In The Tale of Despereaux, the titular protagonist—a small mouse who lives in a castle—falls in love with the human Princess Pea, and Despereaux eventually takes on the monumental task of rescuing the princess from the dungeon after the evil rat Chiaroscuro kidnaps her. On the surface, The Tale of Despereaux is a simple story about good triumphing over evil, but the novel’s message is far more complex. It proposes that good and evil (symbolized by sources of light like candles and stained-glass windows, and dark places like the dungeon) are both necessary to give the world and the story depth and meaning, and that good and evil coexist inside all people. For instance, throughout the novel, the narrator details the contents of each character’s heart, pointing out the parts that are light, bright, and good—such as the Pea’s kindness and her capacity to feel empathy—and the parts that are sad, or angry, or hateful, as when it describes the heart of Lester, Despereaux’s father, as he condemns his son to being banished to the dungeon. And more broadly, the novel suggests that while it is of course nice when good triumphs and happy things occur, life is only interesting because there’s a constant interplay between light and dark, good and evil. Just as a visually interesting dark shadow is only possible thanks to the light of a candle, the narrator makes it clear that the story they tell in The Tale of Despereaux only happens because dark and evil forces like fear, intolerance, and sadness exist alongside joy, empathy, and love.
Good vs. Evil ThemeTracker
Good vs. Evil 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.
“Why would you save me, then?”
“Because you, mouse, can tell Gregory a story. Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light.”
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.
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.
But, reader, we must not forget that King Phillip loved the queen and that without her, he was lost. This is the danger of loving: No matter how powerful you are, no matter how many kingdoms you rule, you cannot stop those you love from dying. Making soup illegal, outlawing rats, these things soothed the poor king’s heart. And so we must forgive him.
He dreamt of the stained-glass windows and the dark of the dungeon. In Despereaux’s dream, the light came to life, brilliant and glorious, in the shape of a knight swinging a sword. The knight fought the dark.
And the dark took many shapes. First the dark was his mother, uttering phrases in French. And then the dark became his father beating the drum. The dark was Furlough wearing a black hood and shaking his head no. And the dark became a huge rat smiling a smile that was evil and sharp.
And while the mouse slept, Roscuro put his terrible plan into effect. Would you like to hear, reader, how it all unfolded? The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But stories that are not pretty have a certain value too, I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself), cannot always be sweetness and light.
And what of the light in the princess’s heart? Reader, I am pleased to tell you that the Pea was a kind person, and perhaps more important, she was empathetic. Do you know what it means to be empathetic?
I will tell you: it means that when you are being forcibly taken to a dungeon, when you have a large knife pointed at your back, when you are trying to be brave, you are able, still, to think for a moment of the person who is holding that knife.
You are able to think: “Oh, poor Mig, she wants to be a princess so badly and she thinks that this is the way. Poor, poor Mig. What must it be like to want something that desperately?”
“It will be all right,” said Louise.
Cook brought the hem of her apron up to wipe at her tears. “It won’t,” she said. “It won’t be all right ever again. They’ve taken our little darling away. There ain’t nothing left to live for without the princess.”
Despereaux was amazed to have exactly what was in his heart spoken aloud by such a ferocious, mouse-hating woman as Cook.
Despereaux held his trembling needle against Roscuro’s heart. The mouse knew that as a knight, it was his duty to protect the princess. But would killing the rat make the darkness go away?
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.”
I think, reader, that she was feeling the same thing that Despereaux had felt when he was faced with his father begging him for forgiveness. That is, Pea was aware suddenly of how fragile her heart was, how much darkness was inside it, fighting, always, with the light. She did not like the rat. She would never like the rat, but she knew what she must do to save her own heart.
And so, here are the words that the princess spoke to her enemy.
She said, “Roscuro, would you like some soup?”