The Midnight Library

by Matt Haig

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The Midnight Library Summary

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is a 2020 novel about a woman on the threshold between life and death who visits parallel versions of her life.

  • After a suicide attempt, Nora Seed finds herself in a magical library at midnight. Mrs. Elm, the librarian, tells her that the books on the shelves represent other versions of Nora’s life.
  • Nora explores a series of these other possible realities, returning to the library each time she feels dissatisfied.
  • As the library begins to disintegrate, signaling Nora’s waning existence, she must choose which life to commit to.


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Last Updated on July 8, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1083

The Midnight Library is a 2020 novel by Matt Haig. The book weaves elements of science fiction and fantasy with philosophical contemplations on human mortality, happiness, and personal choice. The novel focuses on Nora Seed, a thirty-five year old woman from Bedford, England. Nora is bright and talented, but she hasn’t managed to turn her gifts into a fulfilling career. She was an aspiring glaciologist and a highly-rated competitive swimmer in her youth, as well as an accomplished musician in her twenties, but she allowed fear and anxiety to prevent any of these pursuits from coming to fruition. She has spent over a decade unhappily working in a music store and finds herself struggling with her mental health.

Her personal relationships, too, have suffered. She left her former fiancé, Dan, just before their wedding. She and her brother have become estranged to such an extent that he avoids her when he visits Bedford. Her best friend, Izzy, has moved to Australia, and the two struggle to keep in touch.

On one especially unfortunate day, Nora is fired from both her regular and her side jobs, and her cat is found dead in the road. Her situational grief and existing depression coalesce until she feels impossibly burdened by them, and she decides to take her own life. After she takes an overdose, Nora awakens to find herself facing a library surrounded by a heavy mist. The grand clock on the library’s front reads 12:00 a.m.

Inside the library, Nora is met by a familiar face: Mrs. Elm, her school librarian from childhood. The two were close: Nora would often play chess with Mrs. Elm during breaks, and Mrs. Elm was the one who informed Nora of her father’s unexpected death in the middle of one school day.

Mrs. Elm tells Nora that almost all of the books on the library's seemingly infinite shelves represent lives that Nora could have lived if she had made different choices. One, however, is different. TheBook of Regrets represents all the things Nora wishes she could change from her “root” life—that is, the life she has actually lived. While Nora is in the library, the librarian reveals that she has the freedom to explore these alternate options in search of a more favorable reality. If she is dissatisfied, she will automatically return to the library, at which point she can choose again.

After some convincing, Nora agrees to “try on” an alternate life. She starts with one of her biggest regrets—a life where she didn’t call off her wedding with Dan—and soon finds herself in a country pub. For a short while it seems appealing, but it soon becomes clear that the relationship has problems which Nora does not feel compelled to take on.

Transported back to the library, Nora tries on a few different lives. She tries one where her cat was never allowed outside on the night of his death, one where she followed her swimming potential all the way to the Olympics, one where she moves to Australia with Izzy, one where she becomes a glaciologist, and one where she signs a record deal and becomes an international rock star. Each life has its own advantages and disadvantages, and some feel better than others, but Nora inevitably finds herself returning to the library after each one.

With the help of Hugo Lefèvre, a man she meets who is also jumping from life to life, Nora comes to understand the Midnight Library as a convenient trick of the brain. The library is her brain’s way of making sense of the theory of alternate...

(This entire section contains 1083 words.)

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universes, Hugo posits, and she is seeing Mrs. Elm as a guide because the librarian represents a comforting authority figure from her past. Hugo, she learns, sees a video store instead of a library and a beloved uncle instead of Mrs. Elm.

As Nora travels through different iterations of her life, she begins to see the motivations of those in her root life more clearly. As she comes to understand her loved ones better, she comes to forgive them more easily for their transgressions and the complications of their relationships. To her surprise, she comes to understand and forgive herself better through this process, too. Soon, Nora is jumping from possible life to possible life with ravenous abandon.

On a few occasions, the library experiences system issues that complicate Nora’s transfers in and out of lives. Mrs. Elm implies that these are a symptom of Nora’s health in her root life. When the connection appears to be weakening, the librarian cautions Nora to get serious about her choice. This time, Nora explores the life she might have had if she had accepted a long-ago coffee invitation from Ash, the kind acquaintance from Bedford who found her cat in the road.

Nora is transported into a life that seems perfect. She and Ash are happily married, they have a daughter named Molly and a dog named Plato, and Nora is a Cambridge professor writing on sabbatical. She is overwhelmed by her happiness but also plagued by the notion that this life is not hers—it belongs to some other version of Nora, and she has taken it from her.

Eventually, Nora is heartbroken to appear in the Midnight Library yet again. The system has broken down entirely, Mrs. Elm reveals, which means that Nora must be dying in her root life. Certain that she now wants to live, Nora begs Mrs. Elm to help her get out. The librarian tells her to write her own story now, as quickly as she can, and maybe she can escape. Nora finds a blank book, and begins to write. As she writes, “I AM ALIVE,” she awakes on her own mattress and vomits. She drags herself to her neighbor’s door, and he calls an ambulance as she collapses before him.

As she recovers in the hospital, Nora reflects on her ordeal and begins to feel grateful for the life she still has. Before long, things in Nora’s life start to turn around. Her brother arrives, and the two share a heartfelt reconciliation; Izzy texts to tell Nora how much she misses her; and Nora gets rehired at one of her jobs. When she is released from the hospital, Nora visits the real Mrs. Elm in a care facility. Over a game of chess, the two muse about what it means to live a good life.


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