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
Fate, Duty, and Free Will Quotes in All the Light We Cannot See
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“Your problem, Werner,” says Frederick, “is that you still believe you own your life.”
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.”
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.
“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."
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.”
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…
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.
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.”
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.