All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See

Pdf fan dd71f526917d6085d66d045bd94fb5b55d02a108dd45d836cbdd4abe2d4c043d Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

Fate, Duty, and Free Will Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in All the Light We Cannot See, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fate, Duty, and Free Will Theme Icon

All the Light We Cannot See poses difficult questions about fate, free will, and making the right choice. The major characters in the novel usually struggle to do the right thing, but they must also face the possibility that their struggles don’t amount to anything—in other words, their moral choices ultimately don’t matter at all. The questions of free will in the novel are aptly symbolized by the Sea of Flames, a legendary diamond that supposedly protects its owner, but causes its owner’s loved ones to die. It’s possible that the Sea of Flames is cursed, meaning that the characters’ attempts to protect one another are futile—they’re going to die, no matter what—but it’s also entirely possible that the diamond’s curse is a silly myth—in this case, doing the right thing for one’s loved ones matters a great deal.

In the early chapters of the novel, the two main characters, Werner Pfennig and Marie-Laure LeBlanc, believe that they have the freedom to make their own choices and shape their own destinies. Werner thinks that his intelligence and quick thinking will save him from his supposed fate—a life spent working in the mines. Although Marie-Laure initially believes that her debilitating blindness will keep her from having a happy, successful life, she trains herself—with her father Daniel’s help—to navigate her own way through the streets of cities, and also to read Braille.

At first, All the Light We Cannot See seems to be posing a simple division between free will and fate, with the characters trying to assert their own free will. As the novel goes on, however, Doerr complicates these terms with the idea of duty. When Werner’s ingenuity earns him a place at the prestigious National Institute, he’s indoctrinated into Nazi mythology, taught that the Jews are evil, and ordered to obey Hitler above all else. Werner wants to assert his own beliefs—he doesn’t believe in punishing innocents—but he’s afraid to disobey. Moreover, Werner is too caught up in his own scientific ambitions to stand up for what’s right: when the students are ordered to torture a prisoner, Werner’s friend Frederick refuses, but Werner, still eager for a job in Berlin, goes along with the sadistic exercise. Later, when Werner is ordered to track down “enemy” radio broadcasters, he realizes that he’s actually using his intelligence to help the Nazis murder innocent people. Werner considers leaving the army, but is simply too frightened and uncertain to give up his duty. In essence, this means that Werner is choosing to remain a Nazi and participate in the murder of innocents. Horrified with his own actions but also afraid to leave, Werner no longer wants to be free—he wants to have no choice but to continue fighting for the Germans, so that he can at least make himself believe that he’s being coerced into evil. Free will, he comes to realize, can be challenging—even painful.

And yet All the Light We Cannot See doesn’t simply call Werner and his peers murderers. Even if Werner makes the wrong choice, he’s making a more difficult choice than most people would ever have to consider. Moreover, Werner begins to rebel against the German army in small but important ways, showing that it is possible for moral acts to make a difference. When Werner makes the decision to conceal the location of Etienne LeBlanc’s broadcasting system—thus saving Marie-Laure’s life—Doerr makes it clear that Werner is doing so not only because he’s nostalgic for his childhood, but also because his love for his sister, Jutta, has inspired him to be a better man, and because his time in Saint-Malo has given him the confidence and strength to disobey the Nazis.

Ultimately, the novel moves toward a cautiously optimistic conclusion. Marie-Laure chooses to leave the Sea of Flames in an abandoned grotto, symbolically “throwing away” the stranglehold of fate. Doerr suggests that even if it’s impossible for human beings to fight off every one of the large, fated events in their lives—the bombing of Saint-Malo, blindness, and World War II itself—they can still assert their free will in crucial ways. By choosing to save Marie-Laure’s life, for instance, Werner blesses her with a long life, a successful career, and children and grandchildren—proving that free will can triumph over both destiny and duty.

Fate, Duty, and Free Will ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fate, Duty, and Free Will appears in each chapter of All the Light We Cannot See. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
Chapter length:
Chapter
7.1944
7.1944
7.1944
7.1944
7
7.19444
7.1944
7.1944
1934
1934
1934
1934
1934
1934
1934
1934
1934
1934
1934
1934
1934
1934
1934
1934
1934
19341
1934.
1934
1934
1934
1934
1934
8
819444
81944
81944
81944
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
1940
19405
1940
19402
1940
81944
81944
81944
819444
81944
81944
1941
1941
1941
1941
1941
1941
1941
1941
1941
1941
1941
1941
1941
19413
19417
1941
1941
1941
19418
1941
1941
1941
1941
1941
19419
1941
1941
1941
194110
1941
1941
1941
1941
81944
81944
8
81944
81944
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
1942
91944
91944
91944
91944
91944
91944
91944
91944
1944
1944
1944
1944
194411
1944
1944
1944
1944
1944
1944
1944
1944
1944
1944
1944
1944
194471944
1944
121944
121944
121944
121944
121944
1219441
1219442
1219443
121944
121944
121944
121944
121944
121944
121944
12
121944
121944
1945
1945177.
1974
1974
1974
1974
1974
1974
1974
1974
1974
1974
2014
Get the entire All the Light LitChart as a printable PDF.
All the light we cannot see.pdf.medium

Fate, Duty, and Free Will Quotes in All the Light We Cannot See

Below you will find the important quotes in All the Light We Cannot See related to the theme of Fate, Duty, and Free Will.
Three (June 1940): Don’t Tell Lies Quotes

“It’s not forever, Jutta. Two years, maybe. Half the boys who get admitted don’t manage to graduate. But maybe I’ll learn something; maybe they’ll teach me to be a proper engineer. Maybe I can learn to fly an airplane, like little Siegfried says. Don’t shake your head, we’ve always wanted to see the inside of an airplane, haven’t we? I’ll fly us west, you and me, Frau Elena too if she wants. Or we could take a train. We’ll ride through forests and villages de montagnes, all those places Frau Elena talked about when we were small. Maybe we could ride all the way to Paris.” The burgeoning light. The tender hissing of the grass. Jutta opens her eyes but doesn’t look at him. “Don’t tell lies. Lie to yourself, Werner, but don’t lie to me.”

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig (speaker), Jutta Pfennig (speaker), Frau Elena
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Werner--who's just been accepted into a prestigious Nazi military academy--tries to justify his attendance at the school to his sister, Jutta, who's going to remain at the orphanage. Werner argues that his military education will be invaluable for his career: he could learn to be an engineer. Werner even suggests that he could use his training to fly Jutta out of the country. Jutta then accuses Werner of lying to himself.

It's important to understand what Jutta means when she calls her brother a liar. Werner seems convinced that he'll become a great engineer, someone who can use his intelligence and training for his own advantage. Jutta suggests that the opposite is true: Werner will be trained to become a cog in the Nazi military machine--he won't have any more freedom than anyone else in the party.

In an even broader sense, one could say that Werner is so blinded by his scientific curiosity and ambition that he can't see the obvious truth: his scientific training at the academy will imprison him, not set him free. Jutta always acts as Werner's voice of conscience in the novel, and here she points out the fact that science can never be divorced from morality and "real life"—Werner might learn important skills, but he will in the process be using these skills to help an evil cause.

A+

Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other All the Light We Cannot See quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!
Three (June 1940): Weakest Quotes

The fastest cadet is lunging for the back of the boy’s shirt. He almost has him. Black-haired Ernst is going to be caught, and Werner wonders if some part of him wants it to happen. But the boy makes it to the commandant a split second before the others come pounding past.

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig , Ernst
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Werner and his peers are training at the Nazi military academy. Their commander, a sadistic man, orders the slowest and weakest of the students--an unfortunate boy named Ernst--to run as fast as he can. Then, the commander orders Werner and the other students to chase Ernst--if Ernst can make it across the field before being caught, he'll be allowed to stay in school; if not he'll be dismissed (and, it's assumed, attacked by the other students).

The scene is important because it shows Werner beginning to be seduced by Nazi propaganda. Werner isn't an evil person, but he gets caught up in the thrill of competition, and even notices himself wanting to catch Ernst, rather than rooting for him to succeed in staying in school. The fact that Ernst is black-haired suggests that Werner has even begun to believe the Nazi myth of Aryan superiority: he's come to think that dark-complexioned people are inferior.

Three (June 1940): Blackbirds Quotes

Why always triangles? What is the purpose of the transceiver they are building? What two points does Hauptmann know, and why does he need to know the third? “It’s only numbers, cadet,” Hauptmann says, a favorite maxim. “Pure math. You have to accustom yourself to thinking that way.”

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig (speaker), Dr. Hauptmann (speaker)
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Werner works closely with his teacher, Professor Hauptmann. Hauptmann is a talented physicist who takes time out of his schedule to teach Werner the finer points of engineering, recognizing that Werner is a smart, ambitious young man. In the quotation, Hauptmann teaches Werner how to plan coordinates for Nazi soldiers, and ignores Werner's question about what the coordinates are for.

Hauptmann's mantra, "It's only numbers," is his way of telling Werner to ignore the horrors of war itself and focus on his job. In truth, Werner and Hauptmann are using their mathematical training to find enemy radio stations, which the Nazis then proceed to destroy. In short, Werner's intelligence and scientific turn of mind are being corrupted and put to use for the Fascist cause. Hauptmann seems ill-equipped to consider the lives he's endangering by working for the Nazis: he seems not to want to think about the war, either. Generally speaking, the passage shows the fallacy of embracing "pure science"--one must also consider the real-world ends for which science is being used, or risk doing immoral things (such as aiding the Nazis).

Four (8 August 1944): Atelier de Réparation Quotes

Atelier de réparation, thinks Werner, a chamber in which to make reparations. As appropriate a place as any. Certainly there would be people in the world who believe these three have reparations to make.

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig (speaker), Frank Volkheimer , Walter Bernd
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

In 1944, Werner and his fellow soldiers are stationed in France. During a bombing by the Allied air force, Werner and his peers are trapped below the ground in a small, dark room--the atelier de réparation (basically, a repair room). Werner notes the irony that he's trapped in a room intended for "reparations" (i.e., payments). In a moral sense, Werner and his fellow Nazis certainly have reparations to make--they have to atone for the crimes they've committed against innocent people.

Werner's thinking in this scene suggests that he's fully aware of the sins he's committed as a Nazi. Based on his experiences in the military academy, one might think that Werner truly believed that he was doing the right thing by joining the Nazi army. Instead, it seems that Werner was lying to himself all along: he recognizes that he was committing war crimes by working for the Nazis. Trapped below the ground, Werner seems to be condemned to a version of hell--beneath the earth, he's forced to relive his horrific crimes again and again.

Five (January 1941): January Recess Quotes

“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.”

Related Characters: Frederick (speaker), Werner Pfennig
Page Number: 223
Explanation and Analysis:

Werner's friend Frederick, a fellow student at the Nazi military academy, has a conversation with Werner. Werner tells Frederick that he has ambitions of becoming a great scientist or engineer. Frederick's sad reply, quoted here, suggests that Werner is too willing to believe in his own individual freedom and agency. Werner, we've already seen, believes that he'll be allowed to use his military training and engineering skills for his own ends. Nevertheless, as we've already seen (in the scenes set in 1944), the opposite is true: Werner will be forced to use his abilities for other people's ends: most of all, Hitler's.

Frederick's words in this quotation are supposed to remind us of the speech that Werner's sister Jutta gave him before he left for military school. Just as Jutta accused Werner of lying to himself, Frederick calls out Werner's delusions of control and freedom. Werner is more willing than his peers to believe that he's headed for a bright future, because he's the very image of an Aryan: light blond hair and blue eyes. Frederick, a bespectacled, nerdy boy, isn't so naive about the Nazi regime: he knows that everyone is a slave to Hitler and his Fascist regime.

Five (January 1941): Prisoner Quotes

Bastian steps forward. His face flares scarlet in the cold. “Give him another.”
Again Frederick sloshes it onto the ice at his feet. He says in a small voice, “He is already finished, sir.”
The upperclassman hands over a third pail. “Throw it,” commands Bastian. The night steams, the stars burn, the prisoner sways, the boys watch, the commandant tilts his head. Frederick pours the water onto the ground. “I will not.”

Related Characters: Frederick (speaker), Bastian (speaker)
Page Number: 229
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Frederick and his peers at the Nazi military academy are asked to torture a prisoner. One by one, the boys are ordered to empty a bucket of cold water on the prisoner's shivering, frail body. Each boy--including Werner--follows orders. but when it's time for Frederick to comply, he refuses, dumping his water on the ground.

Frederick's behavior is remarkable because it's one of the few times in the entire novel that a potential Nazi student refuses an order. Sociologists have written thousands of pages on what it must have been like to live in Germany during the 1940s: peer pressure and the fear of disobedience led millions of "normal" Germans to commit or sanction atrocious crimes. But Frederick's actions prove that it was possible for normal, everyday people to exercise their own moral values rather than complying with orders—but only if they were willing to deal with the consequences. As we'll see, soon after this Frederick is beaten to the point that he loses his sanity.

Five (January 1941): Intoxicated Quotes

Mostly he misses Jutta: her loyalty, her obstinacy, the way she always seems to recognize what is right.
Though in Werner’s weaker moments, he resents those same qualities in his sister. Perhaps she’s the impurity in him, the static in his signal that the bullies can sense. Perhaps she’s the only thing keeping him from surrendering totally.

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig (speaker), Jutta Pfennig (speaker)
Related Symbols: Radio
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Werner begins to resent his beloved sister, Jutta. As Werner sees it now, Jutta partly represents everything he is trying to suppress about himself: his natural "weakness" (which we recognize as kindness), his innate sense of right and wrong, etc.

Werner's thoughts in this quotation walk a fine line between ignorance and willful denial. On one hand, Werner seems to genuinely believe that he's doing the "right" thing by trying to become the perfect Nazi--he sees his weakness and compassion as barriers to being a good soldier and a good servant of the Nazi regime. And yet on some level, Werner seems completely aware that what he's doing is morally wrong on every level--it's no coincidence that he thinks of his service to the Reich as a form of "surrender." Werner knows, deep down, that by becoming a Nazi he's surrendering everything that matters to him, including his curiosity and his love for his sister. Not until 1944 will he be brave enough to admit his self-deception.

Five (January 1941): The Frog Cooks Quotes

“Do you know what happens, Etienne,” says Madame Manec from the other side of the kitchen, “when you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water?”
“You will tell us, I am sure.”
“It jumps out. But do you know what happens when you put the frog in a pot of cool water and then slowly bring it to a boil? You know what happens then?”
Marie-Laure waits. The potatoes steam.
Madame Manec says, “The frog cooks."

Related Characters: Great-Uncle Etienne LeBlanc (speaker), Madame Manec (speaker), Marie-Laure LeBlanc
Page Number: 285
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Etienne's servant, Madame Manec, tries to convince Etienne to help her oppose the Nazis in small but important ways. Manec wants to tamper with Nazi mail, send messages to soldiers fighting the Nazis, etc. Etienne refuses to help Manec--he's too afraid of the consequnces. Manec analogizes Etienne's caution to that of the proverbial frog in the pot of water. Her point is that human beings, like frogs, can be made to grow accustomed to even the most nightmarish of conditions, as long as things change little by little. In other words, Manec argues, Etienne is going to keep giving his tacit acceptance to Nazi atrocities, because he'll always be able to rationalize his indifference as "caution."

Manec's parable is relevant not only to the "Marie-Laure half" of the book, but also to the "Werner half." Werner is in Etienne's position: as a Nazi soldier, he witnesses increasingly horrific war crimes happening around him. But because he's slowly being acclimatized to such atrocities, Werner never protests what he sees--if, on the other hand, Werner arrived at the Nazi military academy and were immediately ordered to torture a prisoner, he would have left immediately, like a frog leaving a pot of boiling water.

Seven (August 1942): The Bridge Quotes

He says, “The war that killed your grandfather killed sixteen million others. One and a half million French boys alone, most of them younger than I was. Two million on the German side. March the dead in a single-file line, and for eleven days and eleven nights, they’d walk past our door. This is not rearranging street signs, what we’re doing, Marie. This is not misplacing a letter at the post office. These numbers, they’re more than numbers. Do you understand?”
“But we are the good guys. Aren’t we, Uncle?”
“I hope so. I hope we are.”

Related Characters: Marie-Laure LeBlanc (speaker), Great-Uncle Etienne LeBlanc (speaker), Henri LeBlanc
Page Number: 360
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Etienne takes his place alongside Marie-Laure as an opponent of the Nazi occupation in France. Etienne and Marie-Laure will work together to oppose the Nazis in any way they can. Although their actions may seem small and insignificant, Etienne explains, he and Marie-Laure are actually taking a major step toward defeating the Germans. By sending radio broadcasts to other enemies of the Nazis, Etienne and Marie-Laure will effectively be killing Nazi soldiers.

As the passage shows, Etienne doesn't take his responsibility lightly. As a man who lived through World War One, he's reluctant to kill anyone, whether on the enemy side or not. Indeed, Etienne questions whether he's doing the right thing by opposing the Nazis at all.

Etienne's questions may seem odd--it's easy to say that the French were "good" and the Nazis were "evil." Paradoxically, the very fact that Etienne stops to question his own actions suggests that he really is doing good by opposing the Nazis. The merits of Etienne's approach to Nazi resistance become clear if we contrast his behavior with Werner's. Where Werner is ordered, again and again, to focus on "pure numbers," Etienne knows very well that his radio coordinates are "more than numbers"--they're directions sending human beings to their deaths. And while Werner's commanders never discuss the morality of what they're doing, except in the blandest terms, Etienne is genuinely thoughtful about his service. In short, the very fact that Etienne wonders if he's doing wrong suggests that he's not.

Seven (August 1942): White City Quotes

Volkheimer who always makes sure there is food for Werner. Who brings him eggs, who shares his broth, whose fondness for Werner remains, it seems, unshakable…

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig , Frank Volkheimer
Page Number: 366
Explanation and Analysis:

Werner has been shipped out to fight for the Nazi army in Russia. During his time in Russia, Werner witnesses the Nazi soldiers committing terrible crimes against their enemies. And yet Werner also sees Nazis showing remarkable kindness. One soldier, Volkheimer, takes good care of Werner--sacrificing his own happiness for Werner's sake again and again. It's strange to think that the same soldier who's so tender to his friends can be so brutal to his enemies.

Volkheimer's behavior in this passage suggests how thoroughly the Nazis have trained their soldiers to do evil. Even Volkheimer, someone who seems like a highly moral, responsible man, shows no signs of protesting when he's ordered to kill women and children on the opposing side of the war. Nazi propaganda is so strong and pervasive that it compels its soldiers to do evil while believing that they're doing good.

Werner waits for the child to blink. Blink, he thinks, blink blink blink. Already Volkheimer is closing the closet door, though it won’t close all the way because the girl’s foot is sticking out of it, and Bernd is covering the woman on the bed with a blanket, and how could Neumann Two not have known, but of course he didn’t, because that is how things are with Neumann Two, with everybody in this unit, in this army, in this world, they do as they’re told, they get scared, they move about with only themselves in mind. Name me someone who does not.

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig , Frank Volkheimer , Neumann Two
Page Number: 368
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Werner has directed his fellow soldiers to a house, where, he believes, a family is hiding a radio. When Werner and his fellow troops arrive at the house, they find no evidence of a radio of any kind. Before the troops leave, a soldier, Neumann Two, is startled and shoots a child. Werner then watches the body of the dead child in horror.

Werner's behavior in this scene makes it clear that he feels personally responsible for the child's death. By calculating the location of the secret radio--a location that, it quickly becomes clear, was improperly calculated--Werner allows Neumann Two and the other soldiers to murder innocent women and children. If there is a silver lining in this scene, it's the fact that Werner seems totally aware of his situation: he's aware that as a Nazi soldier, he's ordered to obey, look out for himself, and repress any feelings of guilt or compassion. In short, the Nazi "facade" is cracking--Werner is beginning to see how corrupt and hypocritical his Fascist orders have been all along.

Nine (May 1944): The Girl Quotes

Neumann One raises a single steady hand. His mouth is expressionless, but in the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, Werner can see despair. “In the end,” murmurs Volkheimer as the truck heaves away, “none of us will avoid it.”

Related Characters: Frank Volkheimer (speaker), Werner Pfennig , Neumann One
Page Number: 424
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Volkheimer, the commander of Werner's corp, sends Neumann One and Neumann Two to the front line, where the German army badly needs reinforcements. The soldiers are terrified, but Volkheimer insists that they're going to face the same fate that everyone will experience in the end.

Volkheimer, it would seem, is saying that Neumann One and Neumann Two are going to the front lines to die--a fate that everybody experiences in the end, and which Volkheimer and Werner will probably experience very shortly. The mood of the passage is quiet and hopeless: the fact that the German front lines are now begging for reinforcements is a sign that the German war effort is crumbling away--it's pretty clear now that the Allies are going to win the war. In no small part, the passage is so hopeless because it conveys a sense of fatalism: the idea that people have no control over their destinies. Werner began his military career believing that he could use his engineering training to freely choose a future for himself. But now, at the end of the war, his traumatizing experiences in battle have taught him that there's no such thing as freedom--people have no choice in the face of the vast movements of war and history.

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."