The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo is divided into four sections, each focusing on a different character. The first section, “A Mouse is Born,” begins with the birth of a tiny mouse within the walls of a castle in the Kingdom of Dor. The mouse is the last of his litter and the only one born alive. Certain he will die too, his mother, Antoinette Tilling, names him Despereaux, for despair. Unlike most mice, Despereaux is born with his eyes open. The other mice comment on this, all sure the baby will perish. However, Despereaux lives, although his tiny size and unusually large ears are a constant concern among the castle mice.
Even worse, Despereaux seems uninterested in normal mouse activities—namely, eating. Instead, Despereaux is intrigued by the music he hears throughout the castle and dazzled by the sunlight streaming through the windows. When one of his siblings shows him how to chew on a book, Despereaux discovers he can read, and he becomes enthralled with the fairy tale of a knight rescuing a beautiful princess.
Despereaux particularly loves to listen to King Phillip playing his guitar and singing to his daughter, Princess Pea, every night. Caught up in the music, Despereaux breaks a basic “mouse rule” and reveals himself to the humans. When the princess—or "the Pea", as the author often refers to her—sees the mouse, he comes even closer, and Pea picks him up. Despereaux realizes she looks exactly like the picture of the princess in the fairy tale he adores, and he falls instantly in love. Pea wants to keep the mouse, but her father refuses. Then Despereaux breaks an even greater “mouse rule”—speaking to the humans. He tells the princess not to cry and gives her his name before he runs off.
Unbeknownst to Despereaux, his brother Furlough has witnessed the first moments of Despereaux’s meeting with Pea. Furlough runs to tell their father, Lester, who immediately calls a Mouse Council meeting. At the meeting, the Most Very Honored Mouse declares that something must be wrong with Despereaux, and that his behavior is a threat to all of the mice. The entire Mice Council, including Lester, votes to send Despereaux to the dungeon to be eaten by rats. First, however, Despereaux is called before the Council and given an opportunity to repent.
When Despereaux appears before the Council, he refuses to say he is sorry for what he has done and continues to proclaim his love for the princess. The threadmaster mouse arrives with a spool of red thread and ties a piece around Despereaux’s neck; this mark of death seals Despereaux’s fate. However, the threadmaster whispers words of encouragement in Despereaux’s ear and reveals himself to be a lover of fairy tales as well.
Now wearing the “red thread of death,” Despereaux is pushed down the stairs that lead to the dungeon. He begins to tell himself a story to keep up his courage. The jailer, Gregory, hears him and picks him up. Gregory says he has never saved a mouse before, but he promises to save Despereaux, as long as the mouse tells him a story. Stories, Gregory says, are “light,” and light is “precious” in the darkness of the dungeon. Despereaux begins to tell his story as the first section of the novel ends.
Section two, “Chiaroscuro,” begins a few years before Despereaux’s birth, with the birth of a rat named Chiaroscuro and called Roscuro. As a young rat, Roscuro nibbles on Gregory the jailer’s rope, and to deter the rat, Gregory lights a match in Roscuro’s face. While most rats avoid light, Roscuro stares straight into the flame until the light “danced around inside him.” From then on, he becomes obsessed with light, convinced it is the only thing that gives life meaning.
Roscuro’s friend, Botticelli Remorso, counters that for rats, the purpose of life is to make others suffer. When a new prisoner is brought to the dungeon, Roscuro, following Botticelli’s urgings, attempts to make the man suffer. First, Roscuro talks to the prisoner in an attempt to gain his trust. The man tells Roscuro of the great guilt he feels for selling his daughter for a red tablecloth, a handful of cigarettes and a hen, then leaving her without even looking back. Roscuro steals the prisoner’s one remaining possession—the very same red tablecloth—but finds the act does not satisfy him. Thus, he decides to go upstairs and seek the light.
When Roscuro wanders through the castle, he discovers a party in process and is enchanted by how happy and bright the revelers look, including King Phillip, Queen Rosemary, and Princess Pea. Roscuro decides to watch the party from a chandelier, but he slips and falls into the queen’s bowl of soup.
Soup is Queen Rosemary’s favorite food, and she eats it at every meal. When she sees the rat in her soup, and the rat even says “I beg your pardon,” the queen dies instantly of shock. Roscoro runs off but looks back at the Pea. Her expression full of repulsion and rage, the princess tells the rat to go back to the dark, “where you belong.” Her harsh treatment breaks Roscuro’s heart.
Determined to have something beautiful, Roscuro picks up the queen’s discarded soup spoon, and with it he returns to the dungeon. His thoughts turn to revenge, and his heart mends, but “in a crooked and lopsided way”—he is now obsessed with hurting the princess because she hurt him.
Distraught with grief, the king outlaws soup and all utensils used to make and eat it. The king’s men collect such utensils from all citizens in the Kingdom of Dor and pile the refuse in the dungeon. The king also orders his men to kill every rat in the kingdom, but as this proves impossible, he settles for declaring all rats to be outlaws. Meanwhile, back in the dungeon, Roscuro begins plotting to make Princess Pea suffer—and that is where the second section ends.
Section three, “Gor! The Tale of Miggery Sow,” focuses on the girl of the title, often referred to as “Mig.” Mig is six when her mother dies, and soon after, her father sells his daughter as a slave in exchange for a handful of cigarettes, a red tablecloth and a hen. In fact, her father is the same prisoner Roscuro met in section two.
Mig is sold to an unkind man she calls “Uncle” who constantly clouts her on the ears until her ears look like “pieces of...
(The entire section is 2577 words.)