71 pages 2 hours read

Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1996

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The 1996 fantasy novel Neverwhere, by British author Neil Gaiman, was originally a television series, also written by Gaiman. However, he wanted to flesh out the story in a way that couldn’t fit into the series, so he wrote the novel to fully encapsulate the story.

This urban fantasy takes inspiration from The Wizard of Oz as well as other allegorical sources, such as the Bible. Important themes in Neverwhere include self-sacrifice, redemption, and betrayal vs. trust. The story follows a “hero’s journey” as defined by Joseph Campbell, where the protagonist Richard Mayhew goes on a quest that reveals his true nature to himself and others.

This guide references the 2015 e-book edition of Neverwhere, which includes an introduction from Gaiman about the revisions this edition received.

Plot Summary

The novel begins with a prologue: Richard Mayhew is preparing to move from Scotland to London, England. The night before he leaves, an elderly woman reads his fortune and warns him about doors.

Years later, he’s living and working in London and engaged to a strong-willed woman named Jessica, who believes that Richard should always strive to be the best possible version of himself. Richard seems content to just let life happen to him, following whatever directions Jessica gives him without question.

One night, on their way to dinner with Jessica’s boss, Mr. Stockton, Richard and Jessica stumble upon an injured girl who seems to have appeared out of nowhere. Richard is determined to help her so he skips the dinner, which causes Jessica to end their engagement because she is angry that he would choose a stranger over keeping up appearances.

Richard takes the girl to his home, where she falls asleep before he can figure out what happened to her. The next day, he learns that the girl’s name is Door, and she is fleeing two men, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar. Door comes from London Below, a magical society that exists both alongside and underneath the world Richard knows, or London Above. She has the power to create doors that lead to any destination―it is this power that led her to Richard― and is the only surviving member of her recently killed family, all of whom shared this power. She asks Richard to find the Marquis de Carabas, a mysterious trickster who deals in favors and snark, so she can find out who was responsible for the slaughter, though she knows Croup and Vandemar committed the act.

After locating the Marquis and taking a detour to meet a man named Old Bailey, Richard and Door part ways. However, when Richard tries to return to his regular life the following Monday, something disturbing happens: No one can see him, and the few who can see him seem to instantly forget him after they interact. Richard discovers that, because of his involvement with Door, his life in London Above no longer exists. A homeless man connected to London Below takes Richard to a group of people who worship rats; they agree to get Richard to the Floating Market, where he knows Door and the Marquis are headed. He is escorted by a young rat-worshipper named Anaesthesia, though she doesn’t survive the journey.

Once at the market, Richard reunites with Door and the Marquis, who have just hired a woman called Hunter to be Door’s bodyguard. They tell him there’s no way to get his life back, but he joins them on their mission to discover who murdered Door’s family, hoping they’ll find a solution somehow. They enlist the help of an angel named Islington, who tells them to locate a magic key protected by monks that will lead to the answers Door seeks. When Door, Richard, and Hunter arrive at the key’s location―the Marquis having left the party early on―they must each pass a test before it can be retrieved. Most people who reach the third test, which Richard takes, die, so the monks are surprised when he emerges unscathed and secures the key. Meanwhile, the Marquis meets up with Croup and Vandemar to gather information, though it means he is killed in the process.

After getting the key, the trio attends another Floating Market, where a mysterious woman offers to lead them back to Islington. As they make their way down a long, winding stairway, they meet back up with the Marquis, who was revived by Old Bailey. Croup and Vandemar appear, revealing that Hunter betrayed them all she could obtain a weapon that will kill a great Beast she is hunting. The identity of Croup and Vandemar’s employer also comes to light: they were hired by Islington. Croup and Vandemar capture Door and lead her to Islington; Richard follows, along with the Marquis and Hunter. The latter trio confront the Beast; though they kill it, Hunter dies.

Once everyone arrives at Islington’s home, they learn the angel is being imprisoned for causing the city of Atlantis to sink beneath the sea, and the key Richard secured will release him. He had asked Door’s father to get the key for him, and when the latter refused, Islington had the family murdered, leaving behind Door so he could manipulate her into helping. He wants to use her powers to gain reentry to Heaven in hopes of overthrowing God.

But Door outsmarts Islington. Without anyone’s knowledge, she had a decoy key made; when she opens the door of Islington’s prison with it, she sends him, Croup, and Vandemar into a black hole. Richard is honored for his bravery in London Below, and because he is the master of the key, he can restore his life in London Above. Once back home, he finds that his life is even improved; he has a nicer apartment and gets promoted at work. However, he finds he is unsatisfied with his life now that he has experienced the adventures of London Below. At the end of the book, he reconnects with the Marquis, and the two disappear through a door.

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