By Gabrielle Swartzentruber
Light often symbolizes purity, innocence, truth, and is one of the most common natural phenomena in the universe. But what happens when light is taken for granted, or even taken away? In his award-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr plays with the concepts of light, darkness, blindness, and sight by contrasting the stories of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a teenage German soldier serving in World War II. Doerr’s novel not only points out glimpses of light in the roiling darkness of World War II, but also illuminates the sparks of light within humans who choose to show grace to each other against all odds. Light plays a role on biological, scientific, spiritual, and interpersonal levels in Doerr’s book.
On a biological level, Doerr experiments with light by portraying Marie-Laure as blind. By the time Marie-Laure is six, congenital cataracts completely obscure her vision, rendering her sight useless for the rest of her life (27). She is physically unable to see light and is comforted only by the faint memory of colors; she lives in a world of perpetual darkness that is only lightened by her curiosity to explore the world around her through touch and feeling. By depicting Marie-Laure as blind, Doerr can better draw attention to her inner naiveté and childish wonder, as well as her vulnerability. In sum, Marie Laure must rely on her other senses as well as the goodness and patience of her father to help her cope with her disability.
On a scientific level, Doerr states the brain is enclosed in darkness, yet can process light that enables the eye to recognize the world around it, which is explained in a radio broadcast on Werner’s favorite program (48). The brain can be compared to the German corps that Werner is obliged to serve. Like the brain, the German military controls the entire country and is situated in darkness, only suspended by the hope that by defeating the Allied Powers they can restore Germany’s ruined economy. Unlike the brain, however, the only shred of light that the German army possesses is soldiers like Werner who manage to keep their kindness intact and strive to do right. The surrounding ideological darkness of the German army stands in contrast to Werner, whose gentle nature even touches the hearts of the other soldiers in his squad.
On a spiritual level, Doerr plays with light by portraying Werner with a strong moral compass that illuminates Werner’s philosophies. This light is made clearer when the rest of the German soldiers are strictly following their training and callously murdering innocents as Werner contemplates the hopelessness of war and the apparent uselessness of beautiful things. This is especially seen when Frank Volkheimer, Werner’s sergeant, storms into a Russian home that supposedly houses an illegal radio, and kills the Russians while Werner waits in the truck outside the home. “It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world – what pretensions humans have!” (365). With each passing house that Volkheimer invades, Werner’s discomfort with the German army grows exponentially. By the time the Germans trek from Russia to France, Werner is so uncomfortable that he quietly betrays his comrades by covering up the fact that Marie Laure’s family owns an illegal radio, thus positioning himself as a sort of guardian angel over Marie Laure’s family. In other words, Werner internally abandons the radical German patriotism that has been drilled into him, and instead chooses to do what he believes is right by saving one family from destruction.
Doerr also shows light on an interpersonal level between Werner and Marie-Laure when he helps her evacuate the city of Saint-Malo in France before it is bombed. He takes her by the hand and helps her quickly pick her way around the rubble in the streets that Marie-Laure would not have been able to do by herself before the bombing started. In a touching intrusion of grace, Werner betrays his allies and forgets all of his military training to help a blind French girl get to safety before the Americans bombed Saint-Malo in order to flush out the Germans, Werner’s own men (475). This tender gesture seems to be the only good and beautiful act among the world riddled with fire and bombs.
In addition, crossing the streets of France together also seems to be an act of self-discovery for both Werner and Marie Laure. Throughout the novel, we see Werner struggle to decide what is right and wrong, who are his friends in the army and who are not, and whether to save lives or end them. After seeing his comrades kill thousands of innocent people, Werner takes his own action to counter that of his comrades by saving one girl’s life. For Marie-Laure, she has been struggling with her father’s abduction to a German prison camp and the one item that he left her: a small, supposedly cursed diamond that is said to kill everyone that the owner of the diamond cares about, but not the owner herself. Until she met Werner she has held onto the diamond, unable to let go of her last connection to her father, while she watches her town being burned around her own miraculously intact home. When Werner arrives at her house and offers to take her to safety before the bombing run commences, Marie-Laure accepts his offer, but grows more uneasy with each passing minute. Finally, she can stand it no more; instead of heading out of the city, Marie-Laure leads Werner to the ocean and throws the diamond into the water. She asks Werner twice if the diamond is in the water, trying to get her urgency across in French terms that Werner can understand. Werner, like the reader at this point, is confused, but does affirm that the diamond is in the ocean (476). I believe that when Marie-Laure casts the diamond, the last connection to her father, into the ocean, she allays her own fears about the cursed diamond’s ability to kill everyone around the owner, therefore assuring Werner’s safety. Only then does Marie-Laure feel ready to make the dangerous route out of the city with Werner. In sum, both Werner and Marie-Laure abandon something fundamentally important to them in order to show grace and kindness to each other.
Doerr’s novel is infused with luminous meaning, from the title itself to the minutiae of the character traits of his two protagonists. In American society today, we are not faced with a war with enemies attacking us from the outside, but rather a war where the enemies are attacking from the inside. The American people often speculate that our nation will not fall from the attacks initiated from other countries, but that our own bickering and inability to be civil to one another will be our downfall. In other words, our own staunch beliefs cause us to act intolerant towards others, especially in the realms of politics and religion. From this perspective, Doerr’s novel is encouraging, as Doerr subtly proposes that if two teenagers from opposite sides of the bloodiest war in modern history can show grace to each other, then we as fellow Americans can surely find the grace within ourselves to be kind toward each other. In sum, Doerr seems to suggest that simple acts of kindness can restore faith in humanity, sharing a small spark of light through the darkness.