All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See


Anthony Doerr

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All the Light We Cannot See Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Anthony Doerr

Anthony Doerr was born in Cleveland, and studied history at Bowdoin College in Maine. After graduating in 1995, he went on to the MFA program at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Doerr earned much attention at Bowling Green for his short stories, and in 2002 he succeeded in publishing a collection of his work, The Shell Collector. He followed this collection with Memory Wall, another story collection. Doerr’s stories won many impressive honors during the 2000s, including four O. Henry Prizes—often thought to be the most prestigious awards given for short fiction in the United States. Doer also wrote a novel during the 2000s, About Grace, which was well received, but didn’t sell particularly well. In 2014, he published his second novel, All the Light We Cannot See, his most critically acclaimed and commercially successful book. The novel was a national bestseller for many weeks, and won Doerr the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. At the moment, Doerr is a writer in residence at Iowa University, usually considered America’s best creative writing school. He has a wife and two twin sons.
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Historical Context of All the Light We Cannot See

There is too much history in All the Light We Cannot See to describe in much detail. However, the most important historical event in the novel is World War II. Between 1939 and 1945, Europe was locked in a long and brutal war between the Axis Powers—the Fascist states of Germany and Italy—and the Allied Powers, including England, France, and eventually the U.S. During this period, Italy and Germany ruled their own people with an iron fist. The most infamous example of Fascist authoritarianism remains the Holocaust. Beginning in the late 1930s, Germany began isolating Jews, Romani people, disabled people, and homosexuals, first forcing them to wear identification at all times, then forcing them to live in designated areas, and finally, in 1942, sending them to labor camps to be murdered. Germans in particular were taught to celebrate the racial ideal: the tall, blond, blue-eyed Aryan. (In the novel, Werner Pfennig is much praised for his piercing blue eyes and light blond hair.) In all, as many as 21 million people were killed in the Holocaust, including at least 6 million Jews. To this day, the legacy of Fascism and the Holocaust remain the cause of tremendous trauma, guilt, and shame for Germany, and for Europe as a whole. Another side of World War II that’s worth discussing in the context of the novel is the French Resistance. In 1940, Germany invaded France, forcing French citizens to submit to German authority. While most French citizens agreed to abide by German laws, largely out of fear for their safety and their families’ safety, there were resistance groups (many of whom were led by Charles de Gaulle, still celebrated as a hero in France) who used force to fight the Germans in France. While the French Resistance remains a point of great pride for France to this day, France didn’t succeed in defeating the German invaders until after 1944, when the United States and England invaded France and sent an army through the country to fight the Germans.

Other Books Related to All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See explicitly alludes to many novels, most notably Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (1873), and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870). Jules Verne is often considered one of the founders of modern science fiction, and his books are characterized by an unshakeable optimism in the power of science and technology, an optimism which Marie-Laure comes to share after reading Verne’s books. Doerr’s book also alludes to many other important literary works via its structure. The novel has “two plots”—one with Werner Pfennig as the main character, and one with Marie-Laure LeBlanc as the main character—that come together toward the end. In this regard, the novel has been compared to such 19th century Victorian works as Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853) and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876), both of which feature two loosely connected plots. Doerr’s interest in complexly interconnecting stories has also been studied in the context of other similarly structured books written in the 21st century, such as Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed (2013), which, coincidentally, also chronicles the experiences of a group of people over the course of a tumultuous historical era, and ends with a young girl growing into an old woman.
Key Facts about All the Light We Cannot See
  • Full Title: All the Light We Cannot See
  • Where Written: Ohio and New Zealand
  • When Published: May 6, 2014
  • Literary Period: The “everything is connected” trend of 21st century fiction
  • Genre: Historical drama, “two-plot” novel
  • Setting: Saint-Malo and Paris (France), and Berlin and Essen (Germany), between the 1930s and 2014.
  • Climax: Werner Pfennig meets Marie-Laure LeBlanc in the wardrobe and saves her life.
  • Point of View: Third person, mostly present tense

Extra Credit for All the Light We Cannot See

Big Money: On top of winning critical and popular acclaim for All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr has won the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, which features the single largest prize given for short story writing: 45,000 dollars.

Look out, Hollywood: In May 2015, a major Hollywood studio “optioned” All the Light We Cannot See, meaning that the story is likely to be made into a feature film in the next few years.