All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See

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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.
Interconnectedness and Separation Theme Icon

All the Light We Cannot See is written in an unusual style. The novel consists of almost two hundred chapters (no more than two or three pages each), narrated in the present tense, usually from the perspectives of Werner Pfennig, a German boy, or Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a French girl. For the majority of the book, these two plots aren’t connected in any strong way—it’s only toward the end that Werner and Marie-Laure meet, and even then, their meeting is surprisingly short. It’s worth thinking about the implications of Doerr’s style, and how it echoes the content of the novel itself.

One reason that Doerr writes his novel in this way is to modestly acknowledge the impossibility of telling a story “about” World War II. The novel makes clear that Werner and Marie-Laure are just two people out of millions who lived through the war, each with a unique story to tell. The lives of Marie-Laure and Werner are important, of course, but they’re not the entire story of the war. In fact, the small, intimate nature of Werner and Marie-Laure’s experiences—the fact that their lives are relatively unimportant to history—makes the two plots more poignant. When an explosion kills Werner at the end of the novel, we experience this as a tragedy, while also recognizing that Werner’s cruel, meaningless death is only a microscopic part of the total tragedy of the war.

This points to another important reason why Doerr chooses to write a “two-plot novel”: such a book is simply a more realistic depiction of what life is like. In an ordinary book, a small number of characters interact with one another: there are main characters, secondary characters, etc. In this novel, however, the distinction between main and secondary breaks down. A character who’s important to Marie-Laure’s story, such as Etienne, her great-uncle, is relatively unimportant to Werner’s story, and vice-versa. By the same token, small details in one person’s life can be hugely important in another person’s life. In general, all people—even distant strangers—are connected with one another via these small details, in ways that are too complicated to be understood easily. Doerr’s novel climaxes when Marie-Laure and Werner—two people who come from different countries, and don’t know each other at all—realize that they do have something in common: years before, Werner fell in love with the radio broadcasts made by Marie-Laure’s grandfather, Henri. In a large, complicated universe, coincidences like this are likely to occur, even if we don’t see most of them.

By the time Marie-Laure and Werner meet each other, we’ve been anticipating the event for hundreds of pages—but the emotional connection between Werner and Marie-Laure is spare and short-lived. The tragic irony of All the Light We Cannot See is that Werner and Marie-Laure part ways almost as soon as they’ve introduced themselves. We as readers want them to get to know each other, but the circumstances simply don’t allow it. Soon afterwards, Werner is killed by a land mine. Marie-Laure lives a long, productive life, but she shows no signs of knowing Werner—indeed, in the final chapter of the book, set in 2014, she thinks of him as a spirit walking the streets of Paris, unable to communicate with her.

From the beginning, Doerr suggests that his characters’ lives may be insignificant in the grand scheme of history, but that doesn’t make them any less important or powerful as human stories. Furthermore, Doerr implies that Werner’s life is also relatively unimportant in the “grand scheme” of Marie-Laure’s life, and vice versa. Werner may save Marie-Laure’s life, but this doesn’t mean that Marie-Laure spends the rest of her life contemplating her savior. The brevity and fragility of the emotional bond between Marie-Laure and Werner, then, makes the connection between them even more powerful.

There are many books with multiple storylines, but what distinguishes All the Light We Cannot See from most of these books is that the two plots in Doerr’s novel largely remain separate. Werner and Marie-Laure live out parallel lives, but in the end they’re not united—their lives merely overlap in small, often barely discernible ways. While this may seem frustrating and dramatically unsatisfying, it’s a sign of Doerr’s commitment to a realistic view of how the world works—even if he achieves this realism through often fantastical ways. The millions of “plots” on the planet may be interconnected, but these connections often go unnoticed, and, in the end, they’re still separate.

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Interconnectedness and Separation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Interconnectedness and Separation appears in each chapter of All the Light We Cannot See. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Interconnectedness and Separation 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 Interconnectedness and Separation.
Zero (August 7, 1944): Number 4 rue Vauborel Quotes

Marie-Laure twists the chimney of the miniature house ninety degrees. Then she slides off three wooden panels that make up its roof, and turns it over. A stone drops into her palm. It’s cold. The size of a pigeon’s egg. The shape of a teardrop. Marie-Laure clutches the tiny house in one hand and the stone in the other. The room feels flimsy, tenuous. Giant fingertips seem about to punch through its walls. “Papa?” she whispers.

Related Characters: Marie-Laure LeBlanc (speaker), Daniel LeBlanc
Related Symbols: The Sea of Flames, The Models of Paris and Saint-Malo
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Marie-Laure--trapped in a house in a town that's about to be bombed by airplanes--stumbles upon a precious stone, hidden inside a tiny model of the house. The passage is especially confusing, considering that at this point in the book, we have no idea what the stone is, who Marie-Laure's father is, why she's trapped in the house, etc. Essentially, the passage is like a "cold-open" in a TV show--it draws our attention because we need to lean in just to figure out what's going on.

One important thing to notice about the passage, even before we're aware what's going on, is that Marie-Laure draws a connection between the stone and her father; she seems to feel his presence, even when he's nowhere in sight. The ambiguous presence of Marie-Laure's father, Daniel, points to an ongoing theme of the book--the sense of deep, uncertain longing that family members feel for one another. Notice as well the analogy Doerr draws between the tiny house being pried open by Marie-Laure's fingers, and the literal house seeming to be pried open by "giant fingertips." Right away, Doerr is implying a connection between the tiny house and the house itself--perhaps suggesting that Marie-Laure (and we, the readers) can learn about big, complicated historical events by studying tiny, model-size objects like the model house.

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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.

One (1934): Open Your Eyes Quotes

The voice, the piano again. Perhaps it’s Werner’s imagination, but each time he hears one of the programs, the quality seems to degrade a bit more, the sound growing fainter: as though the Frenchman broadcasts from a ship that is slowly traveling farther away.

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig , Henri LeBlanc
Related Symbols: Radio
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

As Werner listens to the old man's radio broadcast, he has the strange sense that the man's voice is getting a little fainter. Werner has no idea--and neither do we until page 300--that in fact, the man's voice is fading away: he's long since died, and the voice Werner is listening to over the radio is being played on the same record, which is slowly deteriorating.

On a metaphorical level, the quotation points to the tragedy of interconnectedness. Werner thinks that he feels a deep, intimate connection with the man--and yet this connection was only ever tenuous at best, and it is now disappearing, very slowly. By the same token, all human connections, it would seem--the connection between a father and son; a brother and sister, etc.--are destined to vanish over time. Doerr leaves it up to the reader to decide if it's true that all connections are short-lived, or if it's possible for a connection between two human beings to somehow stand the tests of troubles and time.

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.

Three (June 1940): The Professor Quotes

“But I wasn’t trying to reach England. Or Paris. I thought that if I made the broadcast powerful enough, my brother would hear me. That I could bring him some peace, protect him as he had always protected me.”
“You’d play your brother’s own voice to him? After he died?”
“And Debussy.”
“Did he ever talk back?”
The attic ticks. What ghosts sidle along the walls right now, trying to overhear? She can almost taste her great-uncle’s fright in the air.
“No,” he says. “He never did.”

Related Characters: Marie-Laure LeBlanc (speaker), Great-Uncle Etienne LeBlanc (speaker)
Related Symbols: Radio
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Marie-Laure's Great-Uncle, Etienne explains to Marie-Laure that he once had a brother, Henri, who went away to war. Etienne tried his hardest to get in contact with his brother, despite the fact that he eventually realized that his brother was dead. Etienne then used his radio equipment to broadcast the scientific lectures his brother made years before. We, the readers, recognize that these radio broadcasts are the same ones that Werner heard on his radio, years before.

In short, Etienne's broadcasts have had an impact on the world, but not in the way Etienne wanted them to. Instead of bringing Etienne's brother back from the grave, the broadcasts have sparked curiosity in someone else--a young German child. (It's ironic that during World War II, broadcasts meant for a Frenchman ended up inspiring a German.) The ambiguous "failure" of Etienne's broadcasts points to the unknowability of life. Our actions have enormous consequences (the broadcasts changed the course of Werner's life, after all, and eventually inspire him to save Marie-Laure's life), but these consequences are rarely the ones we envision or intend. All human communication is complex, fragile, and fleeting, but it also leads to connections like those explored in the novel.

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.

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.

Nine (May 1944): Sea of Flames Quotes

“Marie-Laure,” he says without hesitation. He squeezes her hand with both of his. “You are the best thing that has ever come into my life.”

Related Characters: Great-Uncle Etienne LeBlanc (speaker), Marie-Laure LeBlanc
Page Number: 431
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Etienne is about to go out of the house. Marie-Laure is aware that there's going to be an air raid very soon--therefore, Etienne is risking the possibility of becoming separated from Marie-Laure. Before Etienne leaves the house, Marie-Laure asks him if he regrets having to take care of her for so long, and Etienne replies that she's the best thing that ever happened to him.

It's worth asking why, precisely, Marie-Laure has been so good for Etienne. In part, Marie-Laure's energy, curiosity, and devotion to the French Resistance have given Etienne something to live for: a new sense of wonder, and a noble cause to fight for. Prior to receiving Marie-Laure, Etienne was a lonely, paranoid old man, obsessed with the memory of his dead brother and afraid to go outside. Inspired by Marie-Laure, Etienne has become a passionate opponent of the Nazis in France. Etienne has chosen to fight the Nazis largely because he wants to set a good example for Marie-Laure--it's only because of her encouragement that he decides to make anti-Nazi radio broadcasts after Madame Manec's death. The link between Etienne's newfound bravery and Marie-Laure's presence is made crystal clear when Etienne discovers that Marie-Laure is missing from the house--although he's a major agoraphobe, he summons the courage to leave the house and goes looking for her.

Ten (12 August 1944): Comrades Quotes

“The cease-fire is scheduled for noon, or so they say,” von Rumpel says in an empty voice. “No need to rush. Plenty of time.” He jogs the fingers of one hand down a miniature street. “We want the same thing, you and I, Private. But only one of us can have it. And only I know where it is. Which presents a problem for you. Is it here or here or here or here?”

Related Characters: Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel (speaker), Werner Pfennig
Related Symbols: The Sea of Flames
Page Number: 464
Explanation and Analysis:

In this climactic scene, the villainous von Rumpel surprises Werner Pfennig inside Etienne's house. Von Rumpel has come to the house to find the famous jewel, the Sea of Flames, that's supposedly hidden somewhere inside. Although Werner has only come to the house to save Marie-Laure's life, von Rumpel naturally assumes that he's looking for the jewel, too.

The contrast between von Rumpel and Werner in this scene--the former a parody of Fascist greed, the latter a heroic individual, endangering his life to save Marie-Laure's--makes it clear how much Werner has changed since arriving in France. For a long time, Werner appeared to be headed down the path of corruption: he seemed to be enjoying being a Nazi, are at least felt that he has "surrendered" his will to the cause. But recently, Werner has remembered his youthful innocence--a mental transformation caused when he rediscovers the radio broadcasts he listened to as a child. Reminded of a time in his life when he was neither a soldier nor a murderer, he summons the courage to protect other people.

Ten (12 August 1944): Cease-fire Quotes

She reaches for his hand, sets something in his palm, and squeezes his hand into a fist. “Goodbye, Werner.”
“Goodbye, Marie-Laure.”
Then she goes. Every few paces, the tip of her cane strikes a broken stone in the street, and it takes a while to pick her way around it. Step step pause. Step step again. Her cane testing, the wet hem of her dress swinging, the white pillowcase held aloft. He does not look away until she is through the intersection, down the next block, and out of sight.

Related Characters: Marie-Laure LeBlanc (speaker), Werner Pfennig (speaker)
Page Number: 477
Explanation and Analysis:

In this beautiful but frustrating scene, Werner--who's just saved Marie-Laure from being murdered by the villainous von Rumpel, leads Marie-Laure through the city to an area where she'll hopefully be safer. After more than 500 pages, the two "halves" of the novel--Werner's half and Marie-Laure's half--have finally merged into one story. But instead of staying together, Werner and Marie-Laure separate almost immediately, and never see one another again.

In this passage Doerr teases us, frustrating our expectations for how "two-plot" novels are supposed to end. Instead of culminating in a happy reunion between the two protagonists, his novel splits in half once again. Doerr's point seems to be that interpersonal connection and unity is always temporary and unpredictable. If even a close relationship between a father and his daughter is subject to the chaos of World War II, then there's simply no reason that a chance encounter between Werner and Marie-Laure should span out into anything more. Moreover, the passage challenges our notions of fate. In this "two-plot" novel, Doerr has implied that Marie-Laure and Werner are "destined" to meet one another and stay together--such an ending would be satisfying in a conventional narrative way. But because Doerr wants to challenge our ideas about destiny, he doesn't offer anything like a predictable ending. Werner and Marie-Laure meet once, and that's all--in a chaotic world, there's no reason they should ever meet again.

Thirteen (2014) Quotes

He kisses her once on each cheek. “Until next week, Mamie.”
She listens until his footsteps fade. Until all she can hear are the sighs of cars and the rumble of trains and the sounds of everyone hurrying through the cold.

Related Characters: Michel (speaker), Marie-Laure LeBlanc
Page Number: 530
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final scene of the novel, Marie-Laure, now an old woman, meets with her beloved grandson, Michel, and they spend the day together in Paris. Eventually, Michel says goodbye to his grandmother and walks away into the distance. Because Marie-Laure is blind, she listens carefully until she can't hear him any longer.

It's important to note that the novel ends with a scene of interpersonal disconnection and connection. After a few moments, Marie-Laure can no longer sense her beloved grandson at all. And yet her memories of her grandson--and the certainty that she'll see him again soon--live on even after he's far away from her. Marie-Laure is both close and far away from Michel.

By pairing connection and disconnection, the novel ends on a note of ambiguity. Many of the relationships between characters in the novel have "faded away," like the noise of Michel's footsteps fading into the distance. And yet the characters' memories of these relationships have remained strong: Marie-Laure continues to remember her father; Jutta remembers Werner, etc. Perhaps Doerr's point is that while human beings will always be distanced from one another, thanks to war, tragedy, and the basic unpredictability of life, they will also always be close to one another, so long as they have their memories and the methods of communication and connection.