By Paula T. Connolly

The Resolution of Ambiguity in The Secret of NIMH

by Paula T. Connolly

In his 1972 Newbery Award acceptance speech, Robert O'Brien noted that "[t]he mind learns that it is not easy to separate good from bad; they become deviously intertwined. From books it learns that not all doors are simply open or shut, and that even rats can become heroes."(1) He is speaking here of the moral complexity of his novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which deals with such problematic issues as the roles of science and technology, identity, idealism, family life, forms of community and means of survival. There are gradations of moral understanding and culpability in his world view, but there is not often a clear demarcation between right and wrong. Similarly, his characters are often complex combinations of idealism and cynicism, strength and weakness, sympathy and practicality. Those characters must be complex to deal with the range of issues and the world O'Brien details--a world of danger, where choices are often based more on survival and need than on easy preference and personal desire.

Although O'Brien who died in 1973, did not live to see the 1982 film adaptation of his novel, it is clear that Don Bluth's The Secret of NIMH does not answer O'Brien's call for a sophisticated presentation of moral issues and characters in children's literature. The Secret of NIMH is a wonderfully animated adventure story and does include a version of the basic storyline of the rats' plan to move to Thorn Valley, Mrs. Frisby's quest to save her young so from a near-certain death, and the rats' earlier days at and escape from NIMH. But this adaptation varies from the novel not merely by developing minor characters for comic relief, but by changing the central ambiguity and issues of the novel itself.

In essence, the film de-problematizes the novel, especially in the way in which it recreates Mrs. Frisby--who changes more than in simple name to Mrs. Brisby--and in the way the community is reworked here so that it becomes less a depiction of interrelationships and mutual dependencies, and more a dichotomized and hierarchical view of battles for personal ego and fantastic powers. The central tale within the film--of Mrs. Brisby's attempts to save her family--becomes the story of a frightened mouse who is transformed into a heroine. Yet this depiction of Frisby-turned-Brisby is plagued with ironic contradictions, and is ultimately undermined even during the climax of the film when Brisby is ostensibly meant to demonstrate her courage and strength. By refocusing the story to the development of Brisby's independence, the film sets up a hierarchy and a set of oppositions which dissolve the ambiguities of the novel. Further, as the film shifts the focus from the development of the communities to the development of the individual, O'Brien's concern with the necessities of interdependence becomes simplified to the overt development of individual egos.

Silencing Mrs. Frisby

The Difference in Mrs. Brisby/Frisby's identity in the movie and novel is both radical and immediately apparent. The film begins with Nicodemus writing of Jonathan's death and wondering how he will help his widow. Then, as he holds a magic amulet, Nicodemus says good-bye to his friend and tells him: "Jonathan, wherever you are, your thoughts must comfort her tonight. She will be waiting and you will not return." This initial objectification of Brisby--who is introduced as a third- person figure of her own story--is compounded once the character moves from object to subject, that is, once she is not merely the focus of Nicodemus's thoughts but becomes a character directly viewed by the audience.

Following a placement shot of the Fitzgibbon farm, we see Brisby at the home of Mr. Ages, asking him for medicine to save her sick son. She is quiet, self-effacing and uncertain, yet Mr. Ages is contentious and insensitive. Although he tells her "Sorry about your husband's death," he initially ignores the seriousness of her request and as she follows him into his laboratory, he presents himself as a belligerent and disinterested superior. He chides her as one would a child when he tells her to "Follow me, but don't touch anything." Once he has given her the medicine and told her she must keep her son indoors, she reminds Mr. Ages that Moving Day is near and he tells her brusquely, "You asked my advice and I gave it." Then he quickly pushes Brisby out the door, slamming it behind her, leaving her stuttering her thanks to a dark and empty alcove.

Although these early scenes are meant to establish the extent of danger and conflict Brisby must face, they serve primarily to depict her as a weak and ineffectual female. Even before the credits have been shown, Mrs. Brisby is defined not only as a widow, but more clearly as someone vulnerable, needing the help of Nicodemus and of the dead Jonathan. The fact that Mr. Ages ignores, chastises, and commands Mrs. Brisby emphasizes this depiction of her as childlike, ineffective, and dependent. She becomes, in many ways, a shadow character, largely defined and motivated to action by those around her.

By contrast, the first sentence of the novel--"Mrs. Frisby, the head of a family of field mice, lived in an underground house in the vegetable garden of a farmer named Mr. Fitzgibbon"(2)-- establishes Frisby as an immediate, primary and competent character. We see her first, not as needing the aid of male characters, but as ably providing for her family. Here, it is she who serves as the hierarchical head of that family, and initial leader in the story. For "[a]lthough she was a widow...Mrs. Frisby was able, through luck and hard work, to keep her family...happy and well fed."(3) Frisby's world is one of constant threat, yet she survives through her caution, cunning and practicality. While the character's emotion and physical vulnerability is immediately stressed in the film, in the novel we find her skillfully navigating through cat territory in search of food for her family. She finds food abandoned by an animal that had probably been killed, but "since Mrs. Frisby did not even know what kind of animal it had been, much less his name, she could not shed many tears over him--and food was food."(4) She is a practical, not overly sentimental, and certainly not dependent creature.

This difference in characterization is largely due to the film's revision of the Frisby storyline to an overt quest for independence and strength. In order to dramatize this development, however, Brisby's initial vulnerability must be exacerbated in the film. She is subservient to nearly every character she meets. One recurrent image that demonstrates this vulnerability is Brisby's voice, which becomes a quintessential example of the way female speech is riddled with apologies, tag phrases and other forms of politeness that serve to reduce the power of that language, and thus to marginalize the speaker. Critic Robin Lakoff has noted the effects of what she calls "women's language":

it submerges a woman's personal identity, by denying her the means of expressing herself strongly, on the one hand, and encouraging expressions that suggest triviality in subject matter and uncertainty about it; and, when a woman is being discussed, by treating her as an object...but never a serious person with individual views.(5)

Indeed, this seems clearly the case for Mrs. Brisby. When other characters, such as Mr. Ages and Auntie Shrew, vigorously chastise her, Brisby demonstrates her timidity by her quiet, apologetic and often stuttering responses. Moreover, these apologies--which she makes to Mr. Ages, the Owl and Justin--are not merely markers of politeness, but clearly minimize her son's illness, and ultimately herself. What she apologizes for in each case is, after all, her presence and her request for her son's life. When, for example, she comes to the rats for aid and finds that a meeting is in progress, she tells Justin, "I'm sorry to come here at a bad time...I suppose."(6)

Even when Brisby's needs are met, her voice is still often silenced. When she meets Nicodemus to tell him of the Owl's advice, she begins to say, "Your majesty, my family is--," but is interrupted by the leader of the rats who assures her, "I know of your needs." Despite his forthcoming aid and his apparent sympathy, by anticipating her needs, he also prevents her from telling her own story or even asking formally for aid. By contrast, in the novel when Frisby journeys to the Rosebush, Nicodemus must ask her "what is it we can do to help you,"(7) and Frisby then recounts her own story to him.

This silence and hesitancy also marks Brisby's role as mother. When Auntie Shrew, mocked by the Brisby children, tells their mother, "I have just one thing to say: that child is a brat!" Mrs. Brisby's only response is an obsequious "Yes, I will speak to him." Brisby's interaction with the Shrew not only demonstrates her silence, but most clearly her lack of power as a mother. the role of the Shrew is more developed in the film than in the novel; in the film she functions as mother to Brisby and even reminds Brisby of her own responsibilities as a mother. Although Brisby, fearing her home will be destroyed does attempt to disable the plow herself, she is immediately paralyzed by her fear of heights, and the Shrew must complete the sabotage and rescue Brisby, who huddles atop the plow trembling and ineffective. Their conversation immediately following that rescue highlights Brisby's failure as a mother- figure and the ways other characters must direct her actions.

Brisby (crying): I wish Jonathan were here.

Shrew (chiding): Well, he's not. Stop it!

Brisby: What am I going to do?

Shrew: We'll think of something. Come on. Let's get out of here. The Great Owl would know what to do about this. You must go see him.

Brisby: I couldn't do that. Owls eat mice.

Shrew: Well, my child, show a little courage, we're fighting for Timothy's life.

Nicodemus (who observes this scene with the aid of magical powers): Jonathan, your wife, I fear, is in desperate trouble. A visit to the Great Owl might indeed be profitable. Go to the Owl, then, Mrs. Brisby. Go there!

Later, as Jeremy the Crow prepares to fly Brisby to the Owl's home, Brisby repeats that "Owls eat mice" and exclaims, "I don't know how I let you talk me into this!" The incident in which Brisby visits the Great Owl forms the basis for both the film's solution and the rats' early recognition of Brisby's courage, yet it is a scene filled with depictions of her own inadequacies. It is, after all, Auntie Shrew who comes up with the idea to visit the Owl and must remind Brisby of her own responsibilities as a mother, Nicodemus who seems to magically induce her to go to the Owl, and Jeremy who provides her with transportation, albeit against her better judgment. These characters all direct her to the Owl, and she journeys there more at their behest than her own will. In O'Brien's novel, however, it is clear that Frisby's role as mother provides an underpinning for her strength. When she is frightened, she remembers that her children are depending on her, and thus ably faces the obstacles before her. In essence, there is clear interdependence between her children and herself: her children encourage her psychological fortitude and she provides their means of survival.

In the novel, her role as wife, too, gives her a measure of authority for it brings with it a sense of her personal and even sexual experience. In the novel when Frisby first journeys to the Rosebush, she meets Isabella, a young rat who has a crush on Justin. When Justin arrives and absentmindedly calls Isabella "Izzy," Mrs. Frisby thinks, "It did not matter...if Justin called her Izzy, just so he called her something".(8) In Bluth's version of the story, however, when Brisby meets Justin she herself becomes that lovesick child. Flattered by Justin's attentions and gallantry, she murmurs "how beautiful" as she stares at him, then quickly corrects herself "...the lights [I mean]." A child to Auntie Shrew and a lovesick, inexperienced girl to Justin, the Brisby character is also diminished in her dealings with Nicodemus, whom in awed whispers she repeatedly calls "Your majesty."

Independence vs. interdependence

O'Brien's depiction of Frisby is built upon his vision that in a dangerous world, survival requires networks based upon interdependencies. In the novel, Frisby's act of saving Jeremy from the cat brings about all other events. It is after she saves him, at her own risk, that he suggests she visit the Owl and agrees to fly her there. The Owl is initially uninterested in listening to Frisby, but agrees after he learns what she has done for Jeremy. He tells her, "please understand that I have no interest at helping mice to solve their problems. If you have indeed saved a bird from the cat, I will spare you a few minutes."(9) Once he discovers that she is Jonathan's widow, he suggests that she go to the rats. The aid they give her is based on an accepted system of interdependencies--Jonathan had helped them, so in his absence, they will help his family-- but this is a system of which Frisby herself is already a part. Because she had aided Jeremy, he helps her meet the Owl. Because of her courage and her willingness to aid others, the Owl respects and helps her. This is a much different depiction from that in the film where Brisby is aided only because of her vulnerability and because she is Jonathan's widow.

O'Brien's vision of interdependencies includes a presentation of an often complex world, and this, too, is incorporated into his characterization of Frisby. In the film, when Moving Day arrives, Auntie Shrew screams hysterically, "Run for your lives...the plow is here!" signaling the invasion of man as a certain sign of the slaughter of animals. In this scene, the rabbits beat the ground in frenzy to warn other animals of their impending doom, and all race, eyes wide in terror, to escape the fields. In the novel, however, O'Brien is careful to show the varied facets of Moving Day; it is admittedly a day in which animals will be killed by the plow if they are caught unaware in the fields, but it is also due to the plowing that animals have food to eat for the rest of the year. Frisby is full aware of the dual dangers and benefits of Moving Day, and despite the Shrew's complaints, she is able to evaluate and dismiss the Shrew's comments thus showing that she is often a more rational creature than the Shrew and certainly more so than the Brisby of the film, and also that the world she inhabits is one of far more complexity than that found in The Secret of NIMH.

Because, in the film, the central focus is the development of Brisby's character, it is against a backdrop of her early and exaggerated inferiority and insecurity that she must establish her independence. This developed sense of independence is, however, ultimately problematic both in the way it redefines the issues of the novel and in its own inherent contradictions. Brisby's use of "Your majesty" when addressing Nicodemus, for example, not only serves to emphasize her powerlessness by setting up a hierarchy in which she is subservient, but also restructures the social issues of O'Brien's story. In the novel, Nicodemus makes it clear that the rats use no titles. From the way they attend meetings, vote on important decisions, and work together to compete their move to Thorn Valley--a move based on their rejection of capitalist competition as self- destructive and on their idealism of self-sufficiency and hard work--it is clear that their community is based on a democratic, often socialist, model. The use of distinguishing ranks in the film--including royal titles--supplants the complexities of the communal societies in the novel with more simplistic, hierarchical ones. This too, is a reflection of the way Bluth exchanges O'Brien's vision of communities as networks of interdependent links, for a presentation of communities largely defined as the projections of the ego and individuality of leaders.

The film's portrayal of simple moral oppositions is a fairly harsh revision of O'Brien's morally complex tale. Just as ambivalent connotations of Moving Day are simplified to clear-cut depictions of danger, so too, for example, are the scientists redefined only as cruel and evil. In the film when Nicodemus describes his internment at NIMH, he recalls the many animals who "were put through the most unspeakable tortures to satisfy some scientific curiosity. Often at night I would hear them crying out in anguish." The horror of experimentation is exacerbated by a scene of large-eyed and whimpering puppies, and of a monkey holding its children, unable, of course, to protect them. The scientists are objectified and only their hands are shown as they inject the rats with long needles that induce painful reactions. Despite O'Brien's obvious criticisms of the over-ambitious goals of science and the dangers of experimentation, he is careful not to provide facile characterizations of scientists. The rats, Nicodemus recounts, were held "gently but firmly" and the scientists were generally "kind." When a lab assistant had sympathized with one of the rats, saying, "Poor little thing, he's frightened,"(10) she is reprimanded by the scientist not because of her sensitivity but because she mistook the rat's gender.

This attempt to resolve the ambiguity of O'Brien's world is inherently connected to the revision of the Frisby character. The battle of good and evil is played out against the backdrop of Brisby's coming independence and demonstrated strength-- that is, as she moves from weak to a strong character. Brisby does show independence when she finally escapes from the Fitzgibbon's cage by herself, journeys to the rats to warn them of the coming threat of the NIMH scientists, and then save her children's lives as their home begins to sink beneath the mud. Indeed, this image of a newly empowered Brisby becoming a heroic mother and saving her children when the rats about her are powerless to help, provides the climatic scene of the film. Brisby symbolically finds her voice in the scene when she climbs atop a block and addresses the rats, warning them of the NIMH scientists. Although speaking out can be seen as a means of assertion, the power Brisby achieves in this scene is questionable. The warning she brings to the rats does ultimately save them, but her more passive and helpless femininity is reestablished when Jenner viciously casts her aside and Justin must defend her in the ensuing sword fight. This scene clearly demonstrates Bluth's concern with individual and personal power, and the way his vision erases O'Brien's views of community, ambiguity and moral complexity.

While the imagery connected with Brisby's development is contradictory, the film's concern with personal power is nonetheless clear. In the film, Jenner battles first Nicodemus then Justin to become the leader of the rats and fulfill his "lust for power." Justin, a gallant, swashbuckling hero, confronts Jenner in a sword fight that dramatizes the central conflict as a battle of individual wills. Although O'Brien's story focuses on different ways of envisioning community, it is not community but leaders that are preeminent in the film. This is clear both in the development of conflicts never present in the book and in the ways characters are rewritten. In the film, even the depiction of the contentious Mr. Ages stresses personal hubris and misses O'Brien's point of survival based on mutual aid and interdependence.

The problem of magic

The vision of success as individual accomplishment is seen in the way Brisby ostensibly saves her family through her own courage. Yet, for Mrs. Brisby, even in this climatic scene, personal power is problematic and fleeting. As the Brisby's home sinks, the magic amulet pops out of the mud and moves of its own accord to Brisby, who shies away from it. Then Nicodemus's voice is heard repeating the rhyme, "Courage of the heart is very rare. The stone has a power when it's there." Brisby grasps the stone, she is infused by its magic, and the house rises, steered by a magical, umbilical-like cord and set down in a safe place. Exhausted, Brisby faints.

Although critics of fantasy literature often point out that magic serves as an external reflection of inner will, there is an inherent irony in the use of a physical talisman to empower intangible will. That irony is evident here, for while in O'Brien's novel accomplishments are made through the ingenuity and strengths of the characters, the introduction of magic into the film suggests the need for something more than the individual or community to evince power. Further, if this is the scene which defines Brisby's ultimate power--as she stands with arms raised and body glowing wile the magic of the amulet courses through her--that power is quickly deflated. Brisby, whom Nicodemus defines as no longer faint-hearted, ironically faints once the stone accomplishes its task. That final image of her passivity--that is, Brisby in an unconscious faint--in some ways even characterizes her role in this scene. The amulet had come to her of its own accord, the dead Nicodemus had orchestrated the event, and it had been the amulet that empowered Brisby. Indeed, Brisby's ostensible power is quickly neutralized and she recovers her prescribed femininity through the ensuing exaggerated faint when, evoking a sentimentalized heroine, she raises her paw to her head, swoons, then delicately and gracefully falls to the ground, knees first, cape wrapped about her.

In O'Brien's novel, there is no amulet, no magic that suddenly empowers Frisby. Neither does she rescue herself from the Fitzgibbon's cage. While Frisby is nervous about her task of drugging the cat Dragon, she comforts and encourages herself- -unlike Brisby, who needs the continued reassurances of Justin; yet once she is caught and trapped in the cage she finds the "door was stiff and it was heavy, and she could not get a good enough grip on exert much pressure."(11) Finally, Justin returns and frees her with his "Burglar's tools," making sure her escape will not invite the suspicions of the Fitzgibbon family.

Although this might appear to demonstrate Frisby's weakness, when her character is viewed within the context of O'Brien's world view, her rescue by the rat is inevitable. The system of interdependencies, which runs throughout the novel and serves as the cohesion for communities, means that it is not a lessening of Frisby's power when Justin must release her from the Fitzgibbon's cage. Frisby has had the courage and intelligence to survive the animal world thus far, but survival must often depend upon aid from others. Hence, just as Jonathan had once escaped NIMH because the rats had helped him, then repaid the rats by releasing the final barriers that kept them imprisoned, so too is Mrs. Frisby now released from the cage by Justin and soon thereafter returns the favor by telling the rats of the impending visit of the NIMH scientists. In many ways, this escape parallels the earlier one of her husband and the rats at NIMH. There, the imprisoned Jonathan had told the rats, "We [mice] would like to go, too, but we cannot open our cages." The mice had been trapped because, being smaller than the rats, they "can't reach far enough to unlatch [the doors]."(12) After the rats free them, Jonathan and Mr. Ages then save the rats' lives by unlocking the final exit from the building.

While The Secret of NIMH, focuses on the development of Mrs. Brisby as she seeks to save her family, this change in focus entails the resolution of much of the novel's complexity.(13) Such a change comes at the cost of transforming the central focus of the story from community to independence, and even those depictions of independence become problematic. Such is the case, for example, when Mrs. Brisby must be counseled, badgered, supported, and "magicked" to personal power. By citing individual will as the preeminent concern and by making clear-cut depictions of good and evil--then locating that good or evil in characters as one would in a morality play--the film simplifies the world O'Brien creates in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

When Bluth left the Disney studios in 1979 one of his concerns was reportedly that "Disney was...producing namby-pamby stories, protecting youthful audiences from the grim realities of traditional fairy tales."(14) Although The Secret of NIMH provides the punishment of the villain, the reunion of the family, and the final triumph of the initially weak character-- typical elements of fairy tales--it also borrows from fairy tales unambiguous characters and conflicts. It denies O'Brien's call for a complex vision in children's literature. O'Brien's world is not one of simple dependence or independence, but of interdependence. Characters must help each other as they move through a place where Moving Day means both life and death, and Thorn Valley becomes the hope for a new future and a dream already cursed by their inculcation of human knowledge. It is a world of problems and ambiguity not easily resolved. And to live in such a world, to provide aid to other in a common quest for survival, characters such as Mrs. Frisby must already be cautious, capable, and intelligent.


  1. O'Brien, "Newbery Award Acceptance," 348.
  2. O'Brien, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, 3.
  3. O'Brien, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, 4
  4. O'Brien, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, 7
  5. Lakoff, 7. See Lakoff for a discussion of "Women's language." She asserts that "Women speak in italics, and the more ladylike and feminine you are, the more in italics you are supposed to speak" (56). This link between language and femininity seems evident in the Brisby character throughout the film.
  6. [Note:] In the film, when the blustering Auntie Shrew comes to visit the Brisby children, it is the youngest Brisby mouse, Cynthia, who tugs on the Shrew's cloak, trying to be heard as she tells her "Timmy's sick." Auntie Shrew, who only hears this news when the older Teresa is speaking to her, silences and chastises Cynthia by telling her, "Don't fidget. You're so like your mother." The Shrew's comparison does evoke images of Mrs. Brisby who repeatedly tells others "Timothy's sick," but along the way is also often silenced and ignored. In this instance, O'Brien's depiction of Cynthia as "a little light-headed" (8) and "small [and] scatterbrained" (21) seems transferred from the novel (as the character Cynthia) to the film (as Brisby).
  7. O'Brien, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, 90
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. [Note:] Although a separate issue for discussion, it is interesting to note that the two sequels to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH written by Jane Leslie Conly also largely resolve any issues of ambiguity in O'Brien's novel. While O'Brien emphasizes the uncertainties through the number of unanswered questions in his book--whether Jenner or Justin die, for example--those questions are answered in Conly's sequel, Racso and the Rats of NIMH. This pattern of resolution is largely true of her second book, R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH. Although that book ends with the rats disappearing from their living place at Thorn Valley, it is clear that the rats have moved to a different location, and that this serves not so much as real ambiguity as a possible plot for a following book.
  14. "The Rebel Nibbling at Disney's World," 68.

Works Cited

  • Conly, Jane Leslie. Racso and the Rats of NIMH. New York: Harper and Row, 1986
  • Conly, Jane Leslie. R-T, Margaret and the Rats of NIMH. New York, Harper and Row, 1990
  • Lakoff, Robin. Language and Woman's Place. New York: Harper and Row, 1975
  • O'Brien, Robert C. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971). New York: Aladdin-MacMillan, 1975.
  • O'Brien, Robert C. "Newbery Award Acceptance." The Horn Book 48 (August 1972): 343-348.
  • "The Rebel Nibbling at Disney's World." Fortune 106 (4 October 1982), 68.
  • The Secret of NIMH. Directed by Don Bluth. MGM/UA, 1982.

About the Author

Paula T. Connolly received her doctorate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she teaches courses in children's literature and film. She has also published several articles on children's fantasy literature.

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