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...
(The entire section is 20,421 words.)