All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See

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Vision Symbol Analysis

Vision Symbol Icon

The most obvious symbol in All the Light We Cannot See (so obvious it shows up in the title) is vision. From early on, Doerr encourages us to consider the different symbolic ramifications of sight and seeing, and all the different ways in which a person can be said to “see.” The protagonist, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, is blind, meaning that she’s incapable of literally seeing, and yet her intelligence, strong moral code, and integrity give her a kind of “sight” that allows her to see the German invasion of France for what it really is: a greedy, cruel endeavor that must be opposed at all costs. In contrast, the other protagonist of the novel, Werner Pfennig, has perfect vision (if he didn’t have it, he wouldn’t be admitted to the prestigious National Institute), but struggles to see through the propaganda of the Nazi Party. In general, Doerr associates vision with knowledge, and just as there are many kinds of vision, there are many kinds of knowledge: scientific, moral, ethical, practical, etc. In the end, Doerr suggests that no vision is perfect and true. In the grand scheme of things, all human beings are at least partly “blind,” in the sense that their knowledge of their beliefs, their loved ones, and their selves is always flawed and incomplete.

Vision Quotes in All the Light We Cannot See

The All the Light We Cannot See quotes below all refer to the symbol of Vision. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Fourth Estate edition of All the Light We Cannot See published in 2015.
One (1934): The Professor Quotes

Open your eyes, concludes the man, and see what you can with them before they close forever, and then a piano comes on, playing a lonely song that sounds to Werner like a golden boat traveling a dark river, a progression of harmonies that transfigures Zollverein: the houses turned to mist, the mines filled in, the smokestacks fallen, an ancient sea spilling through the streets, and the air streaming with possibility.

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig (speaker), Henri LeBlanc (speaker)
Related Symbols: Vision, Radio
Page Number: 48-49
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Werner listens to a radio broadcast that he's picked up on a radio he's found. On the broadcast, an old man tells his audience to open their eyes--in other words, to use science and reason to understand the world and seek truth. As Werner, still a young boy, hears these words, he's filled with excitement: he can't wait to use his ingenuity and curiosity to study the world.

In more way than one, the passage is meant to be taken ironically. To begin with, we know full-well that the notion of "opening one's eyes" to see can't apply to everyone in the novel--since Marie-Laure, the other protagonist, is blind. Moreover, the idea that science and experimentation can enlighten is appealing, but ultimately insufficient. As Werner will see first-hand, the Nazi party is full of curious, intelligent young scientists--including some of the greatest scientists of all time, such as Werner Heisenberg. Science itself isn't automatically a tool for good--it can be twisted and manipulated to serve evil causes, such as Fascism. For now, though, Werner is blissfully unaware of the negative implications of what the man is saying: as far as he's concerned, he's headed for a life of limitless success.

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One (1934): Mark of the Beast Quotes

She cannot say how many others are with him. Three or four, perhaps. His is the voice of a twelve or thirteen-year-old. She stands and hugs her huge book against her chest, and she can hear her cane roll along the edge of the bench and clatter to the ground. Someone else says, “They’ll probably take the blind girls before they take the gimps.” The first boy moans grotesquely. Marie-Laure raises her book as if to shield herself.

Related Characters: Marie-Laure LeBlanc
Related Symbols: Vision
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Marie-Laure walks though the streets of Paris, something she's learned to do only recently, with the help of her cane. As she walks, she overhears a gang of older boys tease her for her blindness, and even imply that when the Nazis inevitably invade Paris, they'll kill Marie-Laure because of her disability.

The passage alludes to many of the historical events of World War II. The Nazis did indeed invade Paris in June of 1940--and for the next 5 years, the city was under Fascist control. Beginning in the late 1930s, the Nazis began rounding up so-called undesirables (Jews, homosexuals, the disabled, etc.) and sending them to camps where they were isolated from the rest of society. By 1942, the Nazis had begun systematically murdering the people in these camps.

Marie-Laure can't understand the full extent of the Holocaust, of course, but she's still afraid of the "real world"--a world that, due to her blindness, she can't always understand completely. The 1940s are an especially dangerous time for anyone to grow up--let alone someone who can't see. Thus far, Marie-Laure's father has protected her, and also tried to train her to interact with the real world by building elaborate models, effectively allowing her to master the theoretical before she moves on to reality. In this scene, Marie-Laure tries and fails to protect herself with her book--a clear symbol of the fact that models and learning are no longer going to work for her.

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Vision Symbol Timeline in All the Light We Cannot See

The timeline below shows where the symbol Vision appears in All the Light We Cannot See. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Zero (August 7, 1944): The Girl
World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Theme Icon
Interconnectedness and Separation Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...of a piece of paper blowing in the wind. She goes to her window and feels one of the leaflets (it’s implied that she is blind). She runs her fingers over... (full context)
Zero (August 7, 1944): Saint-Malo
World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Theme Icon
Interconnectedness and Separation Theme Icon
...or slow to get out earlier—most are very old, and some are drunk, disabled, or blind. There’s been a general feeling among the people of the city—Saint-Malo, one of the Germans’... (full context)
One (1934): Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle
Family Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...story begins, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a tall, pretty 6-year-old living in Paris. She’s slowly going blind. Her father Daniel works in the Natural History Museum, and decides to send his daughter... (full context)
Interconnectedness and Separation Theme Icon
Fate, Duty, and Free Will Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...would be hard to find the Sea of Flames. A month later, she goes totally blind. (full context)
One (1934): Key Pound
Family Theme Icon
As a young girl, Marie-Laure loses her sight. The doctors can do nothing for her. Everyone in Marie-Laure’s community pities her—indeed, they even... (full context)
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...stay optimistic about Marie-Laure’s condition. He trains her to guide herself without the need of sight, equipping her with a small cane. Marie-Laure’s father works as a locksmith for the Natural... (full context)
One (1934): Around the World in Eighty Days
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...every street. As she grows older, other children ask her lots of questions about her blindness. She answers these questions calmly and sensibly. As time goes on, she continues to think... (full context)
One (1934): The Professor
Interconnectedness and Separation Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...houses and engines. The French broadcaster ends his lecture by encouraging his listeners, “Open your eyes and see what you can before they close forever.” This inspires Werner to become more... (full context)
One (1934): Sea of Flames
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...reasons, it hasn’t been shown until now. Marie-Laure is now ten years old, and her blindness has given her an active imagination—she can visualize anything. She reads whatever she can find,... (full context)
Three (June 1940): Time of the Ostriches
World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Theme Icon
Fate, Duty, and Free Will Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...she also remembers what the boys said about her months ago: “They’ll probably take the blind girls before they take the gimps.” (full context)
Three (June 1940): The Arrest of the Locksmith
World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Theme Icon
Interconnectedness and Separation Theme Icon
Fate, Duty, and Free Will Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...tiny saws. Daniel tries to explain that the saws are for making models for his blind daughter, but he’s thrown in jail anyway. The officers accuse him of plotting to blow... (full context)
Five (January 1941): Plage du Môle
Family Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...and the smell of salt. She’s also relieved that she’s not being arrested for being blind, as she always feared she’d be. She explores the beach and takes shells from the... (full context)
Five (January 1941): Weakest (#3)
World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...the previous night, some of the boys forced Frederick to go outside and prove his eyesight by shooting targets. Unsatisfied with this story, Werner goes to the Institute hospital, where he... (full context)
Seven (August 1942): Rue des Patriarches
Interconnectedness and Separation Theme Icon
Fate, Duty, and Free Will Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...apartment, even though he’s never there. The landlady also mentions that the man had a blind daughter. Inside the apartment, von Rumpel finds tiny models, bottles of glue, and small saws. (full context)
Eight (9 August 1944): The Transmitter
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
Marie-Laure feels her way through the radio room, and finds the transmitter that Etienne had used to... (full context)
Nine (May 1944): Boulangerie
World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Theme Icon
Interconnectedness and Separation Theme Icon
Fate, Duty, and Free Will Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...girl wearing thick glasses. After studying her for a few moments, Werner realizes that she’s blind. Werner is incredibly nervous, though he can’t say why—he has nothing to fear. The teenager... (full context)
Nine (May 1944): The Girl
World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Theme Icon
Fate, Duty, and Free Will Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...following his visit to the outside of Etienne’s house, Werner can’t stop thinking of the blind girl with the cane. He wonders if she’s related to the man who broadcast when... (full context)
Ten (12 August 1944): Fort National
Fate, Duty, and Free Will Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...the Fort National of Saint-Malo, Etienne begs his jailers to save his niece, who is blind, and won’t be able to save herself from the air raids. His requests are ignored.... (full context)
Ten (12 August 1944): Light
World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Theme Icon
Fate, Duty, and Free Will Theme Icon
...Germans. Werner asks anyone who will listen about Marie-Laure, but no one has seen a blind teenage girl. In prison, Werner is sickly—he knows he needs to eat if he’s to... (full context)