All the Light We Cannot See | Study Guide

Anthony Doerr

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All the Light We Cannot See | Part 10 : 12 August 1944 | Summary




Still trapped in the cellar, Werner is listening again to Marie-Laure's voice on the radio, reading. Impulsively he clamps the headphones on Volkheimer, hoping to rouse him. Volkheimer's breathing is slow, and he is motionless. Werner explains that this is the transmission they were hunting for. The source was not a network of terrorists, but only an old man and a girl. Now, she is begging for help, saying, "He is here. He will kill me." Werner feels he has saved the girl only to hear her die. He asks Volkheimer if he knew all along that Werner had picked up the girl's signal. But Volkheimer appears not to hear or understand Werner. He is either dying or has resolved to die.

Fort National

Imprisoned at the fort, Etienne begs his jailers to let him go to his niece in Saint-Malo, but to no avail. Then an errant American shell hits the fort. Etienne stops talking. He retreats into memories of the town, his brother Henri, and the LeBlanc house haunted by the ghosts of Henri and Madame Manec. He recalls the hours spent on the davenport in his study, traveling the world in books and stories with Marie-Laure. But now, he thinks, all those memories are burning up with the city.

Captain Nemo's Last Words

The German is still in the house on rue Vauborel. By noon on August 12, Marie-Laure has read seven of the last nine chapters of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea over the radio. When she is done, she will decide what to do about the German and the stone.

She wonders what would happen if the goddess took away the curse on the stone. Would things become as they were? Would her Papa return?


Von Rumpel has been four days in the house on rue Vauborel. He hears a voice call from outside, "You in there!" Crawling to the window, the sergeant major looks out to see a German infantry corporal. The man tells him that the troops are evacuating and going to the fortress at La Cité. All of Saint-Malo will be "inside the bomb line" after a brief cease-fire tomorrow. Von Rumpel thanks the corporal and sends him on his way.

Final Sentence

In the cellar of the House of Bees, Volkheimer does not stir. Werner is past any sensation of hunger. Emptiness and fullness are now the same.

Werner has heard no transmission from the girl for an hour or more. After what he assumes is the last sentence of the novel, the transmission is shut off. In the darkness that envelops him, the specter of the little Viennese girl descends from the ceiling to sit amid the rubble. She begins to count off on her fingers a list of minor infractions for which one might be punished. As she ticks them off, the little girl gradually ages and transforms into the old Jewess, Frau Schwartzenberger, who once lived in Frederick's townhouse.

Werner listens and tries not to understand the truth behind her words. Like Captain Nemo's Nautilus, he feels he has been sucked down into a whirlpool. Like his father, he has descended into the pits. His youthful ambitions and his wartime shame have become one and the same.

Frau Schwartzenberger walks toward him, transforming back into the girl. But the hole in the center of her forehead leads to blackness that teems with hundreds of thousands of souls. They stare up "from alleys, from windows, from smoldering parks."

Music #1

The siege of Saint-Malo seems never-ending. It's after midnight on August 13, and Marie-Laure has survived in the attic for five days. She has been without water for a day and a half, and without food for two. Though she still has the last can of food, she does not open it. Instead she finds one of Etienne's records, places it on the spindle, turns up the volume, and positions the arm and needle at the outer edge. Then she turns on the record player, and the piano music begins.

Making her way to the top of the ladder that leads into the attic, Marie-Laure sits down to wait for the German to hear and come for her. She holds the paring knife in her hand.

Music #2

Beneath the ruins of the Hotel of Bees, Werner is asleep. Volkheimer is passively monitoring the radio. He expects to hear nothing but static. Suddenly, the static "coalesces into music"—the beautiful strains of Debussy's "Clair de Lune." The music galvanizes Volkheimer into action. He awakens Werner and has him hook up the field light to the radio battery. By its dim light, he constructs a makeshift bunker in the back corner of the cellar out of blocks of masonry, pieces of timber, and fragments of shattered wall. Then, pulling Werner behind the barricade, he ignites the fuse of a grenade and throws the explosive at the spot where the stairwell once existed.

Music #3

Either in a memory or a dream, von Rumpel is watching his daughter Veronika. She kneels at the foot of the bed, beside Marie-Laure's model city, and marches a doll bride and doll groom along a street, toward the cathedral. A doll dressed in black waits on the steps. Then Veronika begins singing in a voice that sounds like the notes made by a piano.

Abruptly there is silence. Von Rumpel sits up. Somewhere above him, a young man begins to speak in French. He is talking about coal.


Volkheimer's grenade has opened a hole through which "a shaft of starlight slices." He attacks the opening with a rebar, or steel rod, widening the gap until he and Werner can escape. From outside, they see that only two walls of the hotel are still standing. The houses beyond are in ruins.

The two men stagger for the wall of the ramparts. Then Volkheimer hands Werner his rifle and tells him, simply, to go. He himself must find food. Werner wonders again if Volkheimer knew his secret all along.

Werner moves through the wreckage of the town until he finds Number 4 rue Vauborel. All the windows are blown out, but the house still stands.


Von Rumpel searches Henri's bedroom, trying to locate the source of the voice that filters through the ceiling. Inside the wardrobe, he spots something missed before: "trails through the dust" drawn by fingers or knees. As he reaches deeper into the wardrobe, the tripwire sounds the bells above and below for the front gate. Startled, he jerks back, knocks his head on the wardrobe, and lands on his back. The candle rolls away, toward the window and the curtains.

Downstairs, the front door creaks open, and someone comes in.


Cautiously, Werner makes his way upstairs through the ransacked house. On the sixth floor, he finds a girl's small bedroom. He sets down Volkheimer's rifle to get a drink from one of two buckets of water in the corner. Behind him, a voice says, "Ah." It is von Rumpel, and he is holding a pistol.

Werner recognizes the sergeant major as the German outside the bakery on the day he followed the girl. Von Rumpel recognizes Werner as well and assumes they are on the same quest. He aims the pistol at Werner's chest.

Down the hall, the curtain is burning. From the room comes a muted clatter of "something bouncing down a ladder and striking the floor." Momentarily distracted, von Rumpel lets the tip of his pistol dip. Werner lunges for the rifle.

The Simultaneity of Instants

From behind the wardrobe, Marie-Laure hears the sound of scuffle followed by a shot. Footsteps hurry into the room, and there is a splash and a hiss; the smell of smoke and steam.

Moments later, Werner is running his fingers over the back of the wardrobe, trying to figure out its secret. Simultaneously, life goes on in the war-torn world, separate from and oblivious to the events in rue Vauborel. Volkheimer sits in a ruined apartment, eating tinned yams. The imprisoned Etienne considers that if he and Marie-Laure survive the world, they will travel to anyplace she wants to go.

Werner can hear Marie-Laure on the other side of the wardrobe. He asks, "Es-tu là?" (Are you there?)

Are You There?

Fumbling to translate his thoughts into French, Werner tells Marie-Laure that he has not come to kill her. He has been listening to her on the radio and has heard her music. That is why he has come.

Marie slides open the wardrobe, and Werner helps her out.

Second Can

Werner explains to Marie-Laure that there will be a cease-fire at noon; he can get her out. Then he tells her that she is very brave. Marie-Laure responds that bravery has played no part. All her life she has been called brave, but she has merely awakened each day and lived her life, however it unfolded. Werner says it has been years since he lived his life. However, today, perhaps he did.

Werner comments that a man once used her transmitter to broadcast lessons about science. Marie-Laure responds that the voice was her grandfather's; Warner confesses, "We loved them."

Marie-Laure then fetches the last can from the attic and gives it to Werner to open. Inside are Madame Manec's sweet canned peaches.

Birds of America

Marie-Laure shows Werner the transmitter in the attic. In addition to the wonder of the machine, there are books blanketing the lower floor. He imagines a lifetime of reading, learning, and "looking at this girl."

Among the books he finds a copy of Audubon's Birds of America. Remembering Frederick, he asks to keep a page of the book. Then he and Marie-Laure take refuge in the cellar, waiting for the shelling to stop. Werner wishes they could hide there till the war ends. In a while they fall asleep.


The guns have stopped firing. Before venturing out the house, Werner gives Marie-Laure a white pillowcase to hold high when the time comes. Outside, there are only blasted buildings and piles of rubble. It's very quiet.

Marie-Laure leads Werner on a brief detour to the grotto. Inside, she "takes some small wooden thing and sets it in the water." Once Werner assures her the little house is in the ocean, Marie-Laure is ready to leave.

On the streets again, Werner leaves Marie-Laure when the way to safety is clear. He must go the other direction. They say good-bye, and she places something in his hand. Werner watches her walk away until she is out of sight.

In his hand he holds the key to the grotto that she has pressed there.


That evening, Marie-Laure is reunited with Madame Ruelle. Within the safety of a requisitioned school, they and the other refugees are fed chocolate confiscated from the Germans. In the morning, Fort National is taken by American forces, and Madame Ruelle finds Etienne among the freed prisoners. Three days later the last of the German forces surrender, and the siege of Saint-Malo is over. Etienne takes Marie-Laure away from the city to a hotel, on the way to Paris.


Werner is captured by French resistance fighters just outside Saint-Malo and turned over to the Americans. He and other German prisoners spend the night in a hotel courtyard encircled by razor wire. Volkheimer is not among these prisoners.

That night, Werner cannot keep down his food. Over the next few days, as the prisoners are marched to Dinan, he is unable to eat. By the first of September, he cannot get to his feet, and he is transported by truck to a tent full of dying men. For a week he lies with the hard corners of the little wooden house—retrieved from his duffel bag—clamped in one hand.

Then one night, Werner gets up and leaves the tent. Inside his duffel are the little model house and his old notebook. He passes the sleeping American at the door of the tent and, in the moonlight, heads for a field. He is going home to Germany.

Three months before, the German army had seeded the field with land mines. Werner now steps on one and "disappears in a fountain of earth."


Part 10 brings events to a climax. It opens with each character facing almost certain death. Irrational thoughts creep easily into their imaginations, while memories cast them back to better times and places. For Werner, guilt takes on the shape of the dead Viennese girl in a horrific hallucination. Nevertheless, hopelessness gives way to defiance as characters make a last effort to live, drawing strength from music reaching them on radio waves. And as events reach their peak, the storylines of Werner and Marie-Laure at long last converge.

In the cellar of the Hotel of Bees, Volkheimer is unresponsive, apparently "resolved to go." Werner hears defeat in the staff sergeant's shallow breaths. Over the radio, the final sentence of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea is read, and Werner feels hope slip away when the transmission is cut off. His hunger "peters out like a flame for which no fuel remains," and all he can do is sleep. At Fort National, Etienne is helplessly held prisoner while artillery shells smash into the city. In the attic of Etienne's house, Marie-Laure is glad she has reached the end of the book. She is ready to die, though she plans to go down fighting. In the rooms below, von Rumpel feels "the murderous bloom inside his body" corrupting every cell and wonders how he has failed to find the diamond.

Collectively for these characters, the situation appears hopeless. Under these circumstances, the scales upon which rational and irrational forces are balanced tip. In their physically and spiritually weakened state, the mind of each character becomes fertile ground for dark, strange imaginings. Volkheimer convinces himself that the plaster heads on the shelves will kill him if he moves. Werner sees the dead girl from Vienna descend through the ceiling. She sits before him, ticking off a list of transgressions for which Jews and prisoners were punished, and she gradually transforms into Frau Schwartzenberger. In her attic Marie-Laure links the book's final line, "We'll die together, Ned, my friend," to the end of her life. She also embraces the notion that the Sea of Flames is cursed and wonders what would happen if she returned it to the goddess. In contrast, von Rumpel entertains the idea that the stone was never real but only a hoax.

Into these mental wanderings, memories also slip. At Fort National, Etienne closes his eyes and crawls away into the past. Yet far from his usual nightmares, these are comforting memories of childhood, Henri, his home, Madame Manec, and recent years with Marie-Laure. Nevertheless, he knows all the landmarks symbolizing these memories are burning in Saint-Malo. He also knows that, in the war-torn world, memories everywhere are burning and "the universe is full of fuel."

Werner falls into an abyss of memories in which "ambition and shame becom[e] one and the same." Like being sucked into a maelstrom, he descends in "a one-way dive from Zollverein" to end at the bottom with the mother and girl from Vienna. The bullet hole in the girl's head seems to lead to a well of lost souls, victims of the war whom no one will remember.

Marie-Laure's inspired moment to broadcast the Professor's record stirs better memories in Volkheimer and von Rumpel. Volkheimer's mind is awakened by music to memories of home, a forest at dawn, and walking with his great-grandfather through pines "as tall as a cathedral." This becomes a catalyst for action that liberates him and Werner from their tomb. Similarly, the music casts von Rumpel back into warm memories of his daughter Veronika. When it ceases, he is roused to go in search of its source.

In playing the recording, Marie-Laure has decided to go out fighting. It's a courageous act of defiance that travels on invisible radio waves to inspire Volkheimer and Werner. They, too, will go out fighting. Their escape is somewhat miraculous, as is Werner's arrival at rue Vauborel just in time to stop von Rumpel from finding Marie-Laure. This suggests that the girl is truly protected by the stone, and this protection extends to anyone who can help her.

In the house on rue Vauborel, the storylines of Marie-Laure and Werner converge at last. In the words of the New York Times reviewer, "the blind transmitter . . . meets the ever-listening receiver." In this moment the themes of communication and connections, remembrance, and destiny versus choices are woven together. For example, communication via radio established long ago creates the vital connection that will lead the two young people to this place and time. Etienne's memories of Henri, which inspire the old broadcasts, become Werner's memories of the Professor. These and memories of Jutta reawaken Werner's conscience and rekindle his fundamental decency. With his eyes once again open, he makes decisions the lead him to Marie-Laure when she needs him most.

A few odd puzzle pieces show up toward the end of Part 10 and still must be fitted into the novel's larger picture. These include the key that Marie-Laure presses into Werner's hand, the presence of the little model house in Werner's duffel bag, and the page that Werner tears out of Etienne's Birds of America book. Why did Marie-Laure give Werner the grotto key? Why did he retrieve the little house? Did he discover what it contained? What did he intend to do with the bird picture? What will happen to these things now that Werner has become yet another casualty of the war?

Finally, in "The Simultaneity of Instants," the reader is reminded that the stories in this novel represent all the stories that otherwise go unnoticed and unrecorded. The stories told here are distinct, yet linked in some way. Like all unheralded stories, they are small but individually significant, and collectively a part of history.

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