The more I think about The City of Ember, the more I like it.
Deep underground, the people of Ember have never seen the sun and don’t even know it exists. The builders of their city planned for them to emerge, but that plan was lost and forgotten, and now Ember is running out of supplies, and its generator, without which there is no light, is breaking down. Will the builders return to save the people of Ember, as some believe? Does the mayor have a plan for his people? Or will it be up to Lina and Doon to rediscover the lost exit to the surface?
The setting is richly imagined, and the plot and characters live up to a unique and fascinating premise. The real strength of the book is the thematic content, though. Ember (the book) is not a riveting but meaningless retro-futuristic adventure like Ember (the movie); it has a wealth of moral lessons that come across as relevant rather than didactic.
The core message of the book is to uphold dedication to thinking over complacency, to admire planning and forethought rather than taking things as they come, to act rather than wait.
Other themes are that curiosity is good, that we should pay attention and notice things, that we should take our family, friends, and responsibilities seriously, that getting away with something doesn’t make it right.
See below for a chapter-by-chapter plot summary and some key quotes.
You might also want to check out the Shmoop literature guide for City of Ember.
But really, if you haven’t, you should read the book yourself!
The City of Ember plot summary
0. The Instructions
This prologue tells how the Builders left instructions in a locked box to tell the people of Ember how to emerge from underground 200 or 220 years in the future.
1. Assignment Day
It is the year 241 (more or less—no one is exactly sure) and Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow’s graduating class of 12-year olds are about to be given random jobs by the mayor. Lina is disappointed to be given a job in Pipeworks, but Doon, who takes everything too seriously, is furious to be given a job as messenger, and talks back to the mayor, shouting that something terrible is going to happen to Ember. He trades jobs with Lina so he can get near the generator. Lina is thrilled, because she has always dreamed of being a messenger.
2.A Message to the Mayor
We learn how Doon and Lina used to be friends, and aren’t anymore because of a dare to climb a light pole that he took too seriously and she took too lightly. Lina’s best friend is now a talkative redhead named Lizzie. Lina’s forgetful Granny works with yarn and looks after Lina’s two-year-old sister Poppy. Lina and Poppy’s parents are dead from childbirth and illness. The house is a comfortable mess, decorated with Lina’s drawings of a gleaming city she imagines.
Lina’s messenger job, which she loves as much as she thought she would, begins the next day. But then Lina is given a message about a delivery from a weird-looking older boy named Looper to the mayor. While waiting to be let in to see the mayor, she climbs up to the roof of the Gathering Hall, Ember’s tallest building, and waves at the people below. After being scolded by the mayor’s chief guard, and the mayor himself, she conveys Looper’s message.
3. Under Ember
Doon works in the damp, dark, and dangerous underground labyrinth that supplies water to the City of Ember from the river that flows beneath it and powers the generator. After mending a pipe in worrying condition, Doon starts to wander around on his own with a map and sneaks into the generator room. He’s heartbroken to realize that despite his excellent mechanical skill and drive to learn, figuring out how the generator works is a task out of his reach. On his way home, he sees Lina waving from the top of the Gathering Hall and feels useless and sad, then angry. Doon’s father advises him to make the best of things. At least maybe Doon will find some interesting new bugs in the Pipeworks.
4. Something Lost, Nothing Found
Lina returns home to find Granny looking frantically for something important. She asks her neighbor Mrs. Murdo to keep an eye on Poppy and Granny for her while she’s working, and goes to deliver a message to her friend Clary at the greenhouses near the trash heaps, from which trash sifters sometimes recover useful items. The potatoes aren’t growing right. A man returns from the dark Unknown Regions and is arrested by the mayor’s guards, even though he’s broken no law. His experience wandering in the dark seems to have driven him mad. Lina wonders if somewhere in the Unknown Regions there is a door leading out of Ember to the bright city she imagines. Surely there are other places outside Ember? You’d need a moveable light to explore past Ember’s borders, though. Clary gives Lina a bean plant.
5. On Night Street
Like Knockturn Alley in Harry Potter, this street’s name has an ominous sound to it. Lina takes Poppy and ventures past the raving man and some singing Believers into a shop run by that weird guy, Looper, hoping to buy some scarce and expensive (and seemingly black-market) colored pencils. After deliberating, she buys two (green and blue), despite the cost. To her dismay, she realizes that Poppy has wandered off while she was obsessing over the pencils. Then the lights go out, for quite some time, and as the seconds tick by, her remorse increases. She’s relieved to find that Poppy has been rescued by Doon and looked after in his father’s shop, but feels no less guilty.
6. The Box in the Closet
The mayor gives a pompous, vague, garbled, dishonest speech about how solutions to Ember’s problems are being found. The speech makes Doon angry. Meanwhile, Granny has unearthed the actual solution to Ember’s problems, and Poppy has put it in her mouth and chewed it to pieces.
7. A Message Full of Holes
Lina rescues the remains of the Builders’ instructions from Poppy and tries to piece together the text. She shows the result to her boss, who suggests that it is an old recipe and tells her not to worry: She has seen the Builders return to Ember in a dream. Lina is not convinced, but she knows what it feels like to really want something to be true.
Lina visits her friend Lizzie at the Supply Depot, where clerks sometimes have to tell people that the storerooms are out of a particular item forever. Lizzie says her boss is annoying, and that some of the inventory records are secret. She’s not interested in Lina’s mystery text, so Lina decides to write a note to the mayor, in case the text is important. He doesn’t reply. Lina continues to pore over the text, ultimately discerning the word “Pipeworks” and deciding to show the instructions to Doon, who she likes because he is curious, he pays attention, and he cares about things.
Doon explores the Pipeworks and observes bugs there. He gets a sad reminder of the unintended consequences of anger when he accidentally steps on an interesting snail after his co-workers call him “bug-boy”. He decides that if trying to understand electricity is futile, he should focus on making a different kind of movable light, such as one that uses fire. However, according to the homemade books in the Ember Library, the people of Ember generally only see fire when a dangerous accident occurs, and attempts to create useful fire have thus far been unsuccessful.
9. The Door in the Roped-Off Tunnel
Lina finds Doon in the library and they go to her house to look at the instructions. He sees her city drawings and tells her he draws bugs. The next day, they go together to the Pipeworks to investigate the locked room Doon found. They glimpse someone who looks vaguely familiar to Lina entering and leaving the room.
10. Blue Sky and Goodbye
Granny falls sick, so Lina stays home to care for her. She also spends some time drawing with her sister, and colors the sky in her city drawing using her new blue pencil. The next morning when the lights come back on, Lina finds that Granny has died in the night.
11. Lizzie’s Groceries
Mrs. Murdo invites Lina and Poppy to move in. Lina is grateful for adult help, but still feels personally responsible for her sister in a new way. She bumps into her friend Lizzie, who says she has a boyfriend. Lizzie drops and then shares some rare canned foods and rushes off awkwardly. Lina returns home and shares out the peaches and creamed corn she got from Lizzie. Later, she insists Lizzie explain where she got them. They came from Lizzie’s boyfriend, the storeroom worker Looper. Lina tells Lizzie that Looper must be stealing things and selling them in the shop where she got the pencils. Lizzie says Looper says “It’s all going to be gone soon anyway, why not live as well as we can right now?” Lina nevertheless decides she doesn’t want Lizzie to share any more of Looper’s bounty with her.
12. A Dreadful Discovery
Doon visits the mysterious locked room in the Pipeworks and finds it unlocked, with the mayor asleep in an armchair and a huge stockpile of food and other supplies stacked all around him. He rushes off and tells Lina. They realize the person they saw entering the room before was Looper, making a delivery. They go to the Gathering Hall and tell the chief guard.
13. Deciphering the Message
Lina goes to talk to Clary and tells her everything. Clary visits Lina’s house, notes the bean sprout’s amazing progress, and looks at the instructions. She tells Lina that what she and Doon had thought was a name was the word “egress”, meaning “exit”. Lina and Doon realize they should be looking for an “E” carved near the river. That night, in the throes of a bout of worried sleeplessness, Doon realizes he already knows just where.
14. The Way Out
Lina and Doon find the E and proceed down a ladder into a passage where they unlock a door with a key from behind a small steel panel. They fetch a box from the dark room beyond, accidentally figure out how to use the unfamiliar matches and candles it contains, and discover a boat meant to be lowered onto the river.
15. A Desperate Run
There’s not just one boat, there are enough for everyone. The next day, at the Singing, all of Ember would find out that the mayor was stealing and that Lina and Doon had found an exit. Doon stuffs some things into his pillowcase to take with him out of the city. He leaves behind his hand-drawn bug book and most everything, really. He notices that his caterpillar, which had retreated into a cocoon, is coming to life again. He watches it emerge as a moth. As he is about to leave home, he hears guards inquiring after him for spreading vicious rumors, and realizes the guards already knew about the mayor’s theft. They are on the mayor’s side. He rushes to Mrs. Murdo’s house to warn Lina. On their way to school, they glimpse posters promising rewards for information about where they’ve gone. They’re worried they’ll be thrown in the Prison Room. They decide to leave Ember in the boats by themselves, leaving an explanatory note behind for Clary. Lina, resolving to bring Poppy along, goes to the deliver the message. Guards start chasing her.
16. The Singing
Guards catch Lina and take her to the mayor. He resolves to lock up Lina and Doon, but the lights go out again, briefly, and Lina escapes to the clock tower. She looks down on the people of Ember singing and considers shouting her news from the tower at the end of the song. When the lights once more go out, however, she sees Doon with a candle, moving towards the Pipeworks, and decides to go with him out of Ember instead.
Doon leaves a note for his father before meeting Lina, who has collected Poppy, at the Pipeworks. They retrace their steps to the first boat and launch it onto the river.
18. Where the River Goes
The boat brings them down a swift current to a cave room with a gentle shore where they disembark. They find a path behind a pile of rocks. Poppy finds a book on the shore and they take it with them. Lina realizes she forgot to pass the explanatory note to Clary.
19. A World of Light
A sign tells them they will be climbing for hours. They ascend via a long zig-zag to a place where at last they do not need their candles. The air smells different. When they see the surface of the earth, they find grass, hills, and trees very strange, to say nothing of wind. They admire the relatively dim but beautiful moon and stars. They wonder what could be making a chirping sound; bugs, probably. They see no people. Gradually, the sky gets brighter, the sun rises, the sky turns blue, and the world fills with color. Lina and Doon smile and cry for joy.
20. The Last Message
The book Poppy found is a diary telling how the writer, one of the first inhabitants of Ember, went along with the Builders’ plan, carrying a baby into the underground world to save at least one small part of the human race from itself. The book refers to the necessary ignorance of Ember’s next generations, and to the box with the instructions inside.
Lina and Doon enjoy the warmth of the sun. They spot what might be a road in the distance. They marvel at a fox, and decide that they belong on the surface, not underground. Lina and Doon realize the dark globes like the one the fox was holding in his mouth must be safe to eat.
They accidentally discover a hole in the cave ceiling over Ember. They wrap the note to Clary around a rock and throw it towards the city. Later, Mrs. Murdo picks it up.
Key quotations from The City of Ember
DuPrau’s moral philosophy
“What you need to learn, children,” [Mrs. Polster] always said, in her resonant, precise voice, “is the difference between right and wrong in every area of life. And once you learn the difference—” Her she would stop and point to the class, and the class would finish the sentence: “You must always choose the right.” In every situation, Mrs. Polster knew what the right choice was. (29)
The author is suggesting that Mrs. Polster, with her green dots for good behavior and red dots for bad, is a humorless, well-meaning tyrant. It’s impossible for someone to be right all the time. That’s an unreasonable standard to hold anyone to, and an unreasonable one to claim to have achieved. It is, of course, a good idea to teach children to try to choose the right course of action, but ethics, like science, is a method and not a result. DuPrau embeds this subtle logic in a minor incident that fits in the space of a couple of paragraphs! I’m in awe.
The wisdom of Doon’s father
“What you get is what you get. What you do with what you get, though… that’s more the point, wouldn’t you say?” (51)
“The main thing is to pay attention. Pay close attention to everything, notice what no one else notices. Then you’ll know what no one else knows, and that’s always useful.” (51)
“The trouble with anger is, it gets hold of you. And then you aren’t the master of yourself anymore. Anger is…. And when anger is the boss, you get—”
“I know,” said Doon. “Unintended consequences.” (88–89)
The wisdom of Lina’s friend
“Something in this seed knows how to make a bean plant. How does it know that?”
“I don’t know,” said Lina, staring at the hard, flat bean.
“It knows because it has life in it,” said Clary. “But where does life come from? What is life?”
Lina could see that words were welling up in Clary now; her eyes were bright, her cheeks were rosy.
“Take a lamp, for instance. When you plug it in, it comes alive, in a way. It lights up. That’s because it’s connected to a wire that’s connected to the generator, which is making electricity, though don’t ask me how. But a bean seed isn’t connected to anything. Neither are people. We don’t have plugs and wires that connect us to generators. What makes living things go is inside them somehow.” (67–68)
Lina’s moral compass
[I]f everyone knew there were still a few wonderful things in the storerooms, people would fight each other trying to get them. But what if no one knew? What difference would it make if she had the colored paper, or the shoes? She suddenly wanted those things so badly she felt weak…. You couldn’t divide a can of applesauce evenly among all the people in the city. Still, something was wrong with grabbing the good things just because you could. It seemed not only unfair to everyone else but bad for the person who was doing it, somehow. She remembered the hunger she’d felt when Looper showed her the colored pencils. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. She didn’t want to want things that way. (152–53)
The mayor: his own worst enemy
“Curiosity,” said the mayor. “A dangerous quality. Unhealthy. Especially regrettable in one so young.” (217)
“[C]ertain things must remain hidden from the public. The public would not understand. The public must have faith,” said the mayor, once again holding up his hand, this time with a finger pointing to the ceiling, “that all is being done for their benefit. For their own good.”
“Hogwash,” said Lina. (218)
“I remember when the mayor was first starting out. he has always been foolish, but not always wicked. I’m sorry to know that the worst side of him has won out…. There is so much darkness in Ember, Lina. It’s not just outside, it’s inside us, too. Everyone has some darkness inside. It’s like a hungry creature. It wants and wants and wants with a terrible power. and the more you give it, the bigger and hungrier it gets.”
Lina knew. She had felt it in Looper’s shop as she hovered over the colored pencils. For a moment, she felt sorry for the mayor. His hunger had grown so big it could never be satisfied. His huge body couldn’t contain it. It made him forget everything else. (168)
When and why I read The City of Ember
I was reminded of this book when I read The Ship. I decided to go back and re-read it, and read the two sequels and the prequel. (Previously, I only read City of Ember itself and the first sequel.)
Genre: fiction (children’s fantasy)
Date started / date finished: 04-Nov-18 to 05-Nov-18
Originally published in: 2003
Amazon link: The City of Ember
An okay movie adaptation was released in 2008.
As of 2012, there’s also a graphic novel.