All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr

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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1049

The most important theme in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is war and how it affects the lives of everyone it touches. A secondary theme that entwines with the first is the question of free will and whether the characters are truly free to make decisions about their own lives.

The horror of war and its effect on people is a primary theme in the novel, which opens with a description of leaflets falling from the sky in France, urging the people to leave town. Right away, Doerr makes it clear that war is going to be one of the primary factors that determine the movements and choices of his characters. After the introduction of the leaflets and bombers, Doerr introduces Marie-Laure, a sixteen-year-old blind girl who fled to Saint-Malo with her father from their home in France.

Marie-Laure's life is thrown into upheaval by the war. Her father taught her from ages ten to sixteen to understand and navigate her neighborhood, but the threat of invasion sent them to a new town.

Doerr doesn't look away when the horror of war affect civilians. One of the most harrowing passages is a description of what Jutta sees after the bombings in Germany. Doerr writes:

All spring the bombers come, every single night, their only goal seemingly to burn the city to its roots. Most nights the girls hurry to the end of the block and climb into a cramped shelter and are kept awake by the crashing of stonework.

Once in a while, on the walk to the factory, they see bodies, mummies turned to ash, people scorched beyond recognition. Other times, the corpses bear no apparent injuries, and it is these that fill Jutta with dread: people who look like they are a moment away from rising up and slogging back to work with the rest of them.

But they do not wake.

Once she sees a row of three children facedown, backpacks on their backs. Her first thought is: Wake up. Go to school. Then she thinks: There could be food in those packs.

The war affects everyone in some way, and Doerr makes that clear, because every character in the novel is touched by its horrors. Werner's skills are put to use and end in the deaths of various people; he has to become a soldier when in peacetime he may have had another option. In the end, he dies stepping on a landmine—a tool of war.

Etienne, for example, suffers from post-traumatic stress stemming from his service in World War I. He's unable to leave his house, only interacting with the world via his radio transmissions. When his maid becomes too ill to deliver messages for the French Resistance, he has to let blind Marie-Laure take over instead of doing it himself. War has literally trapped him in his own home, even years later. 

The same can be said for Marie-Laure and her father, who are both forced to leave their home and his job to reside in a town where they have neither. Marie-Laure has to learn an entirely new space to navigate. Daniel is sent to prison. 

Personal choice is shown most sharply in the character of Werner. He wants to use his talent for radios to do good things but is unable to choose his own course for a long time. He's forced to enter a technical school for people who will eventually work for the Nazis; he then joins the German Army and works with them to track down illegal radio transmissions. When his skills have negative consequences for the people he finds, he becomes more disillusioned.

The issue is brought into sharp focus by Frederick, a boy at school with Werner. He explains that their obligation to their country prevents them from making choices; "Your problem, Werner," says Frederick, "is that you still believe you own your life."

When he does make his own choice, it's to allow Etienne and Marie-Laure to keep broadcasting for the French Resistance. They're exactly the kind of transmissions he's tasked to stop, but he's charmed by Marie-Laure reading into the radio. He defies the orders given to him by his commanders and simply listens. Then he defies Von Rumpel and saves Marie-Laure. 

He convinces her to trust him. Marie-Laure thinks, "He is a ghost. He is from some other world. He is Papa, Madame Manec, Etienne; he is everyone who has left her finally coming back. Through the panel he calls, "I am not killing you. I am hearing you. On radio. Is why I come."

In the end, Werner declares that he has not lived his own life in years—but the day he rescued Marie-Laure, he finally did. 

Marie-Laure also struggles with making choices as she tries to decide what to do about the French Resistance and with the gem. She ultimately decides to join the resistance, running messages for her uncle's maid when she falls ill. She also joins her uncle's radio broadcast—which is what ultimately brings Werner to save her from Von Rumpel.

The gem has been an object of mystery for years. When she finds it, she's the only one who knows its location. She thinks:

It must at least look like a blue diamond worth twenty million francs. Real enough to convince Papa. And if it looks real, what will her uncle do when she shows it to him? If she tells him that they ought to throw it into the ocean?

She can hear the boy’s voice in the museum: When is the last time you saw someone throw five Eiffel Towers into the sea?

Who would willingly part with it? And the curse? If the curse is real? And she gives it to him?

The curse of the gem is that if you hold it, you die; another version of the curse is that you cannot die, but those around you do. Marie-Laure struggles with the question of whether to leave it behind, to let it go—to do the thing Von Rumpel is unable to do that leads to his death.

Ultimately, she decides to be in control of her own life. She and Werner leave the gem in a grotto, and she never goes back for it.

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