The Rabbits

The Rabbits Summary and Analysis of Illustrations 6–10


The narrator comments that the rabbits brought new food and other animals. The marsupials liked some of the food and some of the animals, but some of the food made the marsupials sick, and some of the animals scared the marsupials. The text is set overtop an image of hundreds of wooly blue-white sheep and purplish-brown cattle grazing close together in green fields.

The pink sky, colorful animals, and verdant grass are contrasted with a small image laid on top. The smaller contrasting image shows a wasteland with brown earth and a grey sky. Hundreds of tiny footprints lead to a few pale pink post-spawning salmon lying dead on the ground.

The narrator says that the rabbits spread across the country. Their spread could not be stopped by mountains, deserts, or rivers. This narration is paired with an illustration of a green night sky set aglow with countless yellow stars. Even though it is nighttime, the industrious rabbits are at work, consulting by lantern a set of blueprints. Other rabbits in the distance draw white contour lines on the ground around large mountains. Some of the mountains have had large chunks cut squarely away to allow metal pipes unencumbered passage over the landscape. The same scene replicates itself even further in the background. The rabbit’s flags dot the landscape, raised to the top of every pole along which electrical cable lines run.

The narrator says that still more rabbits came. Sometimes the rabbits and marsupials fought, but there were too many rabbits. The text is set next to a collage of images with ragged edges, as if the images have been torn from larger illustrations and laid next to one another with overlapping borders.

The images depict various scenes of battle. A few marsupials stand poised with spears raised over their heads, while a seemingly infinite number of rabbits hold muskets and cannon-like devices in perfect unison formation. The rabbits also ride horses, while the marsupials fight back on foot. One image shows a rabbit and marsupial in hand-to-hand combat as they stand on their hind legs, the rabbit stabbing the marsupial with a sword. Another image depicts a rabbit being killed by a spear through the heart.

The narrator states that the marsupials lost the fights, and the majority of the illustration is taken up by a black rectangular void in which the ghostly outlines of curled-up marsupial skeletons fill the empty space. Above ground, the strip of land shown is covered in the rabbits’ red and white cardinal-direction flags flowing in the wind.

The marsupial narrator says the rabbits ate their grass, chopped down their trees, and scared away their friends. The illustrations show massive red metal wheeled machines moving in formation across a field. The machines harvest the grass in large sections, cutting deep furrows into the earth. The machines also billow thick black smoke. Birds circle the machines as though confused about where it is safe to land. Red-eyed black mice leap out of the grass to escape the voracious harvesting machine.


The second section of The Rabbits shows how the rabbits’ colonial invasion, in its early stages, is not overtly violent. There is little suggestion of hostility toward the marsupials who inhabit what the rabbits see as their new colony. Rather, the rabbits’ colonial expansion is insidious, involving the introduction of new species and industrial food-production methods that harm and displace existing creatures and habitats. The detached, systematic attitude toward animal life is shown in how the rabbits outline the cuts of meat on the bodies of living cattle.

The marsupials are pleased by some of the new animals and food source innovations the rabbits bring, but are also frightened by some of the animals and made sick by some of the unfamiliar “food.” Considering the empty bottle in the illustration and the historical context of settlers introducing alcohol to indigenous populations around the world, the illness-causing food in question is likely alcohol. In this way, Marsden and Tan emphasize the insidious consequences of colonization, as the indigenous marsupial population reacts negatively to the substance-abuse culture the settlers impose.

With expanding food production capabilities and more housing built, the rabbit population explodes, causing the rabbits to follow their colonial drive across the entirety of the marsupials’ country. To emphasize the rabbits’ ambition and drive, Tan depicts crews of rabbit laborers and architects working even at night, under a sky full of stars, to build infrastructure in the mountainous hinterlands. The theme of environmental degradation is touched on again as Tan illustrates mountains with large sections removed to make way for the rabbits’ pipe system.

Displaced and angry, the marsupials fight back against the rabbits’ colonial encroachment. However, the narrator plainly states that “we lost the fights.” The line is set against a backdrop of various bloody battle scenes in which the marsupials are shown to be determined but under-equipped. While the marsupials hold spears, the rabbits hold muskets and point cannons. While a handful of marsupials stand poised to fight, they face a countless number of rabbits creating an impenetrable wall of enemy forces.

The scenes of battle reference the Australian frontier wars, which saw Indigenous Australians fight back against colonial oppression from the 1700s to 1939. Official estimates are contested, but the conflicts resulted in the deaths of thousands of white settlers and tens of thousands of Indigenous Australians. In The Rabbits, Tan renders the consequence of the marsupials’ and rabbits’ version of the frontier wars by depicting countless marsupial skeletons buried deep underground.

With most of the marsupial population either displaced or killed, the rabbits continue with their environmental and cultural destruction. Using giant pollution-spewing harvesting machines, they extract the resources of grass and trees in an unsustainable way, frightening mice and birds from their habitats as they radically alter the natural landscape.