All the Light We Cannot See | Study Guide

Anthony Doerr

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All the Light We Cannot See | Part Zero : 7 August 1944 | Summary




At dusk, leaflets pour from the sky, warning residents of a walled town to head for the open country. Later that night, to the east, American artillery units begin to launch incendiary bombs.


Crossing the English Channel at midnight, 12 planes approach the coast of France. Bombardiers peer down through aiming windows, count to 20, and drop bombs on the walled city.

The Girl

In a corner of the city is a tall, narrow house at Number 4 rue Vauborel. Inside, 16-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc waits for her great-uncle Etienne to return. He has been gone since the previous night. To occupy her mind, Marie kneels beside a miniature replica of the town and traces its buildings and pathways with her fingers, whispering their names as her fingers walk along. Marie is sightless.

When she hears the hum of approaching bombers, she goes to the bedroom window. Lodged in the shutter slats is a crisp sheet of paper that smells of fresh ink. Marie stands there, listening to the growing drone of the airplanes. Behind her in the room are neat displays of seashells and pebbles, a cane in the corner, and a Braille novel on the bed.

The Boy

Five streets to the north, in L'hôtel des Abeilles, the Hotel of Bees, 18-year-old Werner Pfennig awakens to the sound of antiaircraft flak guns. A corporal, hurrying down the corridor, calls out, "Get to the cellar."

The history of the hotel began five centuries ago. It was the home of a wealthy privateer who "gave up raiding ships to study bees in the pastures outside Saint-Malo." Over time it was transformed into an elegant hotel that once hosted emissaries of the French republic and, more recently, Parisians on holiday. However, over the last few weeks, it has become a fortress. Windows are boarded. On the fourth floor an antiaircraft gun has been installed. Werner can hear the Austrians who man the gun singing as they prepare to fire.

Before Werner reaches the cellar, the gun goes off three times, shaking the walls to their foundation and rattling his teeth.


Only the poor, the stubborn, and those physically unable to leave are still in Saint-Malo. Some take refuge in bomb shelters. Some hope this is merely a drill. Two months ago, on D-Day (Allied liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control that took place from June to August 1944), much of France had been liberated by the Allies, and the tide of war had turned. Yet the fortress city of Saint-Malo remains a last stronghold for German forces. Rumors abound that a vast underground facility has been constructed that will allow the Germans to live in safety for a year and to bombard with mounted guns any ship seeking to attack from the sea.

The fortress city, part of France's Brittany peninsula, is surrounded by ocean and connected to the rest of France by "a causeway, a bridge, a spit of sand." On an outer island a quarter mile away stands another fortress, this one a prison. As antiaircraft shells howl over the sea, the 300 inmates of the prison wonder whether it means liberation or annihilation.

Number 4 rue Vauborel

In her sixth-floor bedroom, Marie-Laure kneels beside the model of the city and traces the path from its outer ramparts to 4 rue Vauborel. She has lived in this "tall, derelict bird's nest of a house" owned by her great-uncle Etienne for four years. In the sky above the city, "a dozen American bombers roar toward her."

The floor under her is starting to vibrate as her fingers find a hidden catch that releases the little house from the model. Lifting it out, Marie-Laure twists the tiny chimney and slides off three wooden panels of its roof. Then she tips the little house, and a teardrop-shaped stone the size of a pigeon's egg falls into her hand.


In the Hotel of Bees, Werner Pfennig has taken refuge in the cellar. Hacked out of the bedrock, it will be safe from the bombing. With him are Staff Sergeant Frank Volkheimer and engineer Bernd. The cellar is crammed with confiscated treasures.

Werner starts up a two-way radio. It will allow him to communicate with the antiair battery upstairs, on the third floor, as well as two other batteries inside the city walls and the defense forces stationed underground, across the river. Through his headphones Werner can hear the Austrians upstairs as they load and fire the gun.

Overhead, the ceiling lights flicker. The crackling of the radio reminds Werner of home, Frau Elena, and his little sister, Jutta. He also hears the radio voices of his childhood.

Bombs Away

The 12 planes reach the city and release an avalanche of bombs—480 in all. The roar of the explosions drowns out the warning sirens. The antiair guns fire until empty. The bombers rise and peel away, unscathed.

On rue Vauborel, in her sixth-floor bedroom, Marie-Laure takes cover beneath her bed. She is clutching the stone and little model house.

The cellar beneath the Hotel of Bees goes dark.


Part Zero introduces the story's two main characters, Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, and a third character of significance, Frank Volkheimer. It establishes the historical time and place for the climax of the story in which the life paths of Marie-Laure and Werner will at last converge. This section also describes Saint-Malo's bombing from three perspectives: that of Marie-Laure, Werner, and the plane bombardiers. In addition, Part Zero sets up the structure of the novel.

The leaflets fall on August 7, and the bombers arrive shortly after midnight, on the 8th. From the airmen's perspective, the walled city of Saint-Malo looks like "an unholy tooth ... a final abscess" to be taken out—nothing more. Yet drawing closer, the reader discovers that the city teems with life. There are people who have not evacuated as the leaflets advised, individuals with lives and stories to tell. One of these individuals is Marie-Laure.

As Marie-Laure kneels by the model of Saint-Malo, she looks down on it from much the same perspective as the bombers. Through the tracing of her fingers, a picture of the city emerges, from its landmarks and streets to the irregular star shape of its ramparts. The city is made real: a place where people live. Shortly after, this perspective is turned on its head. As Marie-Laure holds a tiny replica of Etienne's house in her hands, the bombers approach. Suddenly, it is as if she is in a tiny house and "giant fingertips seem about to punch through the walls." She is small and alone, and the bombers are indifferent to her fate.

The two vignettes about Marie-Laure leave the reader with many questions. Why is a girl who is blind alone in the house? Where is her great-uncle Etienne? Where is her father? How will she survive the bombing? How and why will she and Werner meet? What is the significance of the stone that drops out of the little house?

Not far from Marie-Laure, the German private, Werner, is stationed in the Hotel of Bees. At this time he and Marie-Laure have as yet to meet. However, the titles of their introductory vignettes—"The Girl" and "The Boy"—suggest they will come together in some meaningful way. In the cellar of the hotel, Werner works a two-way radio transceiver and thinks of home, Frau Elena, and his little sister, Jutta. There are tantalizing hints of his past in these memories and in the visions of sunflowers and blackbirds that will find explanation as Werner's story is told.

The structure of Part Zero will be repeated throughout the novel. In each part a series of sketches will build each storyline, piece by piece. Like separate parts of a giant puzzle, these stories come together in time to reveal how and why Marie-Laure and Werner are present in Saint-Malo in August 1944.

The ending of Part Zero is dramatic and fitting. The play of darkness and light in the lives of various characters is an important motif in the novel. In this moment, all physical light goes out of Werner's immediate world. However, in this darkness, invisible light in the form of radio waves will brighten not only the physical but also the spiritual night that has engulfed him.

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