Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a novel that truly touched my heart, one comprised of endearment and compassion found in the most forbidding of times. Set in the midst of World War II, the French and Germans at endless battle, two characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, each face their own array of harsh struggles on opposite sides of the war, yet the desires of both military forces to attain (and retain) an object of myth and fortune only serve to intertwine and connect the inspiring stories of each.
Please be aware of any spoilers to follow.
All the Light We Cannot See is incredibly complex, with countless sub-plots surrounding the eventual resolution. Here are the main two:
Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind Parisian girl already struggling with the loss of her mother, now living only with her father, the locksmith at the nearby Museum of Natural History. She finds most of her purpose in memorizing the miniature model of Paris which she uses to navigate the town, and fingering around the model until she finds the pear-shaped stone her mother behind. Little does she know, this same stone is one whose mysterious powers are fantasized in Paris (it’s believed to offer invincibility to the owner yet impose detrimental consequences to those around it, as we later see at the capture of her father and loss of her beloved caretakers later in the story) and coveted in Germany.
As the war progresses, Marie-Laure and her father are forced to travel outside of Paris to her uncle, of whom he and his wife Marie becomes very attached to, and whom Marie serves as a comfort to as well, given the heart-breaking story of Etienne’s (her uncle) traumatization. However, the effects of the stone become clear as Madame Manec, who Marie adored, dies of pneumonia. As a result, Etienne becomes motivated despite his past, and his passion for radio broadcasting allows for Marie to involve herself in a quiet, symbolic rebellion against the Germans, who at the time were continuing to invade the town.
The stone’s power, though, also came to benefit Marie-Laure. Despite the constant violence within the town of Saint-Malo, her father having been captured by the Germans, Etienne’s house miraculously remained standing. Now, as I’ll explain later, her house in particular was a target of the Germans (particularly von Rumpel, who set out to kill Marie-Laure) because of the believed possession of the Sea of Flames, as the stone was called. This frustration led to the eventual invasion by von Rumpel himself, as Marie-Laure lied hidden away near the roof of the attic.
Just when it seemed the stone could do no more to protect Marie, with Von Rumpel remaining in the building with intentions of retrieving the stone so great he would kill if needed, we witness the selfless acts of Werner, saving Marie’s life. And while this might seem like a fairy-tale ending, the story of how such an event came to be is yet more complicated and dark.
Werner Pfennig, a young boy living in an orphanage, abandons his sister and all life as he knew it as he is recruited to a Hitler-led youth group after his technical skills are put to use fixing radios. With the only alternative being an endless position as a laborer in the mines, doing so seemed a natural choice, until he begins to witness the horrors that lay behind the workings of Hitler’s army. Between the torturing of students and the immoral virtues forced upon the others, Werner gets the feeling that ‘something’ is not right.
Yet, he proceeds to be enlisted in a technical force that travels by train in attempts to pick up radio signals of Parisians. This creates the potential for much conflict, as Marie and her uncle had begun broadcasting music from their transmitter in the attic. (She even does so when von Rumpel enters the apartment, displaying peace and contentment). While such connection never occurs, we do witness the raids and killings of other communities.
Werner begins to recognize that he and all of the other students were, essentially, becoming images of Hitler himself (with the mindset of ‘for the greater good’): exactly as Hitler wanted, and in stark contradiction to the morals he had been brought up on. He describes how he feels something inside of him “screw tighter, tighter”. And while he has no other choice but to continue in the ranks of the military, he gets his chance to rebel against Hitler’s practices when, having escaped from the bombed-out hotel in which he had been stationed in Saint-Malo, he makes his way to Marie-Laure’s house and, hearing commotion, enters. When he finds von Rumpel advancing on Marie-Laure, he violently overcomes his superior and thus saves Marie-Laure, despite knowing nothing about her history or alliance, in an act of pure compassion and selflessness.
And even from each of these, further sub-plots are developed, but overall, to best understand the effect of the time period on the characters (a theme that is excellently developed throughout the book), it’s important to understand the inner workings of the war itself that leads to many of the major events in the novel:
As the conflict with Germany escalates, the museum undertakes preventative measures to protect the precious stone, distributing fakes among the one genuine stone with caretakers from within the museum, and scattered them throughout the country, Marie-Laure’s father, Daniel, one of them. He possesses the real stone, but ensures it remains in the hands of Marie-Laure for safekeeping. As von Rumpel searches for the real stone, he encounters each fake using desperate measures, but eventually, through exchanges of information and recollections from Paris, identifies the stone as belonging to Marie, and realizes the precise location of the stone. From there, the invasion of Marie’s building takes place.
The important thing to realize is that as a result of the effect of the war itself, Werner is forced to join a military which he eventually opposes, and Marie is forced to rely on finding small joys and symbols to retain her hope in times when not only was her country falling apart, but her own life felt isolated and threatened. Had it not been for the war, there would be no inherent opposition between the two characters. They would each both be just human beings, no different from the next, united in cause.
It’s these complicated yet inspiring themes that really make All the Light We Cannot See a literary masterpiece.
Talking Point: Character Development
The novel excellently utilizes flashbacks of Werner’s life to display the contrast in Werner’s development over time as the war effects his motives and beliefs. When we first meet him, he appears to be just like any soldier: devoted to the war and willing to die for his country, yet desperate in crisis. However, as the novel returns to earlier years, we witness the loving environment he was raised in, as well as his utter affection for his sister Jutta. Therefore, reflecting on the novel, it becomes clear that Werner always had a soft, loving side to him that was forced to be hidden by the war.
While reading the novel, it’s natural to support the side of the Parisians, given the innocence they always appear to display, whereas the Germans are portrayed as merciless, antagonizing forces. But we also get a glimpse of the inner doubt and apprehension those on the German side regarding from the wars they were forced into, and we realize that the war began to feel more like a dictatorship than a united cause.
Talking Point: Symbolism
There is an incredible amount of literary benefit to be gained from All the Light We Cannot See. One of the aspects I appreciated most was the symbolism that allowed good, even in small amounts, to flow into the despairing lives of the people, particularly with Marie-Laure. For example, the hidden doorway to a section of the river filled with thousands of snails allowed for Marie-Laure to imagine the world as one community, experiencing the same struggles. Or, the peaches Marie would enjoy with Madame Manec served to remind her that there still remained so much joy in the world. The same goes for the music that she and Etienne broadcasted, bringing comfort and relief in times of fear.
I’ve talked in the past about finding the little joys in life, and the symbolism in the novel really encapsulates that idea, reminding the characters and the reader that the world is still good, despite the forces that seek to destroy it.
If I were to name one underlying ideal throughout the novel, it would be harmony. At a time in society where two sides were at odds, through works of compassion and pure love, two complete opposites were able to come together and achieve such a harmony and peace that brings so much meaning into the degeneration and division caused by war. In society today, where even small matters remain under constant division, it remains important to recognize that harmony is the ultimate goal.