118 pages 3 hours read

Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


All the Light We Cannot See is a historical novel by Anthony Doerr, published by Scribner in 2014. The novel alternates between the lives of its two central characters—Marie-Laure Leblanc, a girl who grows up in Paris and loses her eyesight to cataracts at age six; and Werner Pfennig, a boy from a mining town in Germany who joins the Nazi military to escape working in the mines. As the novel opens, Marie-Laure and Werner both find themselves trapped in the French seaside city of Saint-Malo in August 1944, as Allied forces bomb and besiege the city. Alternating chapters then tell the story of each character’s life prior to this climactic scene. The novel explores themes of “Entrapment and Escape,” “Light as a Source of Hope,” and “Lost and Redeemed Humanity.” This guide refers to the 2014 hardcover edition of the text, published by Scribner.

Content Warning: This book depicts antisemitism, war, bullying, and violence, including violence against children, as well as rape and sexual assault. These events are referenced in the guide.

Plot Summary

Marie-Laure grows up in Paris, the beloved daughter of Daniel LeBlanc, master locksmith of the National Natural History Museum. Blind from the age of 6, Marie-Laure learns to navigate her world through the patience and persistent guidance of her father. He builds a scale model of her neighborhood so that she can learn her way around independently. He also gives her Braille books, opening her mind and imagination to a world beyond her own.

Werner grows up in a protestant orphanage with his younger sister, Jutta. Extremely intelligent, Werner builds his own radio, which picks up far away broadcasts from cities around the world. These broadcasts, particularly a scientific program for children given by a Frenchman, give him and Jutta hope for a better life. His is life marked by poverty and a fear of working in the mines where his father died, so Werner seizes an opportunity to escape the mines through admission to a Reich-sponsored school. Though he gets the education of his dreams in some ways, the price he pays for it is his humanity.

Werner and Marie-Laure each face considerable hardships while growing up: Werner confronts poverty without the help of his parents; Marie-Laure confronts the loss of her mother at her birth and must learn to deal with her blindness. However, their challenging histories also reveal their strengths: Werner’s intelligence and creativity; Marie-Laure’s imagination and love of the natural world.

The novel’s different sections converge upon their meeting, which forms an extended climax within the novel. While the novel is not a traditional love story, Werner, nevertheless, falls in love with Marie-Laure when he sees her walk down the street in Saint-Malo. Werner rescues Marie-Laure from death and helps her escape the city, which is still under siege, redeeming himself through this act of courage in defiance of his so-called duty to the Reich.

The story continues beyond the end of the war, detailing the consequences of Werner’s act of humanity, and revealing Marie-Laure’s survival. Jutta’s son, Max, represents the survival of Werner’s bright curiosity, no longer overshadowed by poverty or history.