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How and why modern literature came to love its pests

Table of contents


Chapter One: Theorizing Vermin
Gregor Samsa
Verminous Sublime
The Creaturely

Chapter Two: The Verminous Thought
Eating the Cockroach
The Unhomely

Chapter Three: Fugitive Movements
Sardonic Rat
Out of Place
Boll Weevil Blues
Mickey Mouse

Chapter Four: The Parasite
Upstairs, Downstairs
Down the Drain
The Art of Commensalism
The Shared Table

Chapter Five: Surplus Life
Passenger Pigeon
Kitchenette Rat
The Rats of Trade
The Errant Swarm



Vermin—rats, cockroaches, pigeons, mosquitoes, and other pests—are, to most people, objects of disgust. And vermin metaphors, likening human beings to these loathed creatures, appear in the ugliest forms of political rhetoric. Indeed, vermin imagery has often been used to denigrate poor, foreign, or racialized people. Yet many writers have reclaimed vermin, giving new meaning to creeping rodents, swarming insects, and wriggling worms. 

Notes on Vermin is an atlas of the literary vermin that appear in modern and contemporary literature, from Franz Kafka’s gigantic insect to Richard Wright’s city rats to Namwali Serpell’s storytelling mosquitoes. As parasites, trespassers, and collectives, vermin animals prove useful to writers who seek to represent life in the margins of power. Drawing on psychoanalysis, cultural studies, eco-Marxism, and biopolitics, this book explores four uses for literary vermin: as figures for the repressed thought, the uncommitted fugitive, the freeloading parasite, and the surplus life. In a series of short, accessible, interlinked essays, Notes on Vermin explores what animal pests can show us about our cultures, our environments, and ourselves.

Caroline Hovanec is Assistant Professor of English and Writing at the University of Tampa.