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In Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Two Bad Mice, it's well known than Hunca Munca and her husband got their names from Fielding's Tom Thumb, but what does the character of Hunca Munca represent in context?

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First up, it is likely that Hunca Munca's name is not relevant to her role in the story. According to her biographer, Judy Taylor, Potter rescued two mice from a trap and decided to name them and keep them as pets. The development of the tale came some months later, when Potter observed that the female mouse kept a tidy nest and, when given the opportunity to explore, chose to "steal" a small doll rather than doll's house food. Given that the genesis of the story came from the mouse's behaviour, well after she was named, it is possible there is no strong link.

That does not mean that Hunca Munca's role is not of interest to further analysis. While it might seem odd to go digging for literary meaning in a children's tale, many such stories offer an underlying moral which is worthy of investigation. With an older book such as this there is also added historical interest.

One of the most striking things about the tale is that the mice are "bad" - transgressive, as the OP notes. They are not merely bad in their destruction of the doll's house: there are also suggestions they are bad parents. They live in a squalid hole and have a large number of children. In contrast the doll's house that they enter is clean, polite and refined. The response of the mice to this is impulsive aggression and theft. The things they choose to steal are also instructive: they take food and bedding, but reject more refined objects like a bird cage and a book case. It is not hard to view this as a metaphor in which the mice represent the working class "vermin" and the dolls a more genteel middle or upper class society.

The Victorian era in which Potter lived was a time when there was much awareness and debate of the value of social responsibility. A number of Potter's tales, including Mrs Tittlemouse and Peter Rabbit, suggest that Potter came down firmly against social help in favour of individual responsibility. The Two Bad Mice break the taboo of ownership by entering and stealing from the house. They take responsibility for this of their own choice, through cleaning and paying for the damage they have done. It is also interesting that the nurse wants to punish them in a far more severe manner, by killing them in a trap.

Where, then does Hunca Munca, in particular fit in to this? Her role in the story is almost entirely as a servant and care-giver. She chooses to steal bedding from the house. In recompense, she chooses to clean - every morning - while Tom Thumb gives money once per year. This is a strong reflection of Victorian social stereotypes. A woman is interested in children and in cleanliness, every day. A man, meanwhile, can earn money and enjoys the flexibility and power this provides. In this there is a glimmer of a comparison with her namesake from Tom Thumb: both are passive, servile, happy to accept a fate others have assigned to them.

It is interesting to place the reactionary morals of Two Bad Mice against Potter's life. She faced discrimination from the establishment by choosing to marry down in class and, later, by conducting her own business affairs. Quite why Potter chose to re-enforce the very morals that her actions fought against is a matter for conjecture, but it's hard to read her tales in any other way.

References:
- Taylor, Judy. Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman
- Kutzer, M. Daphne. Beatrix Potter: Writing in Code

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  • Great answer! Are they bad parents, though, so much as being poor in an era without family planning? Is it possible the vandalism/theft is a function of "seeing how the other half lives"? Thanks for fielding this—I've always felt Hunca Munca is one of Potter's most complex characters.
    – DukeZhou
    Nov 22 '17 at 21:16

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