Study Guide

The Tale of Despereaux Themes

By Kate DiCamillo

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    There's plenty of misery to go around in The Tale of Despereaux. Some characters are treated in very cruel ways. Despereaux is sentenced to death with his own family standing there; they don't even try to save him. Miggery Sow has the worst family life you could imagine. Princess Pea loses her mother and is kidnapped by Roscuro and Mig at knife point. Where's the love?

    Nonetheless, these characters still treat the people (or rodents) who have done them wrong with compassion and forgiveness. Despereaux tells his father and brother—who played a part in sentencing him to death—that he forgives them both. And instead of throwing Roscuro and Mig into the dungeons forever, Princess Pea treats them with kindness. When Mig finds her father, she takes him happily back into her life. Roscuro, on the other hand, is motivated by revenge, not compassion.

    There's a moral here, in case you missed it. The author shows that forgiveness allows you to move forward with your life; holding grudges makes you bitter and unhappy.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Why doesn't Furlough save his brother Despereaux from the awful fate of being sent to the dungeons?
    2. Do you think it was right of the princess to let Roscuro and Mig off without any punishment after they'd kidnapped her?
    3. Why is it important to Lester that his son forgives him—even when he believes that Despereaux is now a ghost?

    Chew on This

    Despereaux forgives his father because he sees how distraught and remorseful he is.

    Despereaux chooses to forgive his father so that he himself won't turn into a twisted revenge-seeking rodent like some others we could mention.

  • Family

    Family life can be awfully complicated. That's surely the case for Despereaux, Princess Pea, and Mig in The Tale of Despereaux. Despereaux doesn't come from the most loving family; after all, his father's the one who calls the Mouse Council that sentences his own son to death. Mig's dad isn't going to win any Father of the Year awards either—he sells his only daughter into slavery in exchange for a red tablecloth, a hen, and some smokes. And even though Princess Pea's family adores her, she's lost her mother, and her father becomes bitter and withdrawn.

    The author shows that anyone can have family problems; it doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, a princess or a servant. Pea's wealth and royal status can't shield her from losing her mother. The difference is that Pea has a loving father to help her through her loss; Mig has nobody. That accounts for a lot of the differences between them.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why does Mig's father sell his daughter for a red tablecloth, a hen, and some cigarettes?
    2. Do you think Despereaux and his family will have a good relationship after the book ends? Why or why not?
    3. Does Mig's father realize the error of his ways by the end of the story? How does he make things up to his daughter?

    Chew on This

    Despereaux finds out that your "adopted" family—friends—can be as valuable as your biological family.

    Mig's wish to be a princess was really a wish to have a family again.

  • Isolation

    We all have those times when we just want to be left alone. You know, go to your room, shut the door, and get away from your annoying brother or the friend who's bugging you. But that's because we know we can come out and call that friend or hang out with our family when we're ready. As a permanent condition, being isolated isn't something most people want.

    Poor Despereaux deals with a great deal of isolation from the very beginning of his life in The Tale of Despereaux. For starters, he's the only survivor of his litter. He isn't like all the other mice at all; even his family doesn't understand his fascination with reading and music, and they ignore him.

    Roscuro, the villain of the story, is also an outsider. In fact, the reason he's such a bitter and vengeful character is because he feels as though the princess looked upon him as a disgusting creature when he ventured up to the castle. He's now back down in the lonely dungeon, isolated from the world he wants to be part of.

    The author considers isolation to be a very unhappy situation. Fairy tales tend to be full of characters who are alone in the world—friendless or parentless. A famous child psychologist named Bruno Bettelheim thought that this is why fairy tales can be helpful for kids to read. It helps them deal with times they're lonely by showing them characters who feel alone but are able to eventually find happy lives and relationships. (Source)

    Questions About Isolation

    1. What makes Despereaux so different and odd in the mouse world?
    2. How do Despereaux and Roscuro handle isolation differently?
    3. Is Princess Pea happy at the beginning of the book? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The book equates isolation with darkness and sadness.

    The author believes that storytelling is a way to break through isolation.

  • Loyalty

    Though Despereaux only meets Princess Pea once before he's sent down to the dungeons, he remains completely devoted to her in The Tale of Despereaux. Like a noble knight in the fairy tales that Despereaux loves so much, he vows to honor and serve the princess. The author is describing the knight's code of "courtly love," which involves lifelong devotion and sacrifice to your lady love.

    This means that Despereaux has promised to face perilous adversaries in order to protect his princess. So when Roscuro kidnaps the princess for his own diabolical plan, Despereaux goes after her, even though it means risking his life that deep, dark, scary dungeon with rats who want nothing more than to eat him up. The mouse has pledged his loyalty; he has no choice but to rescue her.

    The storyteller values loyalty so much that she interrupts the story to ask the reader to recall the meaning of the word "perfidy." (Shmoop helpfully looked it up for you—it means betrayal, which is the opposite of loyalty.) She's even got a chapter titled "Perfidy Unlimited." Little Despereaux's our hero because of his complete and undying loyalty.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. Do you think that Despereaux remains loyal to his princess throughout the book?
    2. How does Despereaux's family betray his trust and love?
    3. Why doesn't Furlough let Despereaux go when he's leading him down to the dungeons?

    Chew on This

    Despereaux is loyal to the princess because he knows very well what it's like to be betrayed.

    Not being loyal—betraying or abandoning the people or creatures you should be caring for—is about the worst thing you can do in this story.

  • Lies and Deceit

    There's no question who the masters of deceit are in The Tale of Despereaux: the rats. They lie to everyone. They're expert con men. Botticelli and Roscuro both delight in getting prisoners to trust and confess their sins to them, and then totally messing with them. That's what Roscuro does to Mig's father after he confesses how much he regrets selling his daughter into slavery. He also lies to poor Mig and says that he'll make her a princess, though he has no intention of following through with this.

    What's in it for the rats? Why do they live to deceive? Shmoop guesses that it's because they have nothing else to live for. They're stuck in the dark dungeons, loathed by everyone; it's a wretched existence. Maybe the only thing that makes them happy is making life miserable for people and mice who've seen the light upstairs.

    Hey, we're trying to be empathetic here. (See our "Compassion" theme.) Still, we've got to admit that these rats are lying liars.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Do you think that the rats truly find meaning in life from tricking and lying to people?
    2. Why does Mig believe Roscuro's lies?
    3. Why does Princess Pea lie about not knowing Roscuro when he kidnaps her?

    Chew on This

    According to this book, lying gets you nowhere in the long run.

    Mig's story show us that desperation can lead you to believe someone even if you know they're lying.

  • Revenge

    Ever hear the expression "Revenge is sweet"? Well, guess what—it's not. At least not in this story. It's the least sweet thing ever.

    The story of revenge in The Tale of Despereaux is the story of Roscuro. Roscuro's entirely consumed by the idea of revenge against Princess Pea. He's particularly resentful of the way that she looked at him the one time he ventured up into the castle, and how she said the word "rat" as though it was this dirty, despicable thing. He hates her for making him feel like he's so worthless, and resents the fact that her outburst made him fall into the queen's soup—which led to his being blamed for the queen's death.

    Roscuro's revenge drives much of the book's plot. It completely transforms Roscuro's personality. He's obsessed with revenge, and it eventually leaves him unhappy and alone. So, so—not sweet at all.

    Questions About Revenge

    1. Is Roscuro's wish for revenge out of proportion to what Pea actually did to him?
    2. How does the king punish rats and soup when the queen dies?
    3. Does Mig go along with Roscuro's plan of revenge all the way?
    4. Why doesn't Despereaux seek revenge against his family for betraying him?

    Chew on This

    King Phillip's revenge against rats and soup is just plain ridiculous, but because he's eventually able to get over it, it doesn't permanently damage him.

    Seeking revenge might be understandable, but it's never a good idea, according to the story.

  • Guilt and Blame

    We all know people who blame everyone else for their problems. They're usually pretty unhappy. Terrible things happen to Despereaux, Mig, Princess Pea, and even Roscuro in The Tale of Despereaux, but they all handle it differently. Despereaux doesn't blame his family for abandoning him; he forgives them. Mig's father sells her into slavery, but she takes him back at the end. Roscuro, OTOH, decides to blame Princess Pea for all his problems. We know how that turns out for him.

    The "good" characters in the book are all able to think about the part they've played in getting themselves into troubling situations. It makes them rely on their own resources in solving their problems instead of waiting around for others to fix them.

    When you don't go around blaming others for all your problems, you can take responsibility for things you've done wrong. Characters in the story who feel truly guilty and remorseful, like Despereaux's and Mig's fathers, are motivated to act more kindly. Things turn out okay for them, as opposed to rats like Botticelli and Mig's "uncle," who feel no guilt at all.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Why isn't Despereaux angrier with his family for letting him be sentenced to death?
    2. Why does Roscuro blame Princess Pea for his fiasco with the queen's bowl of soup?
    3. Does Mig blame her father for all of her problems?

    Chew on This

    The author seems to be telling that blaming people doesn't solve anything; it just makes you bitter and miserable.

    In this book, feeling guilty is the first step back into fixing relationships with people you've hurt.

  • Courage

    What's the first thing you think when you hear the word "mouse?" We're guessing it's not "courage." There's even a saying, "Are you a man or a mouse?" Meaning, a wimp. Maybe that's why children enjoy stories with mouse heroes. It's easy for them to relate to creatures who seem small and helpless. Seeing a mouse be brave shows them that they can accomplish things, too.

    Despereaux defies our expectations. The dungeons in The Tale of Despereaux are a pretty scary place to be—full of evil rats, dark, and very easy to get lost in. It's an especially frightening place for Despereaux, who's sent down to the dungeons to be eaten alive by the rats. But even though Despereaux is just a little mouse, he shows amazing courage. He's terrified, but he remains strong in order to serve the princess. He even rushes back into the dungeons to save her after he's returned to the castle. That's one brave mouse.

    Questions About Courage

    1. How does Despereaux feel when the Mouse Council banishes him to the dungeons?
    2. Is Princess Pea afraid when Roscuro and Mig kidnap her?
    3. Why does Despereaux return to the dungeons when he's just escaped?
    4. Do you think that the dungeons are still scary for someone like Gregory the jailer who has spent so much time there?

    Chew on This

    The author thinks that we need other people to help us be brave.

    The author believes that we have to find bravery within ourselves.

  • Principles

    In The Tale of Despereaux, Despereaux may be a tiny mouse, but he has big principles. He sticks to his principles even when they're unpopular; he values art and music even though it leads to him being banished to the dungeons. He charges back into the dungeons in order to save the princess, even though it means putting his life in danger—he believes that as a loyal subject of the princess, he has to do anything to save her. And Princess Pea is a girl of principles too; even when she's kidnapped, she treats Mig with compassion and kindness.

    Life lesson? Hang on to what you believe in and things will turn out okay.

    Questions About Principles

    1. How does Princess Pea put herself in Mig's shoes even when Mig is kidnapping her?
    2. Why doesn't Despereaux admit that he's done something wrong when he appears before the Mouse Council?
    3. What kind of codes does the mouse community live by? How does Despereaux challenge these rules?

    Chew on This

    Acting on principle helps Despereaux keep on keepin' on in his quest to rescue the princess.

    Acting strictly on principle leads the Mouse Council to make terrible decisions.

  • Awe and Amazement

    Beauty. Art. Music. Not things you usually associate with rodents, right? Seriously, when was the last time you saw a mouse at the movies or a concert? In a seat, that is.

    There's a lot of darkness and ugliness in The Tale of Despereaux, but characters like Despereaux and Roscuro still find the time to seek out beauty in the world. Unlike their rodent families and pals, they both stop to stare in amazement at light, music, and all sorts of beautiful things. Mig, too, is speechless the first time that she sees the royal family; she carries the memory of that lovely image in her mind through all the hard times. The awe these characters feel is highly motivating; it sets them on their path to seek out a life beyond their own very limited world.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. Why won't Despereaux eat the pages of the book that his sister leads him to?
    2. Why is Despereaux born with his eyes open?
    3. Why does the author use the imagery of light to convey amazement and awe?
    4. What are Roscuro's first impressions when he emerges from the dungeons and into the light of the castle?

    Chew on This

    Despereaux's amazement changes his life for the better and introduces him to the wider world.

    Roscuro's amazement at light and beauty only makes his life worse because he can never really be part of it.