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Anthony Doerr's 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See was published by Scribner. The novel tells the story of Werner Pfenning, a German orphan, and Marie-Laure, a blind French child. The plot takes place before and after the Second World War. The narrative is a retelling of their lives until they happen to arrive in Saint-Malo when it is being shelled in 1946. The novel is an examination of human existence and the many shifts that occur during times of conflict. The novel reflects on five pivotal moments in Werner Pfenning and Marie-lives Laure's during the war. The war affects all the characters in the book, and they change as a result of the experiences they undergo.
In All the Light We Cannot See, the war changes Marie-Laure from a young blind vulnerable teenager to a daring young woman who volunteers in the resistance movement. She is inquisitive and has a knack for adventure. Marie-Laure was not born blind, but when she is six years old, she develops cataracts that leave her blind. Nonetheless, she learns to adapt to her new circumstance with the help of her father, Daniel LeBlanc. When she is 12 years old, her father is entrusted with a valuable diamond by the Museum referred to as the Sea of Flames, and he has to leave Paris to deliver the diamond to a friend of the museum. However, the friend has escaped to London. They move to the seaside of Saint-Malo into the residence of Etienne LeBlanc who is her great uncle. She becomes close to him as well as Madame Manec who is her great uncle’s housekeeper. At this juncture, she is a teenager, and with a new environment, she has to learn how to walk around the city with a cane displaying her daring spirit. She has become self-reliant because her father nurtured her intelligence. Madame Manec's death inspires Marie-Laure and her great uncle to join the resistance movement. Her father had been arrested, and Madame Manec was dead so she becomes even more vulnerable, but she takes up yet another daring feat and survives on her own. Etienne is captured, and she is left all alone but because she is strong-willed she is much more vehement as she continues to broadcast. After the bombing, she still proceeds with her efforts despite the imminent danger. At 16, Marie-Laure is brilliant. She hides in the cellar during the attack and when von Rumpel comes into the house to retrieve the Sea of Flames, she hides in the attic. While in the attic, she plays loud music because she is weary of waiting to be discovered which motivates Volkheimer to rescue her. In as much, Marie-Laure is portrayed as intelligent, capable, and brave throughout the novel. Her circumstance does not hold her back as she has learned to adapt to the different environments. In the end, she pursues a successful career as a scientist, and the book ends with her reflecting on her life with her grandson.
Werner Pfennig transforms from an intelligent boy in an orphanage with big dreams whose fate lay in the mines to a scholar in the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta. A French professor on the radio inspires his love for science. He learns how to repair radios and repairs a radio for a Nazi official Rudolf Siedler and his talents are recognized, "Smart beyond your years. There are places for a boy like you. General Heissmeyer's schools. Best of the best" (Doerr 84). At the Institute, he becomes a teacher's pet as Dr. Hauptmann discovers his technical genius. The school's environment is brutal. Nonetheless he forges friendships with Dr. Hauptmann and Frank Volkheimer who is a class ahead and these friendships help him cope with the brutality from the teachers and the students. He aids Dr. Hauptmann in building technology for the military and he is involved in anti-partisan operations. At one point, a Viennese mother and child are mistakenly shot dead and the incident unhinges him. He feels guilty when he finds rebel radio operators who are later killed. At 16, Dr. Hauptmann lies that Werner is 18 years old and he is sent out to the war on the Russian front. Volkheimer has become a sergeant and with the use of the transceivers developed at Schulpforta they search for Russian partisans. In the war, he witnesses the killing of an Austrian girl and the incident haunts him. Moreover, for the rest of the war he is distracted by the incidence as the young girl haunts his dreams. Sometimes the girl transforms into his sister whom he left at the orphanage and whom he deeply misses. Later on, they are called to the Breton coast near Saint-Malo to track down broadcasts from the French resistance. Werner discovers that the person who had been broadcasting was the same French professor who had inspired his love for science, "The spectrum is all static and then it is not… The voice is like something from a long-ago dream… the quality of the transmission and the tenor of the voice matching in every respect the broadcasts of the Frenchman he used to hear" (Doerr 406). He is caught up in a dilemma as he does not know whether to turn such a significant man in his life over to the Germans. They are caught up in a bombing and trapped for days in a hotel. As he is trapped, he hears Marie-Laure sending a broadcast. The voice of the young French girl had been his light for the days he was trapped in the bombed hotel. He escapes to rescue her from von Rumpel. He kills him and rescues her. Consequently, he falls in love with Marie-Laure. The war changes Werner into an incredibly strong character. Once they part ways with Marie-Laure, he keeps the puzzle box to be returned to Marie-Laure. He returned the stone where Marie-Laure had left it and according to Doerr, "Worth so much. Only the strongest people can turn away from feelings like that" (Doerr 65). He could have kept the Sea of Flames for his own benefit but because of his strong will he kept it safe for Marie-Laure. Werner is captured by the Allies. He becomes a prisoner of war. He falls sick and one night in delusion he walks into a mine and sets it off meeting his death.
Etienne LeBlanc, Marie-Laure's great-uncle's experiences with the war had shattered him. He had been involved in the First World War, and his experience made him refrain from the Second World War. Together with Marie-Laure's grandfather who was his brother, they had created the science radio programs. These were the programs which Werner and his sister, Jutta listened to and inspired Werner's love for science. The two became signalmen during the First World War, but his brother died in the war. He had been traumatized by the war. His only connection to the rest of the world was through a radio he had built in his attic. He does not leave his house because he is afraid and he has also experienced hallucination which is signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He developed mechanisms to stay away from danger. When he spends time with Marie-Laure, the symptoms begin to subside, and he starts to be brave again. Madame Manec had tried to convince him to join the French resistance movement, but he refused due to the impact the previous war had on him. However, Madame Manec succumbs to pneumonia, and together with Marie-Laure, they begin to broadcast Allied intelligence for the French resistance movement. The changes are radical as the people who would take care of Marie-Laure die, and he steps up to help and take care of her.
The Second World War had both positive and negative effects on the characters of All the Light We Cannot See. The different transformation is evident in the narration as the author describes periods before and after the wars. The war transformed Marie-Laure, a young girl who lost her eyesight to cataracts before the war. She discovered her strength, and through the skills she learns, she can withstand the tests presented by the war. On the other hand, for Werner, the war is his saving grace as an opportunity presents itself, and he gets a chance to live his dream despite being in the worst of circumstance. Etienne is traumatized by the previous war but coming into contact with Marie-Laure leads him to abandon his earlier reservations about participating in the current conflict. The gradual changes in the characters provide a perspective on the effects of war on different individuals.
Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. Scribner, 2014.
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