Thursday, February 26, 2009

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

In The City of Ember—the book and the actual city—commonplace things become uncommon. Many times throughout the text, the characters come across things they can’t recognize, and the reader of the book may do so also. The literary device, known as defamiliarization, serves the story well and enables DuPrau to create a world that is familiar and at the same time unfamiliar.

Within the first few pages of the book, DuPrau lets readers into a world that feels comfortable and real. Descriptions of the city include flood lights, power lines, houses, streets, and even a school (p 4-5), yet it is the description of the sky that gives the reader a sense of the unfamiliar. The sky is described as, “always dark” (4). The familiar and the unfamiliar are presented to the reader upon first entering Ember. The city is normal, and bustling with people, but the lights are—as the reader quickly learns—essential and unnatural.

The escape from Ember is what most notably constitutes defamiliarization for readers as Lina and Doon try to piece together the last few pieces of the puzzle. First, the unfamiliar objects are explained as the two heroes find them in the blackness, then when the lights come on the objects become even more unfamiliar to the characters.

In her box, Lina finds “smooth white rods, each about 10 inches long. At the end of each one, a little bit of string poked out” (188). Both the audience and the characters are not sure what this new thing is, but the audience soon learns that the item is a candle. DuPrau’s description of the candles as the character’s see them defamiliarizes them for the audience.

In his box, Doon finds, “dozens of small packets wrapped in slippery material” which contain “a lot of short wooden sticks, each with a blue blob on the end.” In the next line, the readers learn that Doon has matches.

The brilliance of the scene lies in the fact that Lina and Doon still don’t know that to do with candles or matches. Thus, the familiar tools the reader sees perplex and slow down the heroes. DuPrau forces readers to think about how a match or candle might be described if one had never encountered them before.

More deafamiliarization happans at the end of the book, when Lina and Doon have come to the surface, the sky is once again described in unfamiliar terms allowing the familiar world of the reader’s surface to be viewed once again through new eyes. The moon is described as, “a shining silver circle hanging in an immense black sky” (252-253). Stars are describes as “hundreds and hundreds of tiny flecks of light, strewn like spilled salt across the blackness” (253). Even the sunrise is poetically defamiliarized.

DuPrau’s ability to make the familiar seen strange and out of place is ultimately what carries her book, characters, and readers on a successful journey of hope. Beyond her defamiliarization is DuPrau’s ability to create characters that are rich and developed. Even the smaller characters in Ember are as vivid as the city itself. This tale of post- apocalyptic dystopia finds a delicate balance between the darkness that is the worst of human nature and the light that is the best of human nature.

Rating: 5 Pages

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