What is an analysis of All the Light We Cannot See?

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corinnedolci eNotes educator| Certified Educator

All The Light We Cannot See is a lyrical and complex piece of historical fiction. As such, there are many ways to go about analyzing it. 

One way to approach the novel is through the title. Invisible light is a powerful motif within the novel. A motif is an idea or image that is repeated throughout the story. At the start, the title seems to be a simple reference to Marie-Laure's blindness. The light that cannot be seen is, in effect, the light she is blinded to because of her debilitating cataracts. As the story progresses, the light that cannot be seen takes on many forms: the radio waves transmitted from Etienne in France to Werner's radio in Germany, the acts of kindness between everyday citizens in wartime, the hope Marie-Laure maintains for her father's whereabouts, and the mysterious energy possessed by the diamond called the Sea of Flames. As physical light can be bent and warped to shape reality, so too is Anthony Doerr's light manipulated to represent both simple and complex relationships in the novel. Because light symbolizes optimism and hope, the use of light as a motif allows the novel to maintain an optimistic tone despite the darkness of the events therein.

Another approach is to consider the role of mythology within historical fiction. Anthony Doerr chose to set his novel during well-documented and well-remembered moments in history, such as the German invasion of France and the British liberation of France. Within this construct, Doerr not only presents a fictionalized story, but he also includes the Sea of Flames diamond as a legend therein. The diamond, enormous and beautiful, brings immortality to its possessor but disaster to the possessor's family. This myth provides a thematic query for any reader to ponder: is it better to have one's own health and happiness, or that of one’s loved ones? 

This becomes a critical question that each character, in turn, must address over the course of the novel. For example, Etienne must decide if he is willing to risk his own safety (leaving the house, in his shell-shocked state) to confirm that Marie-Laure still lives. Marie-Laure must decide if she is willing to risk her safety for the residents of Saint-Malo when she chooses to engage in espionage. Most interestingly, this is a question Werner faces a number of times. Initially, he chooses to destroy the radio he shares with his sister, and her happiness, in exchange for his own safety within Germany as the Nazi party comes to power. In the end (spoiler alert!), he risks his own safety to ensure Marie-Laure is able to leave Saint-Malo safely.

There are many more ways to analyze the novel. You can explore Doerr's use of metaphors or any other literary device. It can also be interesting to compare and contrast different characters, such as Werner and Marie-Laure.

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