Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A number of Naguib Mahfouz’s short stories deal with problems involving the human condition—anxiety, fear, uncertainty, frustration, crisis, and conflict—which he often describes ambivalently. In this story, although the residents of the apartments, with the assistance of the authorities, have the actual capability to prevent rats from entering the building and to destroy them if necessary, they are traumatized by rumors of the rodents’ aggressiveness, destructiveness, and danger to public health.

As the story unfolds, the protagonists’ frame of mind becomes phobic to the point that their entire existence is monopolized by the mere anticipation of this latter-day plague, which the narrator equates with the great flood and the birds turning on humans, quoting the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. By the time of the denouement, even the narrator and his wife have become infected with the hysteria, fantasizing that the government inspector has ratlike features. Thus, the condition of psychological transference—and the perverseness of the situation—become evident when the couple project their fixation on the very individual whose job it is to deal with the problem. The rats may well be a metaphor for the numerous social and political problems plaguing Egypt and about which Mahfouz has written extensively elsewhere.

Even though the characters are not developed in the brief scope of the story, Mr. A. M. comes through as a real individual. He is the senior householder. He has the most senior position, presumably in his professional life, but is also the most affluent and oldest in the building. Arabs have great respect for age, which is equated with having the experience essential for survival in a hostile environment. He is authoritative not only by virtue of what he is but also in what he says. At one point, he curtly puts an end to a tenant’s complaint regarding frayed nerves. Mr. A. M. also implies his closeness to the governor, the head of a large administrative district. The take-charge attitude of this middle-or upper-middle-class individual is in stark contrast with the fatalistic acceptance of Allah’s will by the lower social strata of a Muslim community whenever calamity strikes.