Marie-Laure hears the sound of fighting as she sits on the other side of the wardrobe’s secret entrance. There is a cry, followed by the smell of smoke and steam. Then, there’s silence, followed by hesitant footsteps. Marie-Laure can sense someone standing on the other side of the wardrobe, trying to enter it.
In the climactic moments of the novel, Doerr reminds us of the infinitude of perspectives in the world. In a way, he’s reminding us of the challenges he faces as a writer: in a novel with many important characters, he has to choose whose perspective to use to narrate a scene. Doerr, ever ambitious, chooses to narrate this chapter from many different perspectives. Thus we never see exactly what happens to von Rumpel—though it’s strongly implied that Werner shoots him here.
At the same instant that Marie-Laure is listening to all this, Volkheimer is walking down the streets of Saint-Malo, looking desperately for food. Also in this instance, Etienne is being marched out of the Fort National by a German soldier, thinking that if he and Marie-Laure survive this day, they’ll move to the rainforests. Three hundred miles away, von Rumpel’s wife is going to Mass with her two young daughters.
Doerr notes the narrative inconsistency of the world itself: at any given instant, countless stories are being played out at once, some comic, some tragic, some without any plot at all. With this in mind, there can be no real “happy” or “sad” endings—the only emotionally true realism is one that depicts the complexity and chaos of the world, while also showing how humans struggle to make sense of it, and to love and live within it.
We return to the wardrobe. Werner can sense someone just a few inches away from him, on the other side of the wooden barrier. He whispers, in French, “Are you there?”
Doerr ends this chapter—in one sense, a poignant short story hidden in a long novel—with an apt symbol for the divide between all human beings: two strangers, connected through small but vital circumstances, on opposite sides of a heavy physical barrier.