Study Guide

The City of Ember Themes

  • Friendship

    It may sound corny, but friendship is like a bright light that can illuminate even the darkest times. Unless you're in The City of Ember, in which case a total power failure leaves everyone stranded in a pitch-black city unable to see a stinkin' thing, friendship or no. But we imagine it's still nice to have friends in those cases. Lina in particular learns a lot about friendship during her time in Ember: she learns about true friends and false friends, which friends have her back and which only care for themselves. There are as many kinds of friends as there are colors in the rainbow—which is to say, a lot.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Why doesn't Doon have many friends? Does he seem to have more friends by the end of the novel?
    2. What do friends in Ember typically do when they hang out? 
    3. Is Lina a good friend? Why or why not?
    4. Have you observed many adult friendships in Ember? What's the deal with them?

    Chew on This

    Lizzie is a perfect example of a fair-weather friend. She's there when it's convenient for her, but when the going gets tough, she just gets going.

    A good friend is never selfish, which is why Lina is the best friend of them all. She's only selfish once in the book.

  • Greed

    Of the seven deadly sins, greed is one of the most enjoyable—just ask Mayor Cole. No one in The City of Ember is immune to the siren call of greed: some people are greedy for attention or affection, while others want physical things to enjoy, like fancy foods or colored pencils. How each character handles their greed—whether it's with shame, pride, regret, or carelessness—says a lot about them. So next time you find yourself hungrily wanting something, think carefully about your next move.

    Questions About Greed

    1. What do you think Looper is greedier for—money or nice things? What makes you say so?
    2. Who is the least greedy character in the book? How can you tell?
    3. Are the antagonists the only greedy characters in the book? Who else is greedy, and how does that greed manifest?
    4. How do Lina's feelings about greed evolve throughout the book?

    Chew on This

    Being greedy is okay; it's how you deal with it that matters. That's why we like Lina—she's good at managing her wants. The mayor? Not so much.

    Greed is what happens when you act on selfishness. When you combine it with power, which the mayor has, disaster ensues.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Given that The City of Ember is a planned post apocalyptic community under the earth's surface, it makes sense that we only get a few glimpses of the natural world. There are, of course, bugs and dust (we can't really imagine any scenario on earth without bugs or dust). And the citizens grow their own food under lamps. But there aren't animals, trees, mountains, or oceans. None of that. It seems safe to say that the citizens of Ember are pretty out of touch with the natural world—that is, until Lina and Doon figure out how to escape to the mysterious world above.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What are the most common foods that people in Ember eat? Where do they come from?
    2. Which relics of the natural world have persisted in people's speech and actions?
    3. How do Lina and Doon react upon emerging onto the earth's surface?
    4. Does it look like the world above was destroyed in an apocalyptic event? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The people of Ember live poor, sad lives without nature. They won't be happy until they move back up to the earth's surface.

    You can take people out of nature, but you can't take the nature out of people.

  • Family

    Despite the fact that some basic facts of life are different in The City of Ember—no sunlight, no sky, no animals—families remain an important part of people's lives. The key difference is that families seem smaller, more broken, since folks don't seem to live very long. However small and fractured families are in Ember, though, there's still a lot of love: think of how strongly Lina loves and wants to protect Poppy, and how loving Doon's father is in raising and encouraging him. Maybe their precarious existence makes these families even closer.

    Questions About Family

    1. Do we see any whole families in the book? What's the closest we get?
    2. Why did Doon leave Ember without saying goodbye to his father?
    3. How do you think Clary and Mrs. Murdo might've acted differently toward Lina if they've had family members in the picture?
    4. Who is the loneliest character in the book? Why do you think so?

    Chew on This

    Mrs. Murdo should have been taking care of Lina and Poppy all along because families built on love will last longer than families based on blood.

    It was more selfish of Lina to take Poppy with her on the boat than to leave her behind in Ember.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    The City of Ember is built on hope—no matter how dismal it seems in Lina and Doon's time. Obviously it took a lot of planning to make the dream of Ember (a refuge for humans in a world careening toward disaster) a reality. The Builders were some pretty ambitious and hard-working folks to make it come together. And if you fast forward to the present, we see Lina and Doon with hopes and plans of their own. Not everything they hope for comes to pass, but hey, we're gonna say that hoping in general is better than not hoping at all.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. How are Lina's and Doon's dreams and hopes different? How about similar?
    2. Why did the Builders plan Ember? Was it out of hope? Desperation?
    3. What does Lina hope to find when she leaves Ember? Do those hopes come true?
    4. What are Doon's goals throughout the book, and how do they change?

    Chew on This

    The mayor: too much planning, too little hope.

    Ember is a place of unfulfilled dreams, but once they get above ground, they'll realize that that's not the solution to their problems, either.

  • Youth

    Ah, to be young again. But hopefully not in The City of Ember. Ember's not such a bad place when everything is working and there aren't any shortages, but for an imaginative kid, it's awfully dull. There isn't much color in the place, nor are there great big spaces to run around in. On the plus side, you're done with school when you turn twelve—but that's when you have to get a job, ugh. Life in Ember is hard, so sometimes it seems like kids are the only characters who still have any spark left in them. Lina and Doon are still really lively and hopeful, but we have to wonder, how long will their innocence last?

    Questions About Youth

    1. Who seems more naïve, Lina or Doon? Why?
    2. What are typical activities for kids in Ember? Do you think these are good ways for kids to spend their time?
    3. When do Lina and Doon begin to show signs of growing up?
    4. What do kids in Ember learn in school? And what do you make of the fact that they start their working lives when they're just twelve?

    Chew on This

    The only thing worse than being a kid in Ember is being an adult in Ember.

    Not to be a downer or anything, but even someone with as lively a personality as Poppy will eventually have the life crushed out of them by the experience of living in Ember.

  • Memory and The Past

    Ember is a city without a past. Or really, without much past to speak of; what are two hundred years in the lives of cities? Ember is an infant city compared to a place like Rome or Cairo. But Ember is all that its citizens have ever known; they don't know the history of the world, or that other cultures exist. So when Lina and Doon begin to learn more about the Builders, it's a total revelation for them. We (the readers of The City of Ember) have been one step ahead this whole time, but it's enough to make us wonder: what might we be missing about the past of our world?

    Questions About Memory and The Past

    1. Which characters seem most interested in the past, and how do they express it?
    2. What can Lina and Doon piece together about the past of the world above? And how do they figure those things out?
    3. Which real world cities does Ember remind you of?
    4. What rituals do the citizens of Ember use to remember their past?

    Chew on This

    Of all the subjects taught in Ember's school, history is probably the most boring since there's nothing really to teach. Biology clocks in at a close second.

    The people of Ember have no real concept of the past in general, because their own past is mysterious to them.

  • Power

    We've got two kinds of power going on in The City of Ember, and while they couldn't be more different on the surface, the more we dig, the more we realize they're intertwined. First, there's the power of energy—the river, the generator, and the electricity that lights the city. But that power is controlled by the people in power, mainly, the mayor. That gives him a whole lot of control over the citizens of Ember, since he's in charge of supplies and information. But while Lina and Doon may seem like just a pair of powerless kids, over the course of the novel, they learn that sometimes having power means taking matters into your own hands, no matter what The Powers That Be might do to you.

    Questions About Power

    1. How might Lina and Doon have better addressed the power imbalance in Ember? What would you have done if you were in their shoes?
    2. Where does the power that runs the city's electricity come from? Do you think they'd have a chance to figure out how to make it work again?
    3. Who's more powerful, the mayor or Looper? What makes you say so?
    4. How do the guards figure into Ember's power structure?

    Chew on This

    The mayor only has power because people agree to give it to him.

    It was pretty stupid of the Builders to leave the population of Ember without any idea of how their city is powered. That just goes to show that more than anything, knowledge is power.