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.
Interconnectedness and Separation ThemeTracker
Interconnectedness and Separation Quotes in All the Light We Cannot See
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.
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.”
“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?”
She reaches for his hand, sets something in his palm, and squeezes his hand into a fist. “Goodbye, Werner.”
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.
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.