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.
Science and “Ways of Seeing” ThemeTracker
Science and “Ways of Seeing” 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.