All the Light We Cannot See | Study Guide

Anthony Doerr

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All the Light We Cannot See | Part 1 : 1934 | Summary

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Summary

Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle

In 1934 Marie-Laure is "a tall and freckled six-year-old" living in Paris. Her eyesight is rapidly failing. One day, on a children's tour of the National Natural History Museum, she hears the fable of the Sea of Flames for the first time.

Long ago in Borneo, a prince plucked a blue stone from a dry riverbed. On his way back to the palace, he was attacked by thieves and stabbed through the heart. Yet instead of dying as he should have, the prince crawled home and miraculously recovered 10 days later. Sitting up in bed, he opened his hand and found he had been clutching the blue stone all this time. His nurses concluded the stone had healing powers.

His father's jewelers said the stone was the largest raw diamond ever seen. Cutting it revealed an exquisite jewel "the blue of tropical seas" with "a touch of red at its center." But the diamond was cursed. Whoever kept it would live forever, but "misfortunes would fall on all those he loved." The priceless jewel, called the Sea of Flames, now belongs to the museum and is kept locked up, behind 13 iron doors, each one smaller than the one before it.

One month after her tour of the museum, Marie-Laure is blind.

Zollverein

Zollverein is a 4,000-acre "coalmining complex" outside Essen, Germany. It is also where Werner Pfennig and his sister, Jutta, are raised in Children's House, an orphanage. Many of the orphans have lost their fathers to the coal mines. It is an impoverished time in Germany, when jobs are few, food is scarce, and hunger is always present.

Werner is seven in 1934. He is inquisitive and resourceful, always questioning the world and hunting for hidden treasures, like berries in brambles and food scraps in trash bins. Once in a while, Werner takes little Jutta, two years younger than he, to visit Pit Nine at the coal mine. Here a five-story-deep shaft leads to a sprawling maze of tunnels where the miners toil. Down there, Werner tells Jutta, is where their father died.

Key Pound

Doctors have diagnosed Marie-Laure's loss of sight as caused by cataracts. Her blindness will be permanent. The world she has known becomes a bewildering place "of bruises and wretchedness," impossible to navigate.

As if the family is cursed, Marie-Laure's father, Monsieur LeBlanc, had lost his own father in World War I and his wife in childbirth. Now his child is blind. Yet he dismisses this idea of being cursed. With his help Marie-Laure begins to adapt to her blindness.

Six days a week, Marie-Laure goes with her father to the National Museum of Natural History. He is the museum locksmith in charge of its thousands of iron keys and estimated 12,000 locks. Grave responsibility goes with this job. Keys and locks protect the museum's priceless treasures.

Every morning, Marie-Laure studies Braille for an hour. Her father also teaches her to identify keys by touch. He takes her on his rounds of the vast museum, and on some afternoons he leaves her with Dr. Geffard, "an aging mollusk expert." Dr. Geffard lets Marie-Laure explore his endless collection of seashells, and she learns to gather information through the testing and probing of her fingertips. She also acquires a love of shells.

In the evenings her father works to build a scale model of their neighborhood.

Radio

When Werner is eight and Jutta six, Werner finds a broken radio behind a storage shed. Taking it back to Children's House, he dismantles it, cleans up the parts, and cleverly figures out what is wrong with the device. When he then tries it out, the first sound the receiver picks up is music. Werner swallows back tears as "an infinitesimal orchestra" seems to stir to life in his head. While around him the physical world has not changed, now there is music.

Take Us Home

Marie-Laure's father builds her puzzle boxes for her birthday. By the time she is seven, her hands have become clever enough to find the key that unlocks a hidden compartment to reveal a gift in just four minutes. Monsieur LeBlanc also has finished his model of their neighborhood. But this model makes less sense to Marie-Laure. It is intended to help her learn to find her way through the city. But it cannot mimic the real world with its ever-changing noises and smells that confuse her senses.

One cold Tuesday when the museum is closed, her father takes her to the edge of a garden they walk past every morning. On this day he stops and asks Marie-Laure to lead them back to their home, six blocks away. Fearfully she tries, but "the world pivots and rumbles." She is surrounded by bewildering sounds and uncertain space. In the end she cannot find the way home.

Something Rising

Werner improves his radio and builds a loudspeaker so Frau Elena and the other children at the orphanage can listen to broadcasts. Through the radio, they hear speeches about a "new faith rising" in Germany. And indeed, something does seem to be rising. There is more work and more prosperity, even for the orphaned children.

In the autumn of 1936, the children raptly listen to a play about hook-nosed invaders who try to take over a German village and plot to murder the children. The plot is foiled by a humble man and the "big handsome-sounding policemen with splendid voices" who come to the rescue.

Light

In the winter of 1936, when Marie-Laure is eight, the model of the city begins to make sense to her. She begins to connect details picked up by her fingers with their counterpart in the real world. At last, one Tuesday in March she leads her father in triumph from a spot along the banks of the Seine to their apartment house.

Our Flag Flutters Before Us

In the spring of 1937, when Werner is 10, two older boys at Children's House—Hans Schilzer and Herribert Pomsel—join the Hitler Youth. Frau Elena becomes fearful of these boys. Werner decides it's best to remain inconspicuous around them and stick to his study of science. That same year, an official from the Labor Ministry comes to the orphanage "to speak about work opportunities at the mines." Werner thinks of his father dying down there, his body never recovered. He feels the walls around him closing in.

Around the World in Eighty Days

In her head, Marie-Laure has mapped out all the rooms of the museum. She knows their unique smells, and she uses cables, pipes, railings, ropes, hedges, and sidewalks to guide her. Sometimes she gets lost, but there is always some kind person to bring her back to the key pound and her father.

For her ninth birthday she receives the expected puzzle box from her father as well as a second gift: a book in Braille, Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. Marie-Laure is captivated by the story, and her museum wanderings cease. She reads and rereads the book, and it leaves her filled with a strange, fearless longing.

The Professor

Werner has modified his radio to pick up transmissions from outside Germany. It picks up voices from far places like London, Rome, and Paris, and he and Jutta secretly listen to broadcasts after lights out in the orphanage. One night the radio picks up the velvet voice of a young Frenchman. The man is talking about the human brain's ability to imagine and construct a world of light, though the brain itself lives always in darkness. He goes on to discuss many related ideas, touching on the very topics Werner is most curious about. "Open your eyes," the professor concludes, "and see what you can with them before they close forever."

Sea of Flames

In the museum, rumors circulate that the Sea of Flames is going to be put on display. Monsieur LeBlanc meets with the museum director and immediately after begins work on something quite secret deep within the Gallery of Mineralogy. Marie-Laure is not allowed to accompany him but must stay in the key pound. It has been four years since she first heard about the diamond and its curse, and Marie-Laure hopes that her father hasn't been anywhere near it.

Open Your Eyes

Again and again, Werner and Jutta find and listen to the French professor's broadcasts. They learn and mimic the Frenchman's science experiments. The broadcasts inspire restlessness in Werner and a growing sense of the greater world in which things of great importance are happening. He longs to be part of it.

Fade

The Sea of Flames is not put on display. Marie-Laure's doubts about the curse begin to fade. Then for her 11th birthday, she receives a Braille copy of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea from her father. The views of the story's narrator—marine biologist Pierre Aronnax—appeal to Marie-Laure. Aronnax believes logic, reason, and pure science are the means to unravel life's mysteries, rather than fables and fairytales.

The Principles of Mechanics

A vice minister and his wife on a tour of orphanages come to inspect the Children's House. They are served supper with the children, and while at the table Werner studies a book in his lap. It is titled The Principles of Mechanics. It is old and water stained, but it teaches him about the invisible realm of electromagnetic waves. The vice minister catches him reading and demands to see the book, checking in particular to see if its author is a Jew. He then shoves aside the book and tells Werner that he, like all the boys in this house, is destined only for the coal mines.

Rumors

New rumors begin to circulate around the museum that the Germans are coming. Already they have taken over Austria. Marie-Laure's father assures her that everyone remembers the last war; no one is mad enough to start another. Yet all summer, Marie-Laure "believes she can smell gasoline under the wind" as sits reading and rereading Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

Bigger Faster Brighter

In Germany, membership in the State Youth is now compulsory. Boys are taught to live faithfully, fight bravely, and die laughing.

Meanwhile, Werner's skill in building and repairing anything mechanical is growing, though his book The Principles of Mechanics has been confiscated. He becomes locally known as the radio repairman and soon knows the location of nearly every radio in the district.

The coal mines of Zollverein are busy seven days of week producing the raw iron ore to be melted, refined, and cast into steel bullets. Among people in the district, bigotry against Jews and non-Germans like Frau Elena is becoming more overt.

Mark of the Beast

On a cold day in November 1939, Marie-Laure sits in the Jardin des Plantes, reading. She is approached by several boys who frighten her with tales of what the Germans will do to blind girls when they come. Already she has overheard whispering office girls in the museum exchange other alarming rumors. Though her father assures her that no war is coming, stores are selling gas masks and people are preparing for wartime blackouts by taping cardboard to their windows. At night Marie-Laure dreams of Germans sneaking up the Seine and into the museum. In her dreams "the windows go black with blood."

Good Evening. Or Heil Hitler if You Prefer.

In May 1940 Werner turns 14. Next year he will be forced into labor in the coal mines. In his nightmares he walks the tunnels as the walls splinter and the ceiling falls. Awake, he is "hemmed in by the vast walls of the cokery and smelter and gasworks." Beyond are the villages and cities of the "ever-expanding machine that is Germany."

Bye-bye, Blind Girl

War is no longer a question. It is coming. At the museum the collected treasures are being swiftly catalogued, crated, and shipped to safety. Marie-Laure's father works tirelessly to supply the locks and keys. Yet he does not forget Marie-Laure's birthday and gives her the second volume of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

On June 1 airplanes appear, flying high in the sky. The next day, the radio stations begin to go out. Marie-Laure imagines the city to be the size of her father's model, with the shadow of a great hand falling over it. She senses things are about to change forever.

Making Socks

One night Werner wakes to find Jutta sitting next to the bed. She is listening to a radio report of German planes bombing Paris.

Flight

The Germans have broken through France's defenses and are coming to Paris. In panic, people pack up valuables and try to flee the city. The museum director has arranged train tickets for Daniel LeBlanc and Marie-Laure. At the station Gare Saint-Lazare, they join a crowd of Parisians waiting and hoping the train will come to take them away.

Herr Siedler

One evening after curfew, a lance corporal comes to the orphanage and asks Werner to come with him and bring his tools. He takes Werner to the largest house in the colony where the mining officials live. It is the home of Herr Siedler, and he wants Werner to repair his radio. It is the finest radio Werner has ever seen. His success at repairing it is rewarded with wedges of cake. Herr Siedler is impressed with Werner's skill and says he will write a letter to the recruiting board in Essen, who may be interested in a boy like him. He then gives Werner 75 marks and sends him back to the orphanage, where Frau Elena and Jutta are waiting.

Exodus

At the train station, four hours pass and no trains arrive. Monsieur LeBlanc decides it will be better to walk. Heading west, he and Marie-Laure join a procession of people escaping on foot. By dusk the next day they are west of Versailles, and Marie-Laure can go no further. Her heels are bleeding. Leaving the road, she and her father settle down in a field. He explains that they are going to Evreux to stay with a friend of the museum, Monsieur Giannot. If he will not take them in, they will go to stay with Marie-Laure's "crazy" great-uncle in Saint-Malo.

Once Marie-Laure falls asleep, Daniel LeBlanc pulls a drawstring bag from his tool case. Inside is a majestic blue stone the size of a chestnut. For safety's sake, the museum has made three decoys for the Sea of Flames. Of these three and the real diamond, only the director knows which is which. He has sent three diamonds off in different directions, while one remains at the museum. Daniel has no idea if the diamond he carries is one of the fakes or the real thing.

Analysis

Part 1 takes readers back ten years to 1934 to fill in the backstories of Marie-Laure and Werner. Several beginning connections among characters are set up, though these connections will not become clear until much later in the novel. The novel's frequent leaps in time serve to slowly build an understanding of what the novel's central event—the destruction of Saint-Malo by Allied forces—means to the characters.

The childhood stories of Marie-Laure and Werner reveal the personal characteristics and experiences that will shape their decisions and their lives. Werner's life at the orphanage contrasts sharply with Marie-Laure's in Paris. His surroundings are grim, poverty stricken, and potentially dangerous; they are devoid of intellectual stimulation and hope. Marie-Laure, on the other hand, is surrounded by people and places that feed her mind and spirit in an atmosphere of safety and relative comfort.

Nevertheless, the boy and girl have several things in common. Both have lost someone dear to them. Werner has lost his father to the mines, and his mother is presumably dead as well. Marie-Laure's mother has died giving birth to her. Both children are intelligent, inquisitive, love science in some form, and possess natural gifts. They each inhabit a darkened world: Marie-Laure through blindness and Werner through poverty. However, their common love of science and books will shine light into that darkness. Both children also are cared for by people who recognize their gifts. And finally, both share a powerful connection with someone who will influence their life. Werner shares this with his young sister, Jutta. Marie-Laure shares this with her father, Daniel LeBlanc.

Other connections established in the beginning of Part 1 take on more meaning by its conclusion. For example, through fanciful drawings Jutta demonstrates her emotional connection to Paris. By the end of Part 1 she is appalled to learn that German planes are bombing the city. The news comes to her by way of foreign broadcasts made illegal by the Reich, but Jutta is willing to risk listening in order to hear the truth, revealing the strength and integrity of her character.

It is Werner's ingenuity that has made the outside world accessible to Jutta and himself through radio. This connection once opened his mind to the wonders of music and science. By the conclusion of Part 1, he is beginning to shut out that world because it is increasingly dangerous to be caught listening to news of it. However, this early connection will have a far-reaching effect on Werner's life. From Part Zero, readers know radio still plays an essential role in his life in 1944.

In Marie-Laure's life, it is her father's puzzle boxes that will connect to events in her future. Like his birthday gifts, the tiny house Marie-Laure opens in Part Zero opens like a puzzle box to reveal the treasure inside. These childhood gifts prepare the girl for a time when such a box is not a toy or part of game but a serious matter.

With the introduction of the Sea of Flames in this section, an element of a fairytale enters the story. The stone and its curse are a contradiction to the science, reason, and logic that Daniel, Marie-Laure, and Werner embrace. The tale itself is gleefully told by a museum warder who is old, troll-like, and impish by nature, like someone out of a storybook. The diamond and its supposed curse will be a driving force throughout the novel. Its formal introduction here explains the mysterious stone hidden in the tiny puzzle house in Part Zero. However, the question remains as to why it is there, in Saint-Malo, and not at the museum in Paris.

Also introduced in this series of vignettes is the rise of Hitler's power and Nazi Germany. Just as Marie-Laure's model of Paris corresponds to the real city, the orphanage shows in miniature what is happening in all of Germany. Growing oppression infuses everyday life with fear. Voluntary membership in the Hitler Youth becomes mandatory, and boys soon become bullies. Frau Elena, a foreigner, is eyed with suspicion as never before. Anti-Semitism raises its ugly head, and the story hints of the forced euthanasia of disabled people like Marie-Laure. At the same time, mine production increases in preparation for war. Radio becomes a tool of propaganda tying "a million ears to a single mouth." And for Werner, who fears entrapment in the mines of Zollverein, a different trap opens up: He comes to the attention of Herr Siedler, a Nazi German mining official.

Certain moments in this part of the novel foreshadow key events. In the vignette titled "Key Pound," Daniel tells Marie-Laure "he will never leave her, not in a million years." Yet in "Light," the reader learns that Marie will try all her life to remember her father's laugh. This suggests that her father may leave her after all, reminding readers of the moment in Part Zero when she whispers "Papa?" to an empty house.

Similarly, there is a moment when Werner takes to heart the radio professor's counsel, "Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever." This phrase will drive him to pursue his dream to be a scientist in Berlin and foreshadows a time when, recalling this advice, his eyes will be opened to truth.

At the beginning of Part 1, the storylines of Werner and Marie-Laure are connected superficially. They are countries apart, with little reason to ever meet. However, by the end of Part 1 the threat of war draws their storylines closer. Herr Siedler's interest in Werner will change the trajectory of his life. The bombing of Paris has already changed this for Marie-Laure. Finally, in her letter to the Professor and her insistence on listening for truth on the radio, Jutta demonstrates courage and clear-eyed understanding of the world beyond her years. In her letter she asks why the Professor's broadcasts have gone silent. Her question foreshadows an answer that is found by Marie-Laure in faraway Saint-Malo.

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