The Tale of Desperaux is divided into four interrelated books which finally collide in the fourth.
The First Book: A MOUSE IS BORN The story begins with the birth of Desperaux, a tiny little mouse born with his eyes open, in the castle of the Kingdom of Dor. Although nobody expected him to survive – he does live. But he is different. He is smaller than all the other mice and is characterized by giant ears. Furthermore, Desperaux does not share the typical interests of other mice and therefore becomes the outsider of the mouse community. He loves gazing at streaming light, listening to music, and reading. Poring over fairy tales in the library is one of his favorite things to do. He adores fairy tales ending with the phrase ‘happily ever after’. These words are so powerful and remind Desperaux, the little mouse, to not give up and continue believing in his dreams. One day, overcome by beautiful music wafting through the castle, he follows the sound and happens upon King Phillip and Princess Pea. His love of music is stronger than his sense of self-protection and he breaks one of the most fundamental mice rules – he exposes himself to humans. Unfortunately, his brother, Furlough, has seen him sitting on the king’s foot and tells their father. Shocked by the news, Lester Tilling informs the Mouse Council who decides to send Desperaux to the dungeon as punishment for his crime and for not repenting of it when given the chance. On the way to the dungeon, he realizes with horror that his own brother is one of the hooded mice leading him to the place of exile. After finding himself in the deep darkness of the dungeon, Desperaux meets the jailor Gregory, whose help he will need later.
The Second Book: CHIAROSCURO The second book, similar to the first, starts with the birth of a rat called Chiaroscuro, who lives in the darkness of the dungeon. Like Desperaux, this rat is different. He is not an evil, harmful, black-souled animal like the other rats, whose only interest and focus is the suffering of others. Chiaroscuro, who is called Roscuro, is actually fascinated by illumination of all sorts. For him, light is the only thing that gives meaning to life. Roscuro once expresses his special attachment to light to his friend Botticelli who showed no understanding or appreciation of light at all. His friend even tries to convince Roscuro that rats’ interests should have nothing to do with light. A rat should only be focused on the evil and dark side of life. Roscuro must promise to give up this fascination. But, just like Desperaux, he cannot resist his passion and breaks the cardinal rule of the rats: he leaves the dungeon in search of light. With overpowering excitement, he discovers the beautiful and huge crystal chandelier in the banquet hall. Enchanted and drawn in by their reflection, he climbs on to the chandelier. Unfortunately, the princess has already discovered him and is outraged. She shouts “rat!” Alarmed by her screaming, Roscuro closes his balance, falls, and finds himself in the queen’s soup bowl. Shocked at having a rat in her soup, the queen dies of a heart attack. Roscuro escapes and hurries back to the dungeon. Brokenhearted, he must return to the darkness and now that all his hope has faded, and revenge fills his mind.
The Third Book: GOR! THE TALE OF MIGGERY SOW The third book is about a little girl named for her father’s favorite pig. Miggery Sow, who lost her mother at the age of six and was then sold into service by her dad, is now living with a man whom she must call ‘uncle’. Her dreadful and desperate life is characterized by “a good clout to the ear” (128) which she receives all the time. On her 7th birthday, something special happens while Mig is out in the fields. She notices something bright and sparkling on the horizon – the Royal Family on their horses. Fascinated and speechless, she gapes at them and cannot respond to the princess’s waving. The encounter awakes a deep desire in Mig – hope. An emotion she has never had before emerges and fills her. From now on, she wants to become princess. One day, a king’s man arrives to collect all the soup utensils, since soup has been outlawed in the kingdom of Dor ever since the queen’s untimely death. He finds out about Mig’s performing of slave labor at Uncle’s house which is illegal. As a result, he takes her to the castle where she can work as servant for the royalty. Mig’s incompetence in any kind of job leads to her bringing meals to the jailer in the dark dungeon. On her way downstairs, she meets the rat Roscuro, who manipulates her. He promises her the chance of becoming the princess if she will support him in his plan of kidnapping Princess Pea.
The Fourth Book: RECALLED TO THE LIGHT The last part of the book is a consolidation of all of the plot strands. Desperaux is aware of Roscuro’s plan of revenge since he has been hiding under the jailor’s napkin on the food tray that Mig has delivered. Back in the castle’s kitchen, Desperaux wants to warn the princess but gets caught by the cook and threatened with a knife. Tired and weakened, Desperaux falls asleep and misses the chance of alerting Princess Pea. The next day, the princess has already disappeared – it is too late. Threatened with a knife, Princess Pea has been forced to come with Mig and Roscuro. Due to the king’s refusal to help, Desperaux decides to do save the princess, himself. With a spool of thread and a needle as sword, the brave little mouse is on his way down to the dungeon. In the deep dark, he meets Botticeli, who leads him to the kidnappers and their victim. With the help of Mig, Desperaux finally manages to rescue the princess. At the end of the quest, Princess Pea, Desperaux, Roscuro, and Mig make it back to the castle. Pea forgives Roscuro who has just collapsed in the dungeon and admitted that the only thing he ever wanted was light. He is now free to stay wherever he wants. Although Mig does not become princess, she is happy. She is reunited with her father, Gregory, the jailer, who treats her like a princess. And Desperaux and the princess are happy just being friends.