. To portray the humanness of the animals, the mice and rats all wear clothes, and Mrs. Brisby's house is complete with furniture.
The horror of animal experimentation is increased in the movie as Nicodemus describes "the most unspeakable tortures to satisfy some scientific curiosity." The movie also presents a clearer difference between good and evil. Jenner is consumed with a "lust for power." He determines to "take what you can, when you can," and remains in the rat colony, using the ploy of moving Mrs. Brisby's house to attempt the "undoing of the Rats of NIMH."
While the novel explains the rats' development as a result of the injections received at NIMH, the movie introduces the element of magic. Nicodemus gives Mrs. Brisby a magic amulet and tells her, "Courage of the heart is very rare. The stone has a power when it's there." The power of this amulet is unleashed in the movie's climax.
The Secret of NIMH, then, presents a dramatic contrast of character, and good and evil are depicted through magic and violence. The epilogue does not leave the unsolved questions of the novel.
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For Further Reference
Burr, Elizabeth. "Newbery and Caldecott Awards." In Children and Literature: Views and Reviews, edited by Virginia Haviland. New York: Scott, Foresman, 1973. This article explains how Newbery Award books are chosen.
Conly, Sally M. "Robert C. O'Brien." In Fourth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, edited by Doris DeMontreville a nd E. D. Crawford. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1978. Conly gives a thorough account of O'Brien's life and interests.
Kingman, Lee, ed. Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books 1966-1975. Boston: Horn Book, 1975. The Horn Book Magazine, August 1972, contains O'Brien's acceptance speech for the Newbery Award and a biographical profile. This book compiles that...
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