Despite the fact that we see plenty of magic in Ella Enchanted, the narrative attitude is generally one of realism and honesty. Unlike most teenagers, Ella doesn't OVERREACT TO EVERYTHING !!!!!1! so the tone's not overly dramatic.
Nor is it moralizing. Yeah, we get the sense that Hattie, Dame Olga, and Ella's father are generally reprehensible, but they're not punished for all eternity for their actions. (And Ella isn't, either.)
Sure, Ella's perspective colors everything we see. Plus, she's not omniscient, so what she sees is what we get, without a bunch of speculation on people's motivations. When she smiles at Char after the ogre-capturing incident: "For some reason, he blushed" (15.77).
For some reason? Come on, Ella. We're willing to bet our Shmoopy hats that Char is already crushing on Ella. She just doesn't know it yet. Again, this is represented realistically: there's a little flirtation, a little blushing. No racing heartbeats or swooning or faking suicide or whatever you might find in the likes of Twilight. Just people being relatively normal—if enchanted—people.
All right: main character, a teenager. She's got family woes, romance woes, and growing-up woes. That makes this a shoo-in for young adult literature. (Not that all adults have that growing-up thing nailed, but we're in literature-land, not the real world.)
Because the plot of Ella Enchanted is based on the fairy tale "Cinderella," we also consider the novel to be an extended and fleshed-out fairy tale. And it's a shoo-in here, too. We've got downtrodden protagonists who have magical help in obtaining their goals of ditching nasty family members, getting rich, and getting hitched. Ella effectively does all three, and also removes the curse that plagues her.
Plus with a magic book, glass slippers, a fairy godmother, and wicked stepsisters, how could it be anything but a fairy tale?
However, since it's not just called "Ella," we have to assume that the "Enchanted" portion of the title is also significant. Why might that be?
Oh, hang on, we've got this one: because the spell on Ella is one of the main determining factors in how her life goes. For one thing, it makes her into a rebel, since she feels like she's gotta fight against every command she's given or else be a total puppet.
The "Enchanted" stuff really impacts Ella when the narrative kicks off and her life gets unsettled. Up until her mother's death, she lives a relatively sheltered life and doesn't come into contact with many people who might learn about or abuse her curse. But after her mother's death, everything changes: she meets repulsive characters like Dame Olga and Hattie, who use the spell to oppress her, while she also encounters wonderful people like Char and various people from magical races.
In dealing with the "Enchanted" part of her life—which requires rising about her stepfamily's petty crap and putting others before herself—Ella proves her strength and compassion again and again. So, the "Enchanted" part of her life makes her stronger, even though it also makes her suffer. In other words—it makes her grow up.
After Ella heroically disenchants herself, the ending practically writes itself.
She and Char are married within the month, and her stepfamily is most definitely not invited. However, all their other friends and allies are: Ella renews her friendship with Areida, for instance, and they remain lifelong friends. The fairy Lucinda, who'd "blessed" Ella with obedience at birth, also shows up (uninvited), but instead of bestowing some heinous gift on them, gives them a small enchanted box that's a cute and harmless example of fairy magic.
Mandy comes and lives at the palace with Ella and Char, and she becomes fairy godmother to their children. Ella doesn't have much contact with her father, Dame Olga, Hattie, or Olive, but we're told that Olive marries a chatty widower who gives her cake, money, and conversation on a daily basis.
Rather than accept the title of princess, Ella becomes Cook's Helper and Court Linguist. She travels with Char when he must attend to royal business, and she picks up all the languages they encounter. Her fairy-made book helps her keep tabs on the kids when they're traveling. The marriage + kids + royalty equation is pretty standard for fairy-tale happy endings, but Ella has her happy ending on her own terms: she still has her own friends and identity, and she revels in being contrary since nobody can order her around anymore.
You know all this sounds like to us? It sounds a lot like being a grown-up. By learning to stand up for herself and—this is crucial—to act out of the right impulses, Ella has earned the right to make her own decisions. It's not just something that you get when you turn a certain age. It's like a driver's license: you have show that you deserve it, first.
And Ella sure deserves it. In the epilogue, we get to see Ella being completely normal: no longer bound to be obedient, just like any other human being not under a curse. We've been rooting for her all along, of course, but now we know that she finally has her heart's desire—freedom. If she'd wound up still subservient for whatever reason, the novel might've gotten tossed into a corner because seriously? Who wants to read a book where the main character both begins and ends in captivity?
So, keep that in mind if you ever write a novel.
Not even a geography nerd will be able to find Kyrria on a map. Well, duh. It's fantasy. The author, Gail Carson Levine, simply made up the place.
But hang on—being made up doesn't mean being shallow or shoddily put together. Like, Tolkien constructed a convincingly historical and mythical setting for The Lord of the Rings, complete with invented languages and ballads and all. What Levine has done here isn't so different, and she even has invented languages to prove it.
(Although, no disrespect to Levine—we love this book—but Tolkien really went all out. Dude was a language professor, after all.)
Anyway, like many fairy-tale settings, Kyrria features a hereditary monarchy (translation: your dad's king; you get to be king) and magical creatures like elves and ogres. Fairies bestow gifts—both welcome and unwelcome—and spouses are selected at balls. And, oh yeah, castles. Gotta have the castles.
Some things are unexpected given Kyrria's fantasy medieval-ish setting, though. The land has a reliable postal service (which helps Ella and Char's correspondence), and young ladies are sent to finishing school to learn every possible way of being polite, ever.
We'd take a field trip to Mount Doom over finishing school any day.
In fantasy, people talk about something called "worldbuilding." That is—how detailed is the world? Does it feel like a real place? Could you imagine living there?
One way writers build a world that feels real is through languages. And boy, does Ella Enchanted have languages. Here's a sampling of the main languages so you can see how different they all are, from the section of the book where Ella's saying goodbye to the parrots who have taught her the lingo:
".iqkwo pwach brzzay ufedjeE" That was Gnomic for "Until we dig again."
"ahthOOn SSyng!" Ogrese for "Much eating!"
"Aiiiee oo (howl) bek aaau!" Abdegi for "I miss you already!"
"Porr ol pess waddo." Elfian for "Walk in the shade."
Each language has its own logic that determines where capitalization occurs or whether multiple vowels or consonants tend to cluster together. Ayorthaian, the language spoken in the next-door kingdom of Ayortha, also follows certain rules, with most words beginning and ending with a vowel.
In keeping with the magical setting, some of the languages actually are magic. Like Ogrese.
Ogres weren't dangerous only because of their size and their cruelty. They knew your secrets just by looking at you, and they used their knowledge. When they wanted to be, they were incredibly persuasive. By the end of an ogre's first sentence in Kyrrian, you forgot his pointy teeth, the dried blood under his fingernails, and the coarse black hair that grew on his face in clumps. He became handsome in your eyes, and you thought him your best friend. (6.55)
Ogres can thus use their words magically, but in fact their native tongue helps with their magical persuasion powers, as Ella finds out when she's captured by ogres but manages to tame them using their own language against them. Ella tells Char: "I spoke to them in Ogrese, and I imitated their oily way of talking. I didn't know if I would succeed" (15.37).
The many languages with their magical associations help make Kyrria a well rounded fantasyland, not just a cardboard cut-out imitation of Tolkien. And we'd want Ella with us as a translator—if only to make sure we don't end up as an ogre's brunch.
Ella grows up in the town of Frell, so she's familiar with the way manor houses and castles work (hint: it helps to have servants). We know that she and her mother would go swimming in a nearby river, so it's not like she's a total city girl, but you get the picture: she's a pampered rich girl, even if she's a lot nicer than you'd expect.
When Ella ditches finishing school to find the giant's wedding, she's on her own in the wilderness for the first time in her life. She asks a baker for walking directions and he laughs at her: "On foot? Alone? With ogres and bandits roaming the road?" (13.8). Apparently, being outside of civilization isn't all rosebuds and rainbows—not even close.
For Ella, though, being out in nature has its benefits. For the first time in her life, there's nobody to order her around. In this sense, the natural world comes to symbolize freedom for Ella.
Of course, the natural world also has natural predators, like ogres. So Ella can't wander around forever. That, and she runs out of food because she's a newbie at this. But between the elves in their forests and the giants in their farmlands (with pumpkins as tall as Ella!), there are plenty of allies out there for Ella—provided she can steer clear of ogres long enough to find them.
This is not a terribly dense or complicated book, though it brims with novelty and humor. Some of the humor is rather subtle, as with the joking flirtation between Ella and Charmont, or Ella's inventive ways of "obeying" commands. Take this moment, when Mandy has just ordered Ella to be careful holding a bowl:
The order came too late. I got the broom. (4.69)
Did you get it? Ella dropped the bowl. If you're not paying attention, you'll miss moments like this—so keep your wits about you as you read. Just like Ella.
How can a writing style be clever? Does it tie your shoelaces into knots when you're not looking? We wouldn't put it past Ella Enchanted, because if you're not paying close attention, you just might miss something.
We're told repeatedly that Ella is clumsy, but the narration cleverly shows us how true this is. For instance, when Mandy cautions Ella to be careful with a bowl that she's drying, the next thing written is: "The order came too late. I got the broom" (4.69).
So, if you're skimming instead of reading, you'll miss clever little narrative tidbits like this one. (She broke the bowl.) Subtlety is the name of the game, kids.
The writing style is clever because Ella is clever. Ella has Hattie answering questions under the influence of bogweed and asks, "What are your secrets?" (11.32). Hattie doesn't answer, but rather tugs on Ella's hair. It's only after Ella reads a letter from Dame Olga, asking if Hattie had found a trustworthy hairdresser, that Ella is able to put two and two together: Hattie wears a wig, and is jealous of Ella's hair. Crafty!
We're also characterizing the style as creative, because Ella narrates much of the book, and she has a playful way of viewing the world. She visits the dragon in the royal zoo and describes him thus: "He was beautiful in his tiny ferocity and seemed happiest when flaming, his ruby eyes gleaming evilly" (6.10).
Check out all the descriptive words Ella uses: "beautiful," "ferocity," "happiest," and "evilly." It's fun to read, and it's really creative.
It also takes a creative mind to come up with the metaphors Ella uses to describe her experiences. When Char tells Ella to wait for him at the second ball: "I grew roots. The clock struck a quarter before eleven. It struck eleven. If it had struck the end of the world, I'd have stayed as I was" (27.65). This is creative—she compares herself to a tree—and it's also a little poignant, with a phrase like "If it had struck the end of the world."
This mix of funny, clever, subtle, and creative makes Ella's voice and style really appealing—and it keeps us reading.
It wouldn't be "Cinderella" without shoes. Hey, we even get glass slippers. While Ella and Char are exploring the old royal castle, they find an abandoned room with a pair of unbreakable glass slippers inside. (We know they're unbreakable because Ella drops them, since she's kinda clumsy, and they survive.)
In a twist on other versions of the "Cinderella" story, though, it's not the glass slipper that IDs her after the ball. When Ella's unmasked, Char knows who she is and where to find her. Instead, he uses the "let's have the maidens in the house try on the slipper" ploy to gain entry, since if Dame Olga and Hattie knew he was there for Ella, they could order Ella to stay hidden or something like that. Well, maybe Char doesn't think of it like that since he doesn't know about the obedience spell, but his prior attempts to visit Ella at home failed, so that might be why he has a better plan this time.
In other words, Char uses the traditional fairy-tale and puts a twist on it—just like this book does. So, on the one hand, the shoes are a symbol of this classic tale's twists and turns.
But the story also goes a little traditional, making it so that tiny, pretty, non-stinky feet point to a small, pretty, non-stinky girl.
When Char shows up with the slipper, Hattie claims it as her own, saying: "It's been missing for years." (29.29) Both her feet and Olive's are much too large. Hattie has the additional characteristic of having really stinky feet, something that Ella knows all too well from all the times Hattie has ordered her to remove her slippers.
Ella's feet are tiny enough for the slippers because of Ella's fairy blood. Since the slippers were found inside a dusty old workbench, it's probable that they belonged to someone who had lived and died long ago. Was it a fairy, or someone with fairy blood like in Ella's mother's line? The mystery is never explained. Regardless, knowing about people's feet can give you insight into their character, such as identifying fairies through their tiny feet.
We're not saying that having huge, stinky feet like Hattie does makes you a bad person, but, well, personal hygiene is never a bad thing.
Do the Twist … Again
But here's the thing: it doesn't seem like Char ever really cares that Ella has small feet. (Small feel have been a traditional sign of beauty in lots of cultures.) Since it's not like he needs the slipper to find out who she is, the size of her feet is irrelevant to him. He's already fallen in love with her because of her sexy, sexy brain. That's not something we see in most other versions of "Cinderella"—or Shakespeare—where apparently you can dance with someone at a ball for like half an hour and totally fall in love.
Sure, Ella and Char dance. When they first discover the shoes and Ella puts them on, they dance to music overheard from Sir Peter and Dame Olga's wedding. Thanks to Ella's time at finishing school, she can manage to not trip over her own feet, and so she and Char can talk and flirt while dancing. How do we know it's flirting? Ella says: "He put his hand on my waist, and my heart began to pound, a rougher rhythm than the music. … Our free hands met. His felt warm and comforting and unsettling and bewildering—all at once" (21.68).
So, that sounds a lot like flirting—but they're not in love yet. They're in like, maybe, but love comes later, after lots of letters and lots of time together. Which, if you ask us, is just how it should be.
Giving gifts is often a way to express affection or social obligation. For instance, Char catches a centaur and gives him to Ella in order to show that he likes her and thinks she'd be a responsible centaur-owner (however one goes about that). Hattie and Olive each pester Ella into giving them "gifts" on the carriage ride to finishing school as a show of good will, despite Ella's unwillingness to be a part of that transaction.
Here's the thing about gifts: they're not always nice. Take the very first gift we see: Lucinda's. "My gift is obedience," she says. "Ella will always be obedient." (1.1)
Thanks a lot. This is a good example of how a gift can sometimes be more about the giver than about the … gifted? Giftee?
Anyway, the point is that Lucinda wasn't thinking about Ella when she gave her the gift. (And we have today, was Char really thinking about Ella? What in the world is she going to do with a centaur?) Sure, some of the gifts seem unselfish—or, rather, we can think of one: Mandy's fairy book. Other than that, we have to say that all the gift-giving seems a little one-sided, almost as though it's a symbol of how so many people seem to lack basic social skills in Ella's world.
We're not saying everyone's irreparably selfish or anything, but it's easy to think of what you would like when picking out a gift for someone else. Don't try to protest that you've never done that. We know you have. The characters in Ella Enchanted, no matter how thoughtful, are often guilty of the same.
Mandy is an amazing cook, so it's not surprising that we have descriptions of food throughout the book. Sometimes the feasts appear quite scrumptious, but food usually represents more than just itself. For instance, at the funeral reception, Ella notices what a large spread it is: "We stood near the side table, which was loaded with mountains of food, from a whole roast hart with ivy threaded through its antlers to butter cookies as small and lacy as snowflakes" (3.33).
To Ella, this is yet another example of Mandy's awesome cooking, but it's also a symbol of how much Mandy loved Lady Eleanor, and how she's trying, in her own way, to comfort Ella.
To Hattie, however, the food only represents money. She remarks: "Quail eggs are such a delicacy. Ten brass KJs apiece. Olive, there are fifty at least" (3.38). Despite calculating how much everything must've cost, Hattie still stuffs her face, and Olive follows suit.
We're no therapists, but we suspect that the girls are emotionally under-nourished and are making up for it through binge-eating. You might too, if your mother was as awful as Dame Olga.
Lack of food is a symbol, too. On the journey to finishing school, Hattie essentially starves Ella by ordering her not to eat. While this is horrible in and of itself, it also represents how cruel Hattie is emotionally: she withholds not only food from Ella, but also affection and friendship. Since she can't get away with ordering Ella not to eat while at finishing school, she orders Ella to complete little tasks for her, and then emotionally starves Ella by commanding her not to be friends with Areida.
The various magical races also have their preferred cuisines. Elves do light vegetarian food, while ogres seem to prefer their meals still kicking. Centaurs adore apples, leading Char to name the centaur he catches for Ella "Apple." It's notable that Ella shares meals with giants and elves, but must escape her fate as main course for the ogres. If you can peaceably eat with a group, that's a good sign. If they're trying to eat you, that's a bad sign. Culinary anthropology.
Pretty much everything we see in this novel is from Ella's point of view, because she is the "I" narrating events as they happen to her. This helps us sympathize with what would otherwise be some very strange behavior, such as when she follows commands that don't serve her best interests. Every time Ella's commanded to perform some odious task—giving her mother's necklace to Hattie, or scrubbing the manor's floors with lye according to Dame Olga's orders—we sympathize with Ella since we see things through her eyes.
It's not all straight-up first person, though. When Ella tells us about being cursed at birth, it's pretty obvious that she wasn't able to narrate the event, having just been born and all. But the people who were there—her mother and Mandy—have clearly told Ella exactly how it went down:
I could picture the argument: Mandy's freckles standing out sharper than usual, her frizzy gray hair in disarray, and her double chin shaking with anger; Mother still and intense, her brown curls damp from labor, the laughter gone from her eyes. I couldn't imagine Lucinda. I didn't know what she looked like. (1.3-4)
The other people in her life help Ella patch together her early memories, so that she's conveniently able to narrate them in the novel for us, even if she doesn't remember them as sharply as people who were adults at the time did. Ella says of her curse: "My first awareness of it came on my fifth birthday. I seem to remember that day perfectly, perhaps because Mandy told the tale so often" (1.6). Because we all love to tell embarrassing stories about kids, right?
In addition to other people's stories, there's one other perspective trick that lets Ella (and us) see more than what her first-person perspective will show her. The fairy-made book that Mandy gives Ella will show her images of other people, their letters, and even their journal entries. Apart from the fact that this is mildly (or majorly) voyeuristic and also possibly a little unethical, it shows Ella what those around her are thinking, feeling, and planning so she can react appropriately.
And hey, when you're under an obedience curse, you have to use every tool at your disposal, no matter how shady.
Ella is "blessed" with obedience as a baby, and this colors her entire life. After a childhood playmate finds out about her spell and abuses it, Ella's mother forbids her from telling anyone about the spell. Whew! Now, no one will ever abuse it… except for people who figure out that something funky is going on. This sets us up for some major hijinks.
Ella's mom dies. Major bummer. Her dad sends her off to finishing school. Obviously not so bad, but still not great.
She's stuck with the obnoxious company of two sisters, Hattie (a selfish brat who figures out Ella's obedience thing) and Olive (who is too stupid to figure anything out). Since Ella doesn't get along with Hattie and Olive or with the teachers at her school, we're thinking "conflict" is an accurate description of this part of the plot.
Hattie is making Ella's life worse by the day, and since Ella thinks she has a shot at finding the fairy Lucinda, who'd cursed her, she runs away from finishing school. After various adventures involving ogres and giants, Ella returns home only to find that she's stuck with Hattie and Olive again since Sir Peter has married their mother, Dame Olga. Dame Olga is (rightly, we suggest) irritated with Sir Peter for tricking her into marrying him after he lost all his money, and so she (wrongly) demotes Ella to kitchen wench.
The initial conflict returns, and things go from bad to worse: yup, we'd call this a complication.
Ella survives the nastiness at her stepfamily's hands, in part because she's got Char for a pen pal. He confesses his love for her, which is exciting for like five seconds before she realizes that anyone could use her obedience to get to him as future king. Betray state secrets? Sure! Assassinate the king? Just give me a knife!
She dumps Char by letter, thus reaching the crisis of awful things that her curse has inflicted on her. She can't help deciding to see him one last time at the masked ball his parents put on for him, but he eventually sees through her disguise and once again asks her to marry him.
Caught between Char and her stepfamily, both of whom want Ella to get married to the prince (Char because he loves Ella; her stepfamily so they can benefit from royal connections), Ella has a wee breakdown.
Finally, through her love for Char, she reaches deep within and breaks the curse (which, incidentally, frees her from the nastiness of her stepfamily that had been one of the main conflicts of the book). Now she's free to defy her family like a normal teenager.
After Ella realizes that the curse is broken, she tells off her stepfamily and tells Char that she's able to marry him. Mandy, who's supported Ella all along, confirms that the fairy's curse is gone so Ella can live her life normally. Yay!
Ella and Char are married. She's too nice to punish her stepfamily for being such jerks to her, but they're not exactly the most welcome visitors. Still, they and her father benefit from having royal connections, though, so they also get a slice of the happy ending. Mandy comes to cook for Ella and Char at the palace, and the couple starts a family. Ella doesn't want to be a princess, but is happy with the titles of Court Linguist and Cook's Helper. Now that Ella gets to make her own choices all the time, she exercises that freedom. All the time.
Since Ella Enchanted is set in Kyrria, a made-up fantasyland, we weren't expecting to find many references to stuff from our world (philosophy, literature, etc.). However, there were a lot of references to European fairy tales, so we've listed those here.