All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See

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Science and “Ways of Seeing” 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.
Science and “Ways of Seeing” Theme Icon

All the important characters in All the Light We Cannot See are invested in a certain “way of seeing”—a worldview that allows them to make sense of the complex world. Sometimes, a character chooses one way of seeing in order to compensate for not having access to another. The clearest example of this is Marie-Laure, who turns to marine biology and reading largely because, as a blind person, she doesn’t have access to literal sight. But the novel also questions the limits of these ways of seeing—we’ll call them sciences—and examines just what they provide for their practitioners.

From early on, we grasp that “science” gives the characters in the novel a sense of confidence, optimism, and self-worth. By studying math and physics, Werner Pfennig thinks he is saving himself from a lifetime of menial labor in the mines of Essen. In much the same way, Marie-Laure trains herself to adapt to her blindness and walk through the streets by feeling a scale model of the town—an apt symbol for all the “ways of seeing” other than literal sight. In effect, Werner’s physics and Marie-Laure’s model accomplish the same thing: they train young, frightened children to master their fears by first studying a small-scale version of the universe, and eventually graduating to the universe itself.

But as the novel goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that “science” can be also twisted and manipulated. The Nazi pseudoscience Werner is taught at the National Institute—according to which blonde, blue-eyed Aryans are superior to the Jews—serves precisely the same purpose for the German nation that physics served for Werner. By subscribing to the myths of racial superiority, the people of Germany, led by Hitler, find an easily digestible worldview and a justification for their actions. Moreover, Werner and Marie-Laure discover that even “good” science—science that isn’t twisted or biased—has its limitations. Werner thinks that mastering physics and math will help him to understand the mysteries of the world, but as the novel goes on, Doerr shows that the opposite is true: Werner’s training in math simply can’t prepare him for the horrors of World War II. Indeed, by focusing too exclusively on pure science, Werner has blinded himself to the moral atrocities of the Nazi state: one way of seeing blocks another.

In the end, Doerr suggests that there is no way to achieve certainty through science—rationalism alone is incapable of understanding the world in all its complexity and volatility. Science seeks to explain using detached, idealistic rules, but in the end it can never keep up with the flaws and emotional turmoil of the real world. Doerr provides an apt symbol for this idea at the end of the book, when the town of Saint-Malo is in ruins, but Marie-Laure’s tiny model of the town is still standing. The science hasn’t changed, but the real world has.

This doesn’t mean that the novel suggests that it’s pointless to try to use science to understand the world—on the contrary, practicing science is portrayed as one of the quintessential human behaviors, and is the cause of much good. (If Werner hadn’t known about radio science, he wouldn’t have been able to save Marie-Laure’s life.) Rather, the novel suggests that we should accept that no single way of seeing could ever be complete. Science gives Marie-Laure and Werner a way of maturing, a way of conquering their fears, and even a way of escaping from the tragedy of their lives. (Think of Marie-Laure reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as she slowly starves to death.) The danger begins when people treat one kind of science as a rigid truth, or the ultimate solution to their problems.

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Science and “Ways of Seeing” ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Science and “Ways of Seeing” 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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Science and “Ways of Seeing” 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 Science and “Ways of Seeing”.
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): Something Rising Quotes

In the play, the invaders pose as hook-nosed department-store owners, crooked jewelers, dishonorable bankers; they sell glittering trash; they drive established village businessmen out of work. Soon they plot to murder German children in their beds. Eventually a vigilant and humble neighbor catches on. Police are called: big handsome-sounding policemen with splendid voices. They break down the doors. They drag the invaders away. A patriotic march plays. Everyone is happy again.

Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, told from the perspective of Werner Pfennig, a young German orphan, a theater troupe puts on a "play" for the children at Werner's orphanage. The play, we understand, is Nazi propaganda: designed to teach children, before they know any better, that Jews are frightening, loathsome creatures, who should be beaten and killed for their crimes. The words, "everyone is happy" convey the implausible, vanilla tone of the play: it's unrealistically cheerful in order to disguise the true brutality of anti-Semitism from the children.

The passage is important because it suggests that many of the people growing up in Nazi Germany aren't undeserving of sympathy. Some of those who would go on to fight on behalf of Adolph Hitler had been trained since before they could read to despise the Jews; the cruelty they showed the Jews was as much a product of their own ignorance as their sadism. Doerr certainly isn't trying to excuse the Nazis' actions, but by telling the story of a young, reluctant Nazi--Werner--he makes it clear that painting the Nazis as inhuman demons is overly simplistic--almost as simplistic as the anti-Semitic play from the passage.

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.

Three (June 1940): Entrance Exam Quotes

On the second morning, there are raciological exams. They require little of Werner except to raise his arms or keep from blinking while an inspector shines a penlight into the tunnels of his pupils. He sweats and shifts. His heart pounds unreasonably. An onion-breathed technician in a lab coat measures the distance between Werner’s temples, the circumference of his head, and the thickness and shape of his lips. Calipers are used to evaluate his feet, the length of his fingers, and the distance between his eyes and his navel. They measure his penis. The angle of his nose is quantified with a wooden protractor.

Related Characters: Werner Pfennig
Page Number: 113-114
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Werner is examined for entrance to a prestigious military academy. But as we can see, his examination has little if anything to do with his intelligence or bravery--the focal point of the exam is his Aryan appearance. The Nazis celebrated a certain racial ideal: the blond-haired, blue-eyed German. Werner, an extremely blond, blue-eyed boy, is a natural fit for the academy.

In a broader sense, the passage is important because it suggests that science and curiosity aren't necessarily tools for good. Werner has sought to measure and quantify the world, using the knowledge he's learned over the radio. Here, Werner himself is measured and quantified--an allusion to the way that the Nazis measured millions of German citizens, and (if they weren't Aryan, or didn't measure up in some crucial way) sent them to die in concentration camps. Science divorced from morality is all too easily twisted into Nazi pseudoscience.

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): 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).

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.

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."