All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See

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Whelks, Mollusks, and Shells Symbol Analysis

Whelks, Mollusks, and Shells Symbol Icon

Throughout the novel, Marie-Laure is associated with mollusks—she studies them and collects them as a child, and when she grows up, she becomes a noted scientist of mollusks. During her time in the French Resistance, Marie-Laure takes the code-name “the Whelk” for herself. The significance of the nickname is interesting: Marie-Laure admires whelks for their beauty, but also for their ability to withstand seagulls’ beaks and remain securely attached to rocks and stones. In essence, the whelk is then the perfect symbol for Marie-Laure’s desire for peace, constancy and stability in her life—the very things denied to her by the chaos of World War II. In a poignant, symbolic image that proves this point, Doerr shows the whelks and snails of the Saint-Malo grotto continuing to live safely and peacefully (even alongside the possibly-cursed Sea of Flames) while the human city all around them is destroyed.

Whelks, Mollusks, and Shells Quotes in All the Light We Cannot See

The All the Light We Cannot See quotes below all refer to the symbol of Whelks, Mollusks, and Shells. 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.
Twelve (1974): Sea of Flames Quotes

It is cut, polished; for a breath, it passes between the hands of men.
Another hour, another day, another year. Lump of carbon no larger than a chestnut. Mantled with algae, bedecked with barnacles. Crawled over by snails. It stirs among the pebbles.

Related Symbols: The Sea of Flames, Whelks, Mollusks, and Shells
Page Number: 520
Explanation and Analysis:

In this lyrical quotation, Doerr describes the Sea of Flames, the priceless gemstone that has inspired von Rumpel, among others, to travel great distances and commit horrible deeds in order to possess it. Although it's been claimed that the Sea of Flames has a magical power (it keeps the owner alive while killing everyone the owner loves), Doerr never confirms this legend to be either true or false. As Marie-Laure points out many times, it's impossible to tell whether the gemstone is "special" or not--whether it's just a lump of carbon or whether it's fated to bring eternal life to its owner.

The two ways of looking at the gemstone (ordinary or special) correspond to two competing views of fate that the novel offers up--fate may either be a reality or a myth. During World War II, it often seems that the universe is a chaotic, random place. Yet there are times when the universe appears to have a "destiny"--for instance, when Werner saves Marie-Laure's life. Similarly, in this quotation, Doerr describes the gemstone as a mere "lump of carbon"—and yet also as something with a seeming life of its own, as it "stirs among the pebbles."

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Whelks, Mollusks, and Shells Symbol Timeline in All the Light We Cannot See

The timeline below shows where the symbol Whelks, Mollusks, and Shells appears in All the Light We Cannot See. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
One (1934): Key Pound
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...takes her to spend time with an aged doctor named Geffard, who’s spent time studying shells and coral reefs across the world. Marie-Laure loves to feel the contours of Geffard’s shells. (full context)
One (1934): Rumors
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
...about. Marie-Laure tries to calm herself by reading Jules Verne. She studies the names of shells with Dr. Geffard. One day Geffard tells her, almost gleefully, that most of the creatures... (full context)
Three (June 1940): Etienne
Family Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...takes Marie-Laure three days before she meets Etienne. On the third day, she finds a whelk shell in her new bathroom. To her amazement, she then discovers a long trail of... (full context)
Five (January 1941): Plage du Môle
Family Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...for being blind, as she always feared she’d be. She explores the beach and takes shells from the shore, putting them in her pocket. Manec continues to guide her along the... (full context)
Five (January 1941): The Rounds
World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...until Marie-Laure feels fairly comfortable doing so on her own. She collects items from the street—shells, leaves, pinecones, etc. She meets an old man named Crazy Harold Bazin, who fought in... (full context)
Five (January 1941): Grotto
Interconnectedness and Separation Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...stairs, Bazin tells Marie-Laure to run her hands along a curved wall that’s covered with snails and dead crabs. He tells Marie-Laure that he used to play in this area, along... (full context)
Five (January 1941): The Blade and the Whelk
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
...and Marie-Laure need pseudonyms for their new “work.” Marie-Laure suggests a pseudonym for herself: “the Whelk.” Manec laughs and gives herself a name: “the Blade.” (full context)
Nine (May 1944): Grotto
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
...to the grotto where Harold Bazin took her years ago. There, she finds barnacles and snails on the walls, just as she remembers. (full context)
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
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...inside of it. Marie-Laure lies quickly, and tells the man that she goes to collect snails and shells in this grotto. The man says that Marie-Laure has clearly not collected any... (full context)
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
...ask her one question—then he’ll leave. As the man talks, Marie-Laure remembers her nickname: the Whelk. She is armored, she thinks—impervious. (full context)
Ten (12 August 1944): Captain Nemo’s Last Words
Fate, Duty, and Free Will Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...but decides that she’ll finish reading Verne before she does anything else. She remembers finding whelks in Harold Bazin’s grotto—she had noticed that when the whelks were tucked securely into the... (full context)
Twelve (1974): Laboratory
World War II, the Nazis, and the French Resistance Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. She has spent her adult life studying mollusks, and has been a trailblazer in her field. Etienne has passed away, but before his... (full context)
Twelve (1974): Sea of Flames
Interconnectedness and Separation Theme Icon
Fate, Duty, and Free Will Theme Icon
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon
...it until it’s even more beautiful. Years later, the stone is covered by algae and snails. (full context)