The narrator asks readers if they’ve ever held a rat’s tail. Rat tails are unpleasant at best; they’re like little snakes. But at worst, when one depends on a rat for survival, and when one is sure they’re headed to their death, it’s awful to have only a rat tail to hold. But Despereaux holds onto Botticelli’s tail, and soon, his eyes adjust to the dungeon’s dark. It’d be better if they hadn’t, because Despereaux can see that the dungeon floor is littered with bits of mouse fur, mouse bones, and red thread. There are human bones too. It doesn’t help when Despereaux closes his eyes. Botticelli just laughs and exclaims, “exactly.”
Asking the reader to imagine what it’s like to have nothing to hang onto but a rat tail is another moment where the narrator helps readers develop empathy, this time for Despereaux. Despereaux’s nightmare gets even worse when he finds he can see all the bones that cover the dungeon’s floor. It makes it all the more apparent that Despereaux was an anomaly, in that he emerged from the dungeon alive earlier—and hopefully, he can do so again.
What’s behind Despereaux is even worse. The dungeon’s rats form a “happy, hungry, vengeful parade” that follows Despereaux and Botticelli. The rats remark that they smell a mouse, soup, and blood. Botticelli tells the other rats that this mouse is his as Despereaux starts to cry. Despereaux begs Botticelli to take him to the princess as the rats gleefully say that they smell tears. Botticelli stops and tells Despereaux that he made a promise. He asks Despereaux to open his eyes and say what he sees. Despereaux does: he sees light ahead.
The rat parade adds an even more sinister feel to this passage: the sheer number of mouse-hungry rats makes Despereaux feel increasingly vulnerable, and their glee when they smell tears is intended to be shocking. This offers more insight into what Botticelli insists rats are: creatures that enjoy others’ suffering, and who go out of their way to make others feel awful to make themselves feel better.