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Course Hero. "All the Light We Cannot See Study Guide." February 24, 2018. Accessed December 15, 2018.


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All the Light We Cannot See | Motifs


Darkness, Light, and Color

The motif of darkness, light, and color is used to heighten the effect of a variety of events and ideas in the novel. As Marie-Laure goes blind, her world darkens, but she "sees" much that remains invisible to other characters. She perceives the glow of kindness and goodness in people like Etienne and Werner. Her father "radiates a thousand colors." She senses the sick darkness within von Rumpel. In her mind the world of war is gray, but her great-uncle Etienne's radio transmissions fill it with light and color. As conditions in Saint-Malo worsen, Marie-Laure's fears are washed away out on the beach "by wind and color and light."

For Etienne, light forms the foundation of his post-WWI fears. He and his brother Henri were hunted by enemy lights, and eventually one found Henri. This is what haunts Etienne. Even now, 20 years later, he fears that "a light you are powerless to stop will turn on you and usher a bullet to its mark."

For Werner, darkness predominates as an element in his life. Physically he echoes light with his snow-white hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. In later years Marie-Laure recalls a light of goodness emanating from his soul. Yet his life is filled with darkness. His father dies in the darkness of the mines, and darkness is the future that awaits him in Zollverein. Under cover of night, Werner and Jutta listen to illegal broadcasts on the radio. Werner descends morally into darkness when he attends the Nazi training school. He nearly loses his life during the night bombing of Saint-Malo, trapped in a dark cellar. It is night when he wanders out onto a beach and is killed by a landmine.

Other shadings of this motif are found in descriptions of the Sea of Flames and in the colors that infuse Marie-Laure's imagination and dreams. This motif also plays a strong role in the Professor's recorded lesson on light, which opens up the world of science to Werner.


Lies in one form or another advance the plot from beginning to end. They take various forms. White lies are meant to comfort and protect others. Propaganda and lies meant to deceive, however, form barriers to communication and connections between characters.

Some lies are innocent in intent. Marie-Laure's father tells her white lies to comfort and reassure her. Though well meaning, these lies become barriers to trust. For example, upon arriving in Saint-Malo, Daniel assures Marie-Laure that the rumbling sound she hears is the ocean, not a marching army. Yet knowing her father sometimes lies to calm her fears, Marie-Laure is not certain she can believe him.

Upon acceptance to the Nazi training school, Werner tells himself this is his path to escape a dismal future and achieve his dreams. Blinded by ambition to become a great scientist in Berlin, he refuses to see that the Nazis will hijack his gifts and corrupt his dreams. Though his sister Jutta challenges his self-deception, Werner clings to the lie until he is trapped in a role that violates everything he believes in. His willful self-deception results in a breach in his relationship with his beloved sister.

The Nazi regime lies to everyone through propaganda. With a deliberate mix of fact and fiction, it weaves a shining, dynamic picture of life under Hitler and the Third Reich designed to seduce the young minds of cadets at Schulpforta. Through the power of radio, they similarly seduce all Germany. Propaganda is a barrier between the people and truth.

In Saint-Malo Werner resorts to a lie in order to protect Marie-Laure and, he presumes, the French Professor. He knows the enemy transmitter his team is seeking is in the house where she lives and where the Professor resides as well. Werner tells Volkheimer that his equipment has not picked up any trace of the transmitter—a lie for which he could be shot. Readers understand the intent behind this lie, and Volkheimer's willingness to accept it helps to deepen the character of "the Giant."


Throughout the novel, the motif of self-protection is perceptible in characters' motives and decisions. Time and again it underlies the steps they take to control their destiny and remove themselves from harm's way.

Werner is the foremost example of this. He fears the future if he remains in Zollverein. He will most certainly be sent into the mines to die like his father. So he blinds himself to the purpose of the Nazi training school at Schulpforta. It offers escape and protection from what seems a worse fate.

At Schulpforta, Werner learns to cling to the group for survival. He develops a hunger to belong and fights to keep doubts at bay. Kind and gentle by nature, he also learns to block off his feelings. He stops questioning why his gifts are being used by the Nazi instructor, Dr. Hauptmann. He watches passively as his friend Frederick is beaten, as instructed, by another cadet. As a soldier, he follows orders to find and destroy enemy radio transmitters and their operators. Believing he has no choice if he wants to survive, he sacrifices his humanity. In contrast, cadet Frederick resists giving in to the pressures and indoctrination at Schulpforta. Frederick is never severed from his soul and stands up to what he perceives to be morally wrong at Schulpforta. He even tries to protect Werner by publicly ending their friendship. In this way Frederick is stronger than Werner. Remaining true to his core beliefs is Frederick's form of self-protection. Though he is physically destroyed, he has protected what is most precious to him.

The motif of self-protection plays out in several other characters. In moments of danger, Marie-Laure imagines herself to be like a whelk that withdraws into the safety of its shell, holds on tenaciously, and lives moment to moment. Eccentric Etienne hides in his home in Saint-Malo for 20 years, emerging at last when his fear for Marie-Laure's safety overrides his need to protect himself from the terrors of the outside. And finally, self-protection is a driving force behind Sergeant Major von Rumpel's frantic search for the Sea of Flames and its promise of immortality.

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