"A strangely hasty, agitated meal."
June 6, 2010 10:16 PM   Subscribe

PatrickO'BrianFilter: Please help me to understand a passage in H.M.S Surprise regarding Maturin, thieving midshipmen, madder, and rats.

Early in the book, it's revealed that Maturin is feeding two rats madder in order to see how long it takes to penetrate their bones. The rats are later stolen and eaten. When Babbington owns up to helping eat the rats, Stephen mutters, "Poor fellows, poor fellows," in regards to all the midshipmen, and says, "Nature will take care of that, I am afraid," when asked by Jack if he would like to see the mids punished. All the rat-eaters report to Stephen later that afternoon, and he gives them a bolus that sends them all to the head for what Jack deems an unacceptable amount of time.

From what I've been able to find from a precursory Google search, madder seems to be a relatively harmless plant used for dyeing.

1) Is madder harmless? If so, why does Stephen mutter darkly and imply that the rat-eaters will come to harm? The madder didn't seem to be harming the rats...
2) He gives the midshipmen a bolus that acts as a laxative. I initially thought it was to collect the rat bones from the other end, as it were, but if they are using the head, the resultant material would likely be washed away, right?
3) Could the bolus, in fact, have been madder? That is, is Maturin shifting his experiment to the midshipmen themselves?
4) Or is he just taking justice into his own hands and punishing them by making them shit their brains out?
5) Or is there something else I'm missing entirely?

I know I'm probably way overthinking this, but it's been bothering me all day.
posted by coppermoss to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Madder does have laxative properties. It's the anthraquinones in it that do the trick. More here.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:42 PM on June 6, 2010

I read it as 4). Because Maturin's a rotten bastard.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 11:01 PM on June 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think you're right about the Seat of Ease emptying straight into the sea, so he wouldn't collect the bones that way.

I interpret that as just that eating the rats would itself have made life unpleasant for the mids. Maturin's generally against physical punishment, and I think he'd be even more against an extra-judicial punishment outside of the normal framework of naval discipline. He can be ruthless, but he's not sadistic: I don't see him as inflicting pain without a clearly defined benefit.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:13 PM on June 6, 2010

If one ate a rat, one wouldn't eat the bones! I read this, as others did, as Maturin teaching them a lesson...
posted by prentiz at 12:03 AM on June 7, 2010

What Fiasco de Gama said, 4. demonstrates Maturin's perverse sense of justice in a nut shell.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:45 AM on June 7, 2010

It can't be the rats themselves that cause harm, as Callow says: 'Threepence, they have reached, which is a God-damned — a crying shame.' Just before googling 'madder rats' brings up this thread *sigh* there are articles about toxicity. Stephen's been feeding them this for a long time (he bought the stuff 85 pages ago!), so whether or not an effect is passed on to the men, as he tries to imply ('I shall know in time, however: M'Alister and I will dissect all suitable subjects, for the effect will be passed to those that ate them, of course'), it's not going to be the laxative effect of the madder that harms the men, and I read the laxative bolus as a way of getting the unknown-so-potentially-harmful rats out of the digestive systems of the men, though I do like the dark justice reading as well, hm.
posted by westerly at 2:54 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

On the basis of that passage, I had always assumed that the madder itself was poisonous in some way, but the most harmful effect seems to be turning one's urine red. It's possible that the midshipman were freaked out by red urine and Maturin gave them the laxative to reduce their anxieties.

Apparently madder is also related to quinine and coffee, so perhaps there's some sort of effect related to cinchoism?
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:15 AM on June 7, 2010

Best answer: Partly right. I've recently read this.

Maturin is playing a trick - recall in the sequence that he strongly believes that some of the rat-eaters, specifically one of them, is in the room with him. By pretending that the madder is in fact deadly, he is thus able to inflict two punishments:

1. The administration of an unpleasant laxative at a later date, but more potently
2. The psychological terror for the midshipmen that they have inadvertently poisoned themselves.

Great, funny sequence; great, funny series of books.
posted by smoke at 5:06 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I read it the same was as smoke. IIRC, immediately after the meeting where he implies to the midshipman that eating the rats was dangerous, the other offenders come forward to apologize and ask for treatment. The ruse is a way of flushing them out for punishment / medication (the laxative). I think O'Brian is indirectly using this as a way to further establish Maturin's abilities as a political agent, similar to when Maturin practices with swords and pistols on the ship and then later finds himself in a duel. When I read H.M.S Surprise recently, I was struck by the sense that O'Brian realized he had too successfully established Maturin as a type of "innocent in the world," and that he needed to shore up his potential as a man of action and cunning as well.
posted by ga$money at 6:00 AM on June 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

I read it the way smoke did too. (Though I think I actually listened to this particular book in the series.) This is not the only time Maturin uses for his own purposes the respect everyone has for his medical knowledge. Another ongoing theme in the series is the way he and Jack are perpetually tuned into the fears and superstitions of the crew members.
posted by bearwife at 9:11 AM on June 7, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, guys. That makes sense. I don't think Maturin's a rotten bastard, but I guess it does make sense that he would want to forestall any future theft, and scaring the mids into compliance would be a good way of doing that.
posted by coppermoss at 11:21 AM on June 8, 2010

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