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All the Light We Cannot See | Themes



Memory plays a powerful role in the lives of the characters, driving choices and actions as the story unfolds. These memories are indispensable links between the characters and their past. Some serve as a source of inspiration or comfort. Others offer escape from the present. Some produce a prick of conscience, and one supplies a life-saving clue to a mystery. In all cases the act of remembering provides insight into each character's inner life and hidden thoughts.

For example, Werner retreats from the brutality and moral corruption at Schulpforta into nostalgic memories of childhood, Frau Elena, and Jutta. Later as a soldier, he evokes technical sciences instructor Dr. Hauptmann's remark, "We live in exceptional times," to reassure himself that what he is doing is necessary and right. However, his confidence is undermined by a recalled moment in which his sister Jutta asks, "Is it right ... to do something only because everyone else is doing it?" And at last, recollection of the radio Professor's admonition to "open your eyes" reminds Werner—now the radio hunter—of a time when science meant wonder and possibility. This memory stirs Werner to look honestly at what he has become and to change the direction of his life before it is too late.

Like Werner, Marie-Laure retreats into the past as conditions worsen around her. She recalls days spent with her father or Dr. Geffard at the museum, and special moments with her Papa. These memories bring comfort and sustain her. Other memories inspire Marie-Laure and give her courage. These are drawn from her beloved book by Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. Remembered lines steady her when she is frightened and, at times, motivate her to act in imitation of her heroes, Captain Nemo and Dr. Aronnax. Perhaps her recollection of a line from one of her Papa's letters serves her best. "Look inside Etienne's house, inside the house," it says, which leads her to the Sea of Flames and ultimately saves her life.

Sergeant Major von Rumpel's memories mostly remind him of a life principle drilled into him by his father. They sustain his optimism, renew his patience, and bolster his determination to locate the Sea of Flames even as he is dying. Recalled maxims such as "See obstacles as opportunities ... obstacles as inspirations" reassure him that his quest will not fail if he perseveres. When his search seemingly dead ends in Etienne's house, he hears his father's voice telling him, "You are only being tested." Occasional memories of his daughter allow readers to glimpse the humanity that occupies a small place in von Rumpel's character.

The power of memory also shapes the life of Etienne. Memories of World War I haunt him and drive him into a life of seclusion. Yet memories of his brother, Henri, compel him to call out to the world through his radio transmissions. These cries reach Werner through the voice of the Professor, which in turn provides Werner with a memory that saves his soul.

When the novel takes readers into the lives of the characters Volkheimer, Marie-Laure, and Jutta in the 1970s, Doerr's grand theme is embodied in memory. From the title on, his goal is to hold up the lives of those whose actions lie outside of history's record and represent the "light we cannot see." It is memories of Werner that drive Volkheimer to contact Jutta and for Jutta to find Marie-Laure and bring the story full circle. Even Frederick is seemingly woken from his catatonic stage by the print of birds Werner has saved. As Marie-Laure reflects at the story's end, perhaps souls travel the same paths as electromagnetic waves, faded but "audible if you listen closely enough." People who can remember the war die, but they rise again "in songs"—in memory.


Many guises of entrapment are explored in the novel: physical, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional. A response to feeling trapped motivates the choices of several key characters and drives the action of the plot.

Werner's life-changing decision to enter the elite Nazi training school is strongly influenced by his fear of being trapped in the mines of Zollverein. His dreams of becoming a great scientist in Berlin would die in the mines, and it is likely he, too, would die just like his father. At the school, however, Werner is morally ensnared. He must bottle up his humanity if he hopes to achieve his goals. Later in Saint-Malo, he is trapped in the utter darkness of a hotel cellar, not unlike the fate he tried to escape in Zollverein. It is a lightless tomb, both physically and spiritually.

While Marie-Laure might have been trapped on many levels by her blindness, with the help of her father she escapes its dark confines through the gift of touch. However, in German-occupied Saint-Malo, she finds herself shut in by her father's fear, not permitted to leave Etienne's house. Later she is physically cornered by Sergeant Major von Rumpel, first in the grotto and later in the attic of her great-uncle's house. Von Rumpel, in turn, is trapped by a disease that is consuming his body.

Other characters whose lives are threaded with this theme include Etienne LeBlanc, who is gripped by horrific memories of World War I. He entombs himself in his house in Saint-Malo for more than 20 years. His nephew, Daniel—Marie-Laure's father—dies after being imprisoned by the Germans. And all the people of Saint-Malo are trapped by the war and German occupation. In all cases, determination to escape not only drives the plot but also reveals an array of qualities, good and bad, that help to define these characters.


Throughout the novel, Anthony Doerr explores how connecting lines of radio transmissions bind characters together. This theme drives the plot. Through the new medium of radio, a wealth of music, science, propaganda, truth, and messages of defiance could be broadcast near and far, to be heard and shared by people as never before. People who might never meet could be bound together by these transmissions, and in some cases the connection could have life-changing consequences.

The line of communication most vital to the plot is established before the war, when Werner repairs a radio and begins listening to the outside world. One very special broadcast links Werner in Zollverein, Germany, to the voice of a Frenchman in Saint-Malo whom he calls the Professor. This unique connection is an invisible thread binding Werner to the house of Etienne and his grand-niece, Marie-Laure. Long before Werner comes to Saint-Malo on the hunt for enemy transmissions, the Professor's broadcasts establish a connection that will change the course of Werner and Marie-Laure's lives.

Werner's radio is a source of other communications and connections. Voices of the Third Reich reach out through propaganda broadcasts to mold the minds of children at the orphanage. These same voices will reshape and unify the consciousness of the entire nation. Their deceit is counterbalanced by foreign voices that deliver the truth to those courageous enough to listen, like Werner's sister. When Werner smashes the radio to prevent Jutta from hearing illegal broadcasts, his act signals the breakdown in communication between brother and sister as well as Werner's willful disconnection from the truth.

Werner works hard at Schulpforta to create a device for tracing radio transmissions. He is, in a sense, rebuilding his smashed radio, but this one will serve the Third Reich. Consistent with the Reich's malevolent goals, the device will be a means of destroying communication and severing connections. As a soldier, he will seek out and follow the invisible waves, tracking them from Russia to Vienna and on to Saint-Malo.

Several connections among characters originate with broadcasts from Etienne's transmitter in Saint-Malo. The first is a result of Etienne's anguished attempts to comfort the soul of his dead brother, Henri. These are the broadcasts that reach Werner in Germany. When Etienne broadcasts for the resistance, he connects to people whose lives are saved or lost as a result. And when Marie-Laure uses the transmitter to call for help from the attic, the line of communication established years ago makes its most important connection. Werner hears her call and comes to her rescue. He hears it over a broken radio that he repaired, the same way in which he first heard the Professor in far-off Zollverein.

Destiny versus Choice

Do humans have free will to shape their lives and write their own history? Or is the course of a human life governed by fate? These thematic questions thread through the story. Doerr does not answer the questions but offers readers both sides of the debate.

On the side of choice, Doerr suggests that humans are responsible for their own destiny; they make choices that pave the way of their life paths. This is a human-centered, or humanistic, view of existence. Among characters in the novel, Daniel LeBlanc holds this philosophical view. He believes in walking the paths of logic; every problem has its solution just as every lock has its key. He grounds his choices in reason and rejects the possibility that their outcomes are influenced by outside, supernatural forces.

Though less sure of these convictions, Marie-Laure tries to follow her father's lead and relies on reason and logic to guide her decisions. She also patterns her thinking after that of Dr. Aronnax, a character in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, who holds fast to the principles of science and logic.

Werner makes conscious choices that redirect his life path. For example, he chooses to attend Schulpforta to escape death in the mines of Zollverein. Though he glimpses something ugly in the entrance exam for the school, he does all he can to secure his acceptance. While at the school, he stubbornly ignores the corrupt Nazi ideology that is warping the minds and souls of cadets. In his mind's eye, he focuses on the technical sciences of his learning, certain that his choices are shaping a finer future.

Each of these characters is presumably in charge of his or her fate. But with the fabulous cursed diamond, the Sea of Flames, Doerr introduces the idea that invisible forces beyond human control may shape destiny. The stone's presence in the story challenges the notion of a human-centered existence free of supernatural influences. For example, Daniel is entrusted with the troublesome stone and, as the diamond's curse promises, misfortune touches those he loves. His duty to keep the stone out of German hands drives his decision to flee to Saint-Malo. Though he assures his daughter that it is only a stone, he wonders about the curse and may have ultimately believed it. When he is summoned back to Paris, he leaves the diamond with Marie-Laure on the chance it may protect her.

With this and other stories woven into the novel, Doerr leaves open the thematic questions concerning destiny and choice. At times both seem to play equal roles, and the line between the two forces blurs. This blurring is particularly evident in Part 8, when the Sea of Flames appears to be influencing the outcome of the plot. It's up to the reader to consider the evidence and draw a rational conclusion.

Questions for Themes

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What is the difference between male and female? when it comes down to communication?
It is often said that big differences exist in the way in which men and women communicate. Using the South University Online Library or the Internet, read more about this statement. Based on your rese
Most of us have received a business letter, a memo, or an e-mail before. Although these documents may not seem like traditional forms of technical communication, they actually possess or should posses
This assignment is due on Friday. can somebody analysis this document In this paper, your task is to analyze the peculiar properties of the language used by professionals in your chosen field. You do
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