About All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See tells the story of two teenagers during World War II (WWII), one a blind girl in Nazi-occupied France, the other a German orphan boy pressed into service by the Nazi army.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc evacuates Paris with her father after he is entrusted with a valuable diamond named the Sea of Flames. They escape to her great-uncle Etienne’s house in Saint-Malo, where her father is arrested. Marie-Laure becomes part of the French resistance effort. She and Etienne use his contraband radio to broadcast information to the Allies.
Meanwhile, a brilliant German boy named Werner Pfennig seems doomed to spend his life in a coal mine—but instead receives an invitation to a Nazi school. Leaving behind his sister, Werner sacrifices everything he believes in to pursue his dream of becoming a scientist. Werner is pressed into military service and becomes part of a team assigned with the mission of locating and destroying anti-German radio broadcasts.
While Werner is in Saint-Malo hunting Marie-Laure’s radio broadcasts, Allied bombers attack the city. In separate locations, both Werner and Marie-Laure are trapped. Eventually Marie-Laure’s broadcasts save Werner’s life, and in return, he finds her and saves her from a German officer who is prepared to kill her in his search for the Sea of Flames diamond.
Written by: Anthony Doerr
Type of Work: Fiction
Genre: WWII fiction
First Published: 2014
Setting (primary): Saint-Malo, France
Settings (secondary): Paris, France; Zollverein, Germany; Schulpforta, Germany; Berlin, Germany
Main Characters: Marie-Laure LeBlanc, Werner Pfennig, Daniel LeBlanc, Etienne LeBlanc, Madame Manec, Jutta Pfennig (Wette), Frau Elena, Frank Volkheimer, Frederick, Dr. Hauptmann, Reinhold von Rumpel, Madame Ruelle
Major Thematic Topics: The tragedy of war; worlds within worlds; free will and predetermination; moral relativism; the power of the invisible realm; the significance of seemingly insignificant actions
Major Symbols: Radios; music, especially “Clair de Lune” by Debussy; shells; locks and keys; the Sea of Flames diamond; Jules Verne adventure novels
The three most important aspects of All the Light We Cannot See: First, the novel is an exploration of the tragedy of war. Characters full of promise are transformed in heartbreaking ways by the violence around them. Werner, bright and inquisitive, dreams of becoming a scientist; instead, he is given a choice between working in a coal mine or dedicating his life to the Nazi cause. Frederick, whose sense of duty brings him to the Nazi school despite his compassion, refuses to participate in killing a helpless man. Later, he is singled out for punishment and beaten so severely that his mind is permanently damaged. Marie-Laure, Etienne, and Jutta all lose someone close to them because of war and are forever scarred as a result. In addition to reflecting war’s horror through individual stories, the novel also offers glimpses into the larger-scale horrors of WWII. Civilians are killed mistakenly, women are raped, and prisoners are mistreated and murdered. Although the Holocaust is never mentioned directly, it is occasionally alluded to, creating an inescapable backdrop to the story.
Second, and closely related to the first aspect, the novel questions how much power human beings have to choose their own destinies, and to what degree our lives are predetermined by the world around us. On one hand, war makes certain kinds of personal choices impossible. As Frederick tells Werner, “Your problem is that you still believe you own your life.” On the other hand, Doerr’s novel emphasizes the power of individuals to choose their own path despite the world around them. In one of the book’s most important scenes, Werner tells Marie-Laure that she has been brave. She says, “I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?” Werner answers, “Not in years. But today. Today maybe I did.” Although Marie-Laure denies her own free will, Werner’s response emphasizes that she has been fighting for the resistance, refusing the easy path Werner has largely taken up until this point.
Finally, as Werner’s conversation with Marie-Laure shows, All the Light We Cannot See calls attention to the shared humanity that bridges our differences and the artificiality of dividing lines between “good guys” and “bad guys.” One of Werner’s fellow soldiers calls attention to the artificiality of ethnic division when he jokes, “The true Aryan is as blond as Hitler, as slim as Göring, and as tall as Goebbels,” citing examples of leading Nazi figures who did not fit the Aryan stereotype. Marie-Laure and Werner’s bond is perhaps the best example of common humanity. Even though they are strangers on opposite sides of the war effort, they are kindred spirits nonetheless.