Why are rats used as Winston's greatest fear? What do they represent?
Rat torture is a common form of punishment and that's alluded to in the book:
"It was a common punishment in Imperial China", said O'Brien as didactically as ever.
I think part of the symbolism of rats is simply that they make for a realistic torture scene. Rat phobia isn't uncommon, so readers can potentially identify with it.
In addition to that, I think one of the biggest issues Winston wrestles with is the sameness of his daily life, the routine that he cannot break out of and nobody around him wants to break out of. He's stuck in this "rat race", if you will, and there's nothing more horrifying for him than becoming just another person like everybody else.
When he's threatened by rats, he gives up the last part of him that clings to independent thought: he betrays Julia, effectively abandoning the person he loves for his personal gain. Just like everyone else would.
There's also an interesting paragraph on this on NovelGuide.com, which seems to fit with this theory:
Winston learns the meaning of Room 101 when O'Brien tortures him with rats. Room 101 represents a person's worst fear and Winston's worst fear is rats. So on one level rats represent fear. On another level, however, rats represent depravity. Throughout history, humans have associated rats with squalor and pestilence. Rats carry disease and thrive on human garbage. Rats rank among the world's most "beastlike" (as opposed to "humanlike") creatures. Winston's universe is filled with humans who act like and are treated like beasts. Outer Party members and Proles all eventually become drones-meaningless, inhuman cogs in the Party's machine. In essence, Winston and his fellow citizens become rats, trapped in Big Brother's cage. If people allow forces such as those represented by Big Brother to rule, then they will become no better than mindless, multiplying rats.
The Rat: A Very Short Essay on Nineteen Eighty-Four and its Central Metaphor
Nineteen Eighty Four is a great book with great themes: truth, lies, history, memory, love, sex, and betrayal. It is the last that concerns us here in the figure of the rat, the only animal to appear in the novel (if we discount the droning of the ring doves). The rat is the fellow-traveller of death, destitution and figuratively, betrayal. Winston’s fear of rats is in essence a psychopathological fear of what he takes to be the greatest evil – self-betrayal, betrayal of others (“Do it to Julia!”), ratting or being a rat in general (especially a greedy one).
In his youth he steals a 2oz slab of chocolate from his mother and younger sister. It is a nightmare of guilty betrayal that haunts Winston’s night-times.
"One day a chocolate-ration was issued. There had been no such issue for weeks or months past. He remembered quite clearly that precious little morsel of chocolate. It was a two-ounce slab (they still talked about ounces in those days) between the three of them. It was obvious that it ought to be divided into three equal parts. Suddenly, as though he were listening to somebody else, Winston heard himself demanding in a loud booming voice that he should be given the whole piece. His mother told him not to be greedy. There was a long, nagging argument that went round and round, with shouts, whines, tears, remonstrances, bargainings. His tiny sister, clinging to her mother with both hands, exactly like a baby monkey, sat looking over her shoulder at him with large, mournful eyes. In the end his mother broke off three-quarters of the chocolate and gave it to Winston, giving the other quarter to his sister. The little girl took hold of it and looked at it dully, perhaps not knowing what it was. Winston stood watching her for a moment. Then with a sudden swift spring he had snatched the piece of chocolate out of his sister's hand and was fleeing for the door.
‘Winston, Winston!’ his mother called after him. ‘Come back! Give your sister back her chocolate!'
He stopped, but did not come back. His mother's anxious eyes were fixed on his face. Even now he was thinking about the thing, he did not know what it was that was on the point of happening. His sister, conscious of having been robbed of something, had set up a feeble wail. His mother drew her arm round the child and pressed its face against her breast. Something in the gesture told him that his sister was dying. He turned and fled down the stairs, with the chocolate growing sticky in his hand.
He never saw his mother again. After he had devoured the chocolate he felt somewhat ashamed of himself and hung about in the streets for several hours, until hunger drove him home. When he came back his mother had disappeared."
Later a rat intrudes into Winston’s and Julia’s love-nest (prefiguring the intrusion of the Thought Police).
"‘It's twenty-three at the hostel. But you have to get in earlier than that, because — Hi! Get out, you filthy brute!’
She suddenly twisted herself over in the bed, seized a shoe from the floor, and sent it hurtling into the corner with a boyish jerk of her arm, exactly as he had seen her fling the dictionary at Goldstein, that morning during the Two Minutes Hate.
‘What was it?’ he said in surprise.
‘A rat. I saw him stick his beastly nose out of the wainscoting. There's a hole down there. I gave him a good fright, anyway.’
‘Rats!’ murmured Winston. ‘In this room!’
‘They're all over the place,’ said Julia indifferently as she lay down again. ‘We've even got them in the kitchen at the hostel. Some parts of London are swarming with them. Did you know they attack children? Yes, they do. In some of these streets 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.
‘Dearest! You've gone quite pale. What's the matter? Do they make you feel sick?’
‘Of all horrors in the world — a rat!’
She pressed herself against him and wound her limbs round him, as though to reassure him with the warmth of her body. He did not reopen his eyes immediately. For several moments he had had the feeling of being back in a nightmare which had recurred from time to time throughout his life. It was always very much the same. He was standing in front of a wall of darkness, and on the other side of it there was something unendurable, something too dreadful to be faced. In the dream his deepest feeling was always one of self-deception, because he did in fact know what was behind the wall of darkness. With a deadly effort, like wrenching a piece out of his own brain, he could even have dragged the thing into the open. He always woke up without discovering what it was: but somehow it was connected with what Julia had been saying when he cut her short.
‘I'm sorry,’ he said, ‘it's nothing. I don't like rats, that's all.’"
The rat stands for betrayal – not only the original act (it is clear that Smith has formed a connection between the rats, the women and their babies and his betrayal of his mother and sister), but also both the ‘self-deception’ and the dragging the’ thing into the open.’ The ‘rat’ is an instance of self-betrayal and threatened self-exposure (or betrayal).
O’Brien has made the connection too. His exposition on rats is eerily familiar.
"‘The rat,’ said O'Brien, still addressing his invisible audience, ‘although a rodent, is carnivorous. You are aware of that. You will have heard of the things that happen in the poor quarters of this town. In some streets a woman dare not leave her baby alone in the house, even for five minutes. The rats are certain to attack it. Within quite a small time they will strip it to the bones. They also attack sick or dying people. They show astonishing intelligence in knowing when a human being is helpless.’"
And then there is the final terrible betrayal of Julia, the only person he could usefully interpose between himself and the rats.
"‘Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don't care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!’"
Betrayal or ‘ratting’ provides the very core to the book, with each of the major themes an offshoot of this powerful, central idea. From the revolution itself down to the sinister ‘Spies’, all is betrayal: the revolution betrayed by the Party; Parsons by his own children; History is betrayed by the Ministry of Truth; natural, more or less autonomous human thoughts and feelings are betrayed by torture and brainwashing. Nothing is left untouched by the Rat.
Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable tells us a lot about rats, notably:
Pliny tells us (VIII, lvii) that the Romans drew prresages from rats and to see a white rat foreboded good fortune. Clothing or equipment gnawed by rats presaged ill fortune. It was an old superstition among ailsors that rats deserted a ship before she set out on a voyage that was to end in her loss. Similarly rats were said to leave a falling house.
& he quotes The Tempest, I, ii, where "the very rats / Instinctively have quit it [a ship]".
Rats are also common laboratory animals--pawns in an experiment not unlike the social "experiment" of 1984.
Rats represent depravity more so than snakes and spiders. The proles live in conditions more likened to those in which rats are associated with. Winston believed that the proles were the only hope left, quote "If there is hope, it lies with the proles". The rats in room 101 turn on him, forced upon him by the all-encompassing Party, and Winston's resolve crumbles as he realizes that The Party has set him up with false hope simply so that The Party could destroy and change his mind.
But Orwell did well to lay emphasis on what the rats were capable of doing even among the proles:
P.181: Did you know they attack children? Yes, they do. In some of these streets 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——’ (P.181)
it was his fear of rats:
P.358: In your case,’ said O’Brien, ‘the worst thing in the world happens to be rats...
P.362: He was falling backwards, into enormous depths, away from the rats. He was still strapped in the chair, but he had fallen through the floor, through the walls of the building, through the earth, through the oceans, through the atmosphere, into outer space, into the gulfs between the stars—always away, away, away from the rats. He was light years distant,
Room 101 was every interrogated party member's worst fear.
At the beginning of the novel, there is some word about Winston's childhood remembers. There is a point where he remembers some dead bodies, with rats around them.
I think probably it was the point where the "normal" world ended for the children Winston. From that point he lives in a constant fear and fight for survival. It is the "entry point" for him into the world of the 1984.
This is why he has such a fear from the rats.
I can get the citation from the novel for ask.
1984 was written in 1947, just after the war, so whatever rats may symbolize, they also represent a contemporary fear for Orwell and the people he was writing for.
When London was being bombed, rats were a familiar thing - rats infesting the Underground shelters, and rats attacking the bodies of the victims of bombing. This book documents that
In one notable instance, thousands of them [rats] swarmed out of a soap factory set ablaze during the bombing.
It's natural that Orwell was transfer this image of the horror that Londoners were then feeling about the possibility that they could be trapped in rubble and eaten alive by rats to Winston Smith.
In 1984 book, the rats represent Winston's deepest fears because he is more afraid of them than of anything else. On a deeper level, however, the rats also symbolize the extent of the Party's control over the people of Oceania. You can find them on Bansky drawings, they have suits and can represent control through government or corporations.
Social contract theory is based on the idea that in exchange for giving up some liberties, the state, or collective group provides some benefits, such as protection from violence, to the individual. One may rebel against society's paradigm, but frequently they will find something that makes them reintegrate and sacrifice their liberties for the benefits provided by the state. It is not the fact that they are rats that is important. It is the fact that everyone has something that gets to them. For almost anyone there is something they fear enough that they will abandon their nonconfoming values, some liberties, and submit to the state, ruling class, societal paradigm, etc. In the end one loves big brother. They need/appreciate/love the benefits that come from engaging in the social contract, or submitting to state in exchange for the benefits provided. There are lots of people who don't like the idea selling someone else the best 8 hours of their day so that the employer can make more money off their time. That is, until rent is due the next week ;).
I show great appreciation for the reference... but for me it ties into Chinese astrology, the year 1984 (or rather the year 4682 in chinese calendar) is the year of the rat... and if one is familiar with chinese astrology, you'd know the rat is the FIRST animal amongst the zodiac. Interestingly enough, in the chinese calendar i was born 4th of April 4682 (1984). 😉