Some believe more in fate and others believe more in choice. Erin Morgenstern plays with these concepts of fate and choice in the Starless Sea while looking at the importance of changes that must happen even if they are frightening. One of the great parts of Erin Morgenstern’s Starless Sea and other novels is the ambiguity and mystery that remains even at the end.

Morgenstern does a great job of leaving much up to the question but giving enough information and guidance that the stories are not too hard to read. Additionally, Fate, Time, and Chance all play the roles of both characters and concepts. Because of this, it’s sometimes hard to know if what’s happening is the result of Fate’s doing or a choice.

What Is The Starless Sea?

The whole story might have started when Fate and Time fell in love, though beginnings of stories are sometimes not so straightforward. But regardless, Fate and Time fell in love and then the stars started to worry. The story never firmly establishes who the stars are; Fate claims we are the stars since we are made out of stardust. The stars began to worry about Fate and Time becoming distracted, so they resolved to destroy the less important one.

US Cover of the Starless Sea
Cover art credit: Dan Funderburgh

The owls, a group of “judges” or the ones with wisdom, helped out with the decision and then tore Fate apart. But a brave soul saved a tiny part of Fate. The love story of Fate and Time was not over. Still, Fate was mostly gone and much was left up to Chance. Out of this situation comes the question interwoven throughout the story: Fate or choice in the Starless Sea.

The Starless Sea is a mystical place that seems to be somewhere underground. The only way to get to the Starless Sea is to go through one of many doors that seem to go into nothing. When opened and entered, the doors lead to the current Harbor on the Starless Sea. Many Harbors have come and gone, disappearing beneath the waves as the sea rises. But each time one Harbor disappears, another appears. The Starless Sea and all its Harbors are so important and special because they hold stories. People have found their way to Harbors for years, absorbing in stories and creating new ones. It would be impossible to explain it all now, but a description of the book given by the author can be found here.

Zachary’s Journey

The lead protagonist, Zachary, encounters his first door to the Starless Sea when he’s a little boy. He does not open it, but grows up and goes to college. At graduate school, he runs across a book in the library that draws him in. Upon taking it home, he stumbles across himself in the story. In it he’s called “the son of the fortune-teller.” Zachary eventually finds his way to the Harbor, after a long process filled with freaking out, researching, and adventuring. But the place is not quite right; the Starless Sea has receded and almost everyone has left. Zachary has a role to play for the Starless Sea.

What Is Choice To A Friend Of Fate?

Before Zachary gets to the Harbor, he meets Fate, or Mirabel, as she also goes by. After seeing himself in a book, he understandably seeks to find out as much as he can about this place in the book, the Starless Sea. Is it real, or is he going crazy?

Key and heart, like Zachary in the Starless Sea
Image from:

After scouring through images on Google, he notices an image of a woman and a man. The necklaces the woman is wearing catch his eye since they’re important symbols from the book: a bee, a key, and a sword. He follows the link of the picture to a website. The website leads him to an annual party that, as luck would have it, is happening in a few days. There, he meets the people who lead him to the Starless Sea. Was it fate or choice that lead Zachary to the Starless Sea? He happened across an image, and that image led him to Fate who became a sort of guide and friend.

It’s not clear right away if Mirabel is Fate. She seems like a human, though one that’s fun and quirky and driven. Through the stories the readers and Zachary find, we all slowly realize that Mirabel is Fate. Like many things in the Starless Sea, this is never strictly claimed. Instead, Morgenstern hints at it, and sometimes a character asks the question in their mind.

Fate Believes In Choice

The current personification of Fate was born in a Harbor in the Starless Sea, where she was conceived outside of Time. There were groups of scholars and story lovers who lived in the Harbor on the Starless Sea. For generations, they worked on creating space out of time so that Fate may be fully reborn, and she was. Was Fate’s rebirth through the active choice of many, or was it fated, or both? Fate would likely argue that it was choice.

As she understands who she is, people should not use her existence as an excuse for their choices. Mirabel tells Zachary this when they have gone down deeper to previous Harbors chasing after their common friend, Dorian. The antagonist pulled him down towards the Starless Sea. When Dorian lands in it, the readers discover alongside him that the Starless Sea is a sea of honey. Mirabel and Zachary still go down after him in the faint hope that he’s still alive.

Once down, Zachary starts to question Mirabel’s real motives. They seem to be chasing after Dorian based on a painting predicting their roles for the Starless Sea, not because Maribel is Fate. He gets confused and asks “What are you?” Mirabel moves in close to him and her mask of humanity drops. She firmly tells him that it was his own choice, and not any predestined “fate”, when he did not open the door he saw when he was a young child. All his actions were his own choice, even following her down to the depths of previous Harbors after Dorian.

Wooden door and handle
Image from:

“You wanted to think that you did [have to] or that you were supposed to but you always had a choice. You don’t like choosing, do you?”

Fate to Zachary in The Starless Sea

Zachary’s Choice

Zachary has many adventures that impact the Starless Sea while he is down in the old Harbors. They all lead him to a pinnacle adventure for this chapter in his story when he dies and meets the bees. The bees take care of the Starless Sea and its Harbors (understandably, as the sea is a sea of honey). The bees welcomed him into their home, excited that the “key” had finally arrived. The key is needed to lock away the Harbor. As all stories must, the current Harbor story needs to end. There were some who feared the ending and delayed it as long as they could. But still, Zachary found his way to the bees at the Starless Sea and maybe through fate or choice or both brought the Harbor’s story to a close and locked it.

Choice Versus Fate

Morgenstern never gives us a straight answer as to whether it’s the work of Fate or if it’s due to people’s choices. Maybe it’s up to us readers to interpret how we want. Or maybe Morgenstern is attempting, through The Starless Sea, to point out that both exist together. Something may be fated because of people’s choices; Time might not be as straightforward as we often think of it.

After all, Time did fall in love with Fate. For example, there was a place in Zachary’s life where he was fated to end up so that he could close the Harbor. But he did make the choices on his own that got him there. Fate gave him a doorway when he was young. He could have gotten to the Harbor years earlier, but he chose not to go in. When he was older it was his own choice to search for the Starless Sea.

Drawing of group of owls
Image From: Chaz Letzkus

Similarly, Fate waited passively for years to again be with her love, but as Mirabel, she chose to be active. If she hadn’t chosen that, then Zachary would have never seen that first door; he would likely have never even ended up at the Starless Sea. If what was fated to happen took place because of the choices of Fate, then that suggests that life in the Starless Sea is driven by a complex mixture of both choice and Fate.

Is The Starless Sea The Right Choice For You?

Not all will love the Starless Sea. To some, there’s not enough plot and too much metaphor. But to others, it’s the mesh of stories, imagery, and metaphors that intrigue them. If this isn’t the type of story you’re interested in, there are plenty of other stories for you! For example, a great and inspiring story that is more straightforward and less mysterious is A Sparrow’s Roar. You can read more here. But if the Starless Sea sounds like the thing for you, go ahead and read it and decide for yourself if you think it’s Fate, choice, or both.