Our main character, Meggie, is twelve years old, and we're totally rooting for her as she learns new things about the world and herself in order to overcome the forces threatening her family—yep, we're pretty firmly in young adult lit territory here. Meggie comes into her own as a reader, and as a young person struggling to learn the truth about her family, like why her mom actually disappeared all those years ago.
Why fantasy? Some of the critters in the book are fairies, people made of glass, and monsters made of ashes… in other words, not creatures from our (real) world. The presence of magic is also a pretty big plot element, since Mo's (and later, Meggie's) ability to read people into and out of books is what makes the whole story happen. And this means that without magic there'd be pretty much zero plot in this book. Period.
Inkheart is the title of our book… and the book within the book. Gah.
Inside our story there's a dude named Fenoglio, who wrote a book that he titled Inkheart because, as he explains it, "Its title is Inkheart because it's about a man whose wicked heart is as black as ink, filled with darkness and evil" (34.15). Since this man—a.k.a. Capricorn—got read out of Fenoglio's book and into the world of the book we're reading, we've gotten to know him a bit by now, and we completely agree that he fits that description.
In a broader sense, though, it makes sense for the book (the one we're reading) to be called Inkheart because it refers to the book that sucked in Meggie's mom and spat out Capricorn, Basta, and Dustfinger, all of whom are key characters. This development upset Meggie's life, impacting the life she and Mo lead in many ways. We're guessing that it hasn't been fun to flee like refugees every couple of years in order to try to escape Capricorn's attention—and yet that's exactly what they've been doing, though Meggie didn't understand as much until Dustfinger shows up on their front door.
The title is also kind of play on words, since ink—in the sense of the printed word—is central to the plot. Both Mo and Meggie have the ability to read written words out loud and magically manifest characters and items from those stories. Which is pretty nifty, huh?
The book Inkheart (the book inside our book) is also a focal point of the plot, because pretty much everyone wants to get their hands on it: Capricorn wants to burn all the remaining copies but one so that he can't be sent back into the book's world; Dustfinger wants a copy so he can be sent back in; Mo wants a copy so he can try to get his wife out; Basta wants a copy because Capricorn wants a copy; and Elinor wants a copy because it's a rare book and she wants to read it. Whew—that's a lot of wanting for just one book.
And those are a lot of associations for one title to convey, but we think Inkheart manages to pull it off quite nicely.
Let's get the overall plot wrap-up out of the way quick:
As for the very end of the book, we see Meggie getting to know her mom again (yay) while living with her family at Elinor's place. Meggie also decides to become a writer, figuring "where better could she learn that trade than in a house full of magical creatures, where fairies built their nests in the garden and books whispered on shelves by night?" (59.28). She's got a good point about her surroundings, but her reason for wanting to write goes beyond living in a house inhabited by creatures read out of other books' pages:
She wanted to learn to fish for words so that she could read aloud to her mother without worrying about who might come out of the stories and look at her with homesick eyes. (59.27)
In other words, it's also a matter of safety—for both herself and book characters. After seeing how much pain and awfulness can come from getting read into or out of a book, Meggie wants to write some safe places to read aloud about.
So over the course of the story, we've gone from Meggie not knowing her mom, like, at all, to making a major life decision about her future profession based on wanting to connect with her mom over reading aloud. This is also more generally a reflection of how Meggie wants to take control of her life: people being read into and out of books forced her and her dad to live in hiding for a long time, and now she wants to take charge and master that skill and related skills (like writing) for herself.
Bear with us as we get a little meta here. We're gonna deal with the world of Inkheart (the book we're Shmooping, which looks a lot like our own world plus some magic) and the world of Inkheart (the book inside the book we're Shmooping, which is super fantasy-land). Are you with us so far?
The world Meggie and Mo live in is a lot like our world. They live in continental Europe, so it's just a day's drive to go see Meggie's mom's aunt Elinor, who "lives beside a lake in the north of Italy" (2.10). This world has burglar alarms, cell phones, cars—all the stuff we're used to.
Elinor's property is behind a gate "with sharp ashen-gray spikes" (4.1), which obviously doesn't look very inviting. Her house is quite large, with more windows than Meggie can easily count, though during the few days Meggie spends with Elinor, she becomes familiar with the various rooms, from the kitchen and bedrooms to the grand library.
Ready for something totally different? Fenoglio also lives in Italy, but instead of having a secluded mansion, he occupies a small village, which contains "little more than a square, a few dozen houses, and a church" (24.4). Fenoglio's small house is located on a street that's "so narrow that Mo could have touched both sides at once if he stretched out his arms" (24.21). It's a humble place, but since Fenoglio seems family-oriented rather than fame-oriented, it seems like a good fit for him.
And now for something even more different: Capricorn's village. Meggie senses something sinister as they get close to Capricorn's turf. During the drive, Elinor's been telling stories about the various ruined castles and stuff that they pass, but as they draw near Capricorn's village, even Elinor falls silent:
Several times the beam of the headlights fell on ruined houses, but Elinor didn't know stories about any of then. No princes had lived in those wretched hovels, no red-robed bishops, only farmers and laborers whose stories no one had written down, and now they were lost, buried under wild time and fast-growing spurge. (13.21)
That's a little foreboding, isn't it? The language used to describe the scenery as the gang gets closer to Capricorn's village is pretty dark—wretched, lost, and buried don't exactly make this sound like a great spot for a vacation. And once they arrive, they find that things aren't much better within the village:
Meggie saw old houses of gray, rough-hewn stone, with a pale church tower rising above the rooftops. Many of the houses looked empty as they passed, going down alleys so narrow that Meggie felt they could close in on her. Some of the houses had no roofs, others were little more than a couple of walls partly fallen in. It was dark in Capricorn's village. (13.87)
Considering the fact that pretty much none of the village's inhabitants actually want to live here, it's not surprising that the place isn't cared for at all. Capricorn's filled the place up with people who can't leave, and done nothing to nicen it up for them in the least.
We also get glimpses of a resort town on the coast that Elinor, Mo, Meggie, Dustfinger, and Farid escape to, which is the total opposite of Capricorn's village. The town's big enough to have a major bank and a fancy hotel, so everyone holes up for a couple of days to chill and recover. It's a big enough town to have multiple squares too, where people walk after dusk.
The point here is that just like in our world, the world of Inkheart (the book by Cornelia Funke, not the book inside the book) is pretty diverse. There are big houses and small houses, book-lovers and villains, tiny towns and bustling resorts.
While we never journey inside Fenoglio's Inkheart as readers of Funke's Inkheart (say that five times fast), we get to hear about what it's like in there. According to Mo, there are fairies, trolls, goblins, and men made out of glass in that world. He thinks his wife, Meggie's mom, would enjoy the supernatural critters, though she wouldn't like how much evil is in the world. Hey, Mo—we don't think anyone in their right mind would like how much evil that's tucked in there.
Dustfinger is also enamored of the world, and all he really wants is to be sent home. He knows all about the fairies there, and fire—his BFF—is more responsive in his old world too. (Be sure to check out Dustfinger's write up in the "Characters" section and the discussion of fire in the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section for more on this.) In other words, Dustfinger really struggles in the world outside the bookworld he was born into.
But to listen to Capricorn describe the world within Fenoglio's Inkheart, you'd think it was a totally different place. He says:
All those troublesome creatures, those fluttering fairies with their twittering voices, the swarming, scrabbling, stupid beasts everywhere, the smell of fur and dung…Talking trees, whispering pools—was there anything in that world that didn't have the power of speech! And then those endless muddy toads to the nearest town, if it could be called a town—that pack of well-born, finely dressed princes in their castles, those stinking peasants, so poor there was nothing to be gotten out of them, and the vagabonds and beggars with vermin dropping from their hair—oh, how sick I was of them all. (17.47)
What's it actually like there? We're guessing it's a middle ground: some good, some bad, some weird. Just like everywhere else, really.
There are also references to the worlds of other stories, and what lies therein. We know that Farid came from the world of The Arabian Nights, which is populated by thieves and djinn and ghosts and all kinds of vengeful spirits; and Tinker Bell comes out of Peter Pan, a whimsical world. If you think about it this way, the worlds contained within Inkheart (the novel we're Shmooping) are practically infinite.
If you are a dreamer, come in
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer,
If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin
In case you didn't know, Shel Silverstein is a super-famous poet who wrote mostly for kids, but also for adults. His poems tell wonderful, magical stories with whimsical imagery and interesting moral messages, so it's appropriate that his words open Inkheart and invite us, as its readers and potential dreamers and wishers, to come and enjoy some stories.
While Inkheart is about literature, it's not necessarily the most complex literary novel out there. Maybe it's because Meggie (who's twelve) is one of our main protagonists, and so we see a lot of the events through her eyes; or maybe it's because Inkheart is a young adult novel, so it's meant to be accessible to lots of people of different ages. Sure the story is about loss and treachery and creativity, but it's also easy to relate to the characters and figure out what's happening in the plot.
The trickiest part of this book is probably catching all the literary references. There's a bunch of 'em. But worry not, that's what Shmoop is here for—and be sure to check out the "Allusions" section for a comprehensive round-up of all the references we caught.
Inkheart's got a whole lot of metaphors and similes up in it, which makes it pretty fun and lively to read. And in a book where the narrator is pretty matter-of-fact (be sure to read the "Narrator Point of View" section to get the details on this), these similes and metaphors help keep things interesting. It's hard not to chuckle when Fenoglio is described as dancing "around the cramped room like an old bear" (46.24) and his face as "wrinkled like a turtle's" (24.9), which helps keep up engaged in this otherwise pretty dark book.
It isn't like we're swirling in a sea of hidden meaning when we read Inkheart, though, and as a general rule, the style tends to be direct and plain (which fits nicely with the tone). The descriptions are clear, and help us envision what's going on. For example, when Capricorn's men come for Mo, there's no confusion about how Meggie responds:
Meggie began to run. Gravel crunched under her feet as she raced toward the house. The front door stood ajar, there was no light in the entrance hall, but Meggie heard loud voices echoing down the corridor that led to the library. (6.53)
There isn't a simile or metaphor in sight in this passage, and the action—and Meggie's reaction—come through crystal clear.
Gwin is a marten (a critter kinda like a ferret) with horns. Though martens don't normally have horns, Gwin's from a fantasy-land, which his horns—since they don't exist on real world martens—remind us of. Gwin belongs to Dustfinger, and their close relationship actually points us toward what Gwin symbolizes in the story: Dustfinger's lack of belonging, along with his survival instincts.
Consider this: If you see a cute little furry mammal—let's say a squirrel—while walking down the street one afternoon, you probably wouldn't give it a second look. However, if this was a horned squirrel, you'd definitely give it a second look… if you weren't too busy running away, that is. One thing's for certain: you'd recognize something as off immediately. Your attention would inevitably be drawn to just how out of place this critter was. And though you've probably seen more squirrels than martens in your days, this premise is true when it comes to Gwin too.
It is also true of Dustfinger. It's not that there aren't wandering fire performers in our world, or guys who can juggle and put on a good street show—it's that Dustfinger, no matter where he goes, simply doesn't fit in. For instance, at one point he notices some women in a town staring curiously at him: "Dustfinger often attracted such glances; anyone could see he didn't belong here. A stranger forever" (26.19). In other words, just like Gwin, Dustfinger sticks out as strange and otherworldly.
After everything goes down with the Shadow, Dustfinger runs into Farid and asks how Gwin is doing; Farid reports that Gwin ran away during some gunfire, but then came back. Dustfinger replies:
Well, he always knew when it was time to run, just like his master. (58.18)
So we aren't the only ones who see a parallel between Gwin's survival-oriented behavior and Dustfinger's behavior. Dustfinger sees it too. And when he says, "A marten like Gwin will always survive" (58.20), we suspect that Dustfinger will always survive, too. Come to think of it, we never really think he'll die while reading, not even with all that Basta and Capricorn put him through. That's because Dustfinger knows how to look out for number one.
It makes sense that Gwin—a wild animal—symbolizes Dustfinger. After all, Dustfinger himself is pretty wild—he definitely doesn't fit in with civilized people—and has strong survival instincts. Plus martens are adorable—and Dustfinger's not quite as tough as he'd like everyone to think he is (check out his write-up in the "Characters" section for more on this).
Red is not a happy color in Inkheart, and it tends to symbolize anger, vanity, and greed. Capricorn—the evilest dude of all the evil dudes in this book—has a church, for example, that is totally red:
The walls, the columns, even the ceiling, were vermilion, the color of raw meat or dried blood. For a moment, Meggie felt as if she had stepped into the belly of some monster. (17.18)
And not just any red, as we see in this passage, but the shades most closely resembling raw meat and dried blood—which is about as ominous as color references come. Yikes. Unsurprisingly, the giant chair Capricorn set in place of the altar is red, too:
In its place there now stood a massive chair, upholstered in red and with designs carved thickly into its legs and arms. (17.27)
Instead of an altar—a place traditionally for religious ceremonies and humbling sacrifice—Capricorn places himself front and center in his red church through the positioning of his red chair. Can you say vain? By positioning himself in this way, Capricorn presents himself as a sort of god—and all the red involved, makes it clear that he's a god with devilish intentions.
When Capricorn shows up to make Mo read for him, he's also in red, "wearing a suit as red as the church walls" (17.40). Since he surrounds himself with dudes sporting black jackets, this only makes Capricorn stand out more, like a peacock among crows, which highlights the fact that Capricorn is greedy for attention. Of course he's also greedy for material things, so when he has Mo read treasure out of Treasure Island for him in his church, the mental image we get is of Capricorn red and bloated, brimming with greed and vanity, almost the point of bursting.
We also see the color red associated with anger and other strong emotions. When Elinor gets mad about how Capricorn is keeping them captive, her "cheeks were flushed red, whether in horror or indignation Meggie couldn't guess" (18.70). We're not sure either—Capricorn taking her captive is definitely pretty horrible, but Elinor is also quite good at being indignant.
Basta also turns red when he's angry, but only when he's really angry—like when Dustfinger is taunting him from inside the crypt, daring Basta to come in and get him, and threatening to curse him with the power of a murdered man's coffin. Basta says:
"I'll cut your filthy fingers off if you try to touch me!" yelled Basta, his face red with rage. "Every one of them, and your tongue into the bargain!" (49.56)
It looks like Basta might have a little problem with anger management, right? After all, Dustfinger's stuck in the crypt and can't hurl anything but words at Basta at this point, so that rage blooms in him to the point of turning his face red lets us know this guy's feelings are officially running the show.
Mo keeps a photograph of his wife—a.k.a. Meggie's mother a.k.a. Teresa a.k.a. Resa—under his pillow at night. After Capricorn's men take Mo away from Elinor's place, Meggie creeps into Mo's bed to sleep that night and "put her hand under the pillow. Yes, there it was […] a photograph. Meggie drew it out. It was a picture of her mother; Mo always kept it under his pillow" (9.2). For Mo, this picture symbolizes his attachment to his wife and his hope that he'll find her again.
Dustfinger has a photo of Meggie's mom too, but it means something different to him. We're immediately clued into this difference because he keeps his photo in his backpack (31.35), which is not only a different place from where Mo keeps his, but also less intimate (Mo and Resa have shared a bed; Dustinger and Resa have not). In Dustfinger's head, it makes sense to try to steal Mo's wife. He says:
He's taken a whole world from me, why shouldn't I take his wife from him? (43.27)
Dustfinger's attempts to get close to Resa represent the family he's never had, that sense of stability and belonging that always seems to elude him. Mo is as easy a target to blame for Dustfinger's endless outsider status as anyone else.
We don't want to put Teresa/Resa on a pedestal or say she's the perfect woman or anything, but the fact that both Mo and Dustfinger long for her—as evidenced by the fact that they both carry around her photo with them—shows us that she has made pretty big impressions on each of them. Both are based on longing, though for Mo, it's a desire to reunite his family and rekindle his relationship with Teresa, while for Dustfinger it's all about gaining something he never had.
Fire can be both a friend and a foe, depending on where you're coming from.
Dustfinger—who can do all sorts of cool tricks with fire—misses the way it responded to him in the Inkheart world. There flames:
[…] had danced when he said the word. The flames here were both tame and mutinous, strange, silent beasts that sometimes bit the hand that fed them. Only occasionally, on cold nights when there was nothing but the flames to stave off his loneliness, did he think he heard them calling to him, but they whispered words he didn't understand. (31.8)
So flames represent both Dustfinger's nostalgia for the good old days, and his ambivalence about being in our world, where fire is an inert force rather than an active friend.
And yet fire is also what drew Capricorn into Dustfinger's life in the first place:
[…] it was also the reason why Capricorn had summoned him back in that other life. "Show me how to play with fire!" he had said when his men dragged Dustfinger before him, and Dustfinger had obeyed. (31.9)
So it's sadly ironic that fire, which Dustfinger thinks of as his friend, is also what brings him to Capricorn's attention.
Speaking of Capricorn, fire is a tool of destruction for this dude. Check it out:
Capricorn loved to give fire free rein, catching it again only when it had eaten its fill of crops and stables, houses and anything that couldn't run fast enough. (31.9)
Yeah, Capricorn sounds like a pyro in the worst way. His relationship to it makes it abundantly clear that this guy's main investment is destruction, an investment that stands in stark contrast to Dustfinger's almost friend-like relationship with flames.
So we see fire as multifaceted in Inkheart, just as it is in the real world—it can entertain and warm, or it can destroy and devour. We're thinking that fire works as something like a mirror, meaning that you'll see in it whatever is already within yourself. Capricorn's a destructive dude, so when he looks at fire he sees destruction, while Dustfinger is a resourceful entertainer, so he looks at fire and sees the potential for delight.
Meggie's our main character, and in chapters devoted to her perspective, we only see things from her viewpoint (but always in the third person, because that's how this book rolls). So for example when Meggie first meets Elinor, they don't get along. Which is putting it mildly:
Once again, she looked Meggie up and down as if she were being asked to admit a dangerous animal to her house.
Meggie felt her anger make the blood rise to her face. She wanted to go home, or get back in the camper van and go somewhere else, anywhere, so long as she didn't have to stay with this horrible woman whose cold pebble eyes were boring holes in her face. (4.32-33)
The narrator is firmly aligned with Meggie here. We get Meggie's feelings and assessment of Elinor, but nothing that gives us a glimpse into Elinor's experience of this moment. So though the narrator seems pretty clued into the inner world of Meggie (she never says out loud she wants to go home, after all), they don't seem to have the same access to Elinor.
Here's the thing, though: the narrator's allegiance shifts. Though they hang close to Meggie for most of the chapters, they visit other characters throughout the book too, so we also get insights into the perspectives of other characters from time to time. Because of this, we know that Elinor is not, in fact, a truly horrible person and, implicitly, that Meggie's assessment of things isn't always to be trusted. By shifting perspectives, the narrator gives us a more accurate picture of each character.
Meggie is a total bookworm who lives with her book-repairer dad, Mo. Her mom's nowhere in the picture. A stranger shows up one night and sparks Meggie's curiosity about a mysterious book and a man named Capricorn. That sure sounds like the stage is being set for some action, huh?
When Capricorn's men show up and snatch Mo and the mysterious book, Meggie's determined to go after them. Book-nerd relative Elinor and shady juggler Dustfinger tag along—but Capricorn captures them, too. So now we have a pretty clear idea that Capricorn's public enemy number one (hello, conflict), and that he's gonna keep making Meggie's life tough til he gets what he wants (hello, complication).
Capricorn's on the brink of victory, and he's got Meggie in captivity to read a monster out of Inkheart to kill Dustfinger and Resa (Meggie's long-lost mom) for him. Luckily though, author Fenoglio helps Meggie come up with a plan to write an alternate passage of Inkheart so that the monster kills Capricorn and no one else. This all happens with Mo on the brink of rescuing Meggie, so excitement abounds, and the main conflict (Capricorn being a giant jerk and ruining people's lives) is resolved.
Capricorn's men either disappear or disperse, leaving Meggie and Mo to get reacquainted with Meggie's mom. Dustfinger steals the sole remaining copy of Inkheart and goes off on his own (well, mostly—Farid is following him like a puppy). Elinor gets to know some of the refugees from Inkheart's world and offers them shelter. In other words, everyone's figuring out what to do next after the climax when Capricorn dies and all that jazz.
Meggie, her mom, and Mo all settle in at Elinor's place, along with the refugees. Elinor rebuilds her library (since Capricorn had it destroyed), and Meggie not only gets to know her mom again, but also decides to become a writer. So she's come full circle, and gone from being someone who enjoys books to someone who can work magic through them and wants to learn to write them. Plus now Meggie's family life is fuller than ever.