The narrator of The Tale of Despereaux remarks at one point that “an interesting fate […] awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.” The mouse Despereaux, for his part, is thrown in the dark, rat-infested dungeon as punishment for his failure to conform to mouse rules of behavior—his love of the human Princess Pea and his love of music prove too strong for him to want to stay hidden, afraid of humans, and interested only in feeding himself. But while Despereaux’s nonconformity helps him feel brave and ultimately triumph over his circumstances to later rescue the Pea from her imprisonment in the dungeon, other characters’ nonconformity leads them down far darker paths. The rat Chiaroscuro, for instance, is unusual for a rat in that he’s extremely interested in the light, rather than rejecting it entirely and embracing the darkness of the dungeon where he lives. But he becomes so disillusioned and full of self-hatred after his single disastrous trip upstairs to the castle’s light, bright main floor that his nonconformity leads him instead to carry out monstrous actions—kidnapping the Princess Pea and imprisoning her in the dungeon so he alone can possess her radiance—rather than making him noble and good. The novel shows how mice, rats, and people alike experience major pressure to conform to whatever their society deems is appropriate. The consequences for not conforming, Despereaux’s story shows, can be grave and even deadly—but they can also create situations where unsuspecting heroes, like Despereaux, can triumph.
Conformity Quotes in The Tale of Despereaux
While Antoinette touched up her eye makeup, the mouse father put Despereaux down on a bed made of blanket scraps. The April sun, weak but determined, shone through a castle window and from there squeezed itself through a small hole in the wall and placed one golden finger on the little mouse.
He was staring at the light pouring in through the stained-glass windows of the castle. He stood on his hind legs and held his handkerchief over his heart and stared up, up, up into the brilliant light.
“Furlough,” he said, “what is this thing? What are all these colors? Are we in heaven?”
“Cripes!” shouted Furlough from a far corner. “Don’t stand there in the middle of the floor talking about heaven. Move! You’re a mouse, not a man. You’ve got to scurry.”
“What?” said Despereaux, still staring at the light.
Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.
“Do not speak to her!” thundered the king.
Despereaux dropped his handkerchief. He backed away from the king.
“Rodents do not speak to princesses. We will not have this becoming a topsy-turvy, wrong-headed world. There are rules. Scat. Get lost, before my common sense returns and I have you killed.”
“Did you break them?”
“Yes, sir,” said Despereaux. He raised his voice. “But…I broke the rules for good reasons. Because of music. And because of love.”
“Love!” said the Head Mouse.
“Oh cripes,” said Furlough. “Here we go.”
“I love her, sir,” said Despereaux.
“We are not here to talk about love. This trial is not about love. This trial is about you being a mouse,” shouted the Most Very Honored Head Mouse from high atop the bricks, “and not acting like one!!!”
How, he wondered, had things gone so terribly wrong? Wasn’t it a good thing to love? In the story in the book, love was a very good thing. Because the knight loved the fair maiden, he was able to rescue her. They lived happily ever after. It said so. In the book. They were the last words on the page. Happily ever after. Despereaux was certain that he had read exactly those words time and time again.
Lying on the floor with the drum beating and the mice shouting and the threadmaster calling out, “Make way, make way,” Despereaux had a sudden, chilling thought: Had some other mouse eaten the words that spoke the truth? Did the knight and the fair maiden really not live happily ever after?
Reader, do you know the definition of the word “chiaroscuro”? If you look in your dictionary, you will find that it means the arrangement of light and dark, darkness and light together. Rats do not care for light. Roscuro’s parents were having a bit of fun when they named their son. Rats have a sense of humor. Rats, in fact, think that life is very funny. And they are right, reader. They are right.
“A rat is a rat is a rat. End of story. World without end. Amen.”
“Yes,” said Roscuro. “Amen, I am a rat.” He closed his eyes. He saw, again, the red cloth spinning against the backdrop of gold.
And he told himself, reader, that it was the cloth that he desired and not the light.
And the little princess! How lovely she was! How much like light itself. Her gown was covered in sequins that winked and glimmered at the rat. And when she laughed, and she laughed often, everything around her seemed to glow brighter.
“Oh, really,” said Roscuro, “this is too extraordinary. This is too wonderful. I must tell Botticelli that he was wrong. Suffering is not the answer. Light is the answer.”
In the middle of all that beauty, it immediately became clear that it was an extremely distasteful syllable.
A curse, an insult, a word totally without light. And not until he heard it from the mouth of the princess did Roscuro realize that he did not like being a rat, that he did not want to be a rat.
“Go back to the dungeon” was what the look she gave him said. “Go back into the darkness where you belong.”
This look, reader, broke Roscuro’s heart.
Did you think that rats do not have hearts? Wrong. All living things have a heart. And the heart of any living thing can be broken.
If the rat had not looked over his shoulder, perhaps his heart would not have broken. And it is possible, then, that I would not have a story to tell.
But, reader, he did look.
And the smell of soup crashed through his soul like a great wave, bringing with it the memory of light, the chandelier, the music, the laughter, everything, all the things that were not, would never, could never be available to him as a rat.
“Soup,” moaned Roscuro.
And he began to cry.
“Kill me,” said Roscuro. He fell down before Despereaux. “It will never work. All I wanted was some light. This is why I brought the princess here, really, just for some beauty…some light of my own.”