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Blindness plays a significant role in society, because it displays the ignorance or the inability to see the reality of something. Not only does physical blindness hinder someone from seeing, but spiritual blindness also keeps people from seeing the truth or from distinguishing between right and wrong. Throughout Anthony Doerr’s novel, “All The Light We Cannot See,” he frequently brings the theme of blindness to attention, because the characters’ ability or inability to see certain aspects of life gave them their identity and displayed their motivation.
Their physical and metaphorical blindness also showed how the world around them affected their thoughts and actions. For some, their surroundings inspired curiosity and innocence, while for others, their environment caused them to lose sight of themselves and of morality. Doerr uses the title of the book, “All The Light We Cannot See,” to display the importance of sight, visibility and light, as opposed to blindness, invisibility, and darkness, and how each affects the people around it.
He ties each of the characters’ stories and surroundings to the title to emphasize that everyone has some sort of blindness to the world that surrounds them.
The title of the book, “All The Light We Cannot See,” displays the importance of the visible and invisible light present around the characters. People can see visible light with their eyes, but blind people cannot see physical light. However, throughout the book, blindness and the inability to physically see represented morality and innocence. The characters who had trouble physically seeing had no trouble seeing immorality, and they had a bright inner light that guided others to the correct path.
Although others saw these characters as weak or as outsiders, they each had a strong moral compass that helped guide their decisions, which in turn, helped the other characters come back to the light.
Apart from visible light, invisible light, such as ultraviolet, infrared, and radio waves, also has great importance throughout the book, but eyes cannot detect these lights. Although people could not see radio waves, the light tied “a million ears to a single mouth” (63). The radio represented “all the connections the book depicts” (Schulman). The invisible light waves from the radio brought people together and brought hope and light into the lives of so many people during the war. These invisible light waves also inspired curiosity and brought hope for the characters throughout the book.
The title of the book also symbolizes each of the characters’ stories, because all of the characters had significant blindness, which greatly impacted their life. Marie-Laure could not physically see, but others saw her as “intelligent, capable, and brave” (National), despite her blindness. Although her blindness put a physical handicap on her, she had a strong inner light that helped guide others to their paths due to her innocence, morality and curiosity. When Werner first met her, he saw her as perfect like an angel, “the pure they were always learning about” (413).
His commander had told him that “a real diamond is never perfect” (234), because some believe that no matter how good people or objects seem, something real cannot have perfection. However, after Werner saw Marie-Laure, he realized that perfection really did exist in the world. Even through her blindness, she had the ability to see what others could not. He hoped “never to forget” (469) her actions and her kindness, because “to see her [was] to believe once more that goodness, more than anything else, is what lasts” (492). Marie-Laure had humility about the character traits she possessed, because she said, “People said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice.
I wake up and live my life” (469). She did not consider her blindness a handicap because she had strength and moral capacity. Although she could not physically see, she opened her eyes “to moral rights and wrongs” (All The Light We Cannot See: NoveList), so she could see metaphorical light, which inspired curiosity in her, and throughout the book, Doerr reveals that “curiosity inspires good in people” (Novel). Because of her physical blindness, she focused on the small details in life like the shells of snails, her braille books, and the tiny models that her father made for her. She told herself, “Walk the paths of logic. Every outcome has its cause, and every predicament has its solution. Every lock has its key” (111). She enjoyed discovering the small objects in the world, and she had curiosity about everything she could not see.
Along with Marie-Laure, Frederick also had poor eyesight. He could not see well, but even at the military academy, he kept his innocence and did not give in to the poor morals of those around him. When asked to aid in the murder of a defenseless person, Frederick said “I will not” (229), and he stood for what he believed in. Although he had poor eyesight, he had the ability to see the good in the world and to see the immorality of the people around him, and “he [saw] what other people” could not see (163, 506). Frederick knew that the military academy wanted him to do something morally wrong, while everyone around him accepted their actions and thoughts, “as if all the boys around him [were] intoxicated” (262).
The others saw him as an outsider and beat him because of his morals and his weakness of not having the same goal as the commanders, as well as his partial physical blindness, because in their age group, “none of them [wore] eyeglasses” (212) except for him. Werner did not want the war to ruin Frederick’s morality, curiosity or imagination, because it brought hope into his life and the lives of those around him, but he realized “what the war did to dreamers” (506). Due to his moral standard and his physical blindness, his classmates beat him, but he could see better than those around him because he could distinguish right from wrong. He had a bright inner light that helped shed light on the situation at the military academy, which changed Werner’s perspective and brought some light back into his life.
Frederick saw that the military academy controlled the young boys’ thoughts and actions, and he told Werner, “We don’t have choices, don’t own our lives” (407). Werner did not realize that “they [were] each a mound of clay”, and that the “commandant [was] throwing four hundred identical pots” (139), and Frederick pointed out this problem, which allowed Werner to better understand what went on in the military academy and gave him a new perspective. For both Marie-Laure and Frederick, their poor physical eyesight caused others to see them as outsiders, but it also allowed them to better understand the world around them and bring light into the lives of others with their morality, innocence, curiosity and imagination. The darkness could not overcome their inner lights, just as evil cannot overcome goodness.
While Marie-Laure and Frederick had a physical blindness, Werner had perfect eyesight, but could not see the light of the radio waves that he worked with or the atrocities of the Germans and of those around him. However, he had curiosity, which allowed some light to remain in his life. Werner wished that he had “eyes to see radio waves crowding the darkening sky” (58). He wanted more than regular eyesight because of his curiosity and his interest in radios. In the military academy, he had the job of finding radios and seeing the invisible, and because of it, he could do exactly that; he saw the immorality and the light he had missed. When he first came to the military academy, the recruiters recognized that he had perfect eyesight, or in other words, he had the ability to see things how they saw them.
They saw him as strong because of his flawless physical eyesight and his dedication to the German cause. “He [was] being loyal. He [was] being what everybody [agreed was] good” (250), because he did not want to work in the mines where he used to live, and he did not see the immorality of the military academy until later. Although he didn’t realize the immorality right off, he felt like “he [was] betraying something” (250), but “it was hard for him not to do what was expected of him” (515). He wanted to have a good life and to follow the general’s commands to “live by duty alone” (137).
While working for the German’s to find rebel radios, he focused too much on “pure science” and by doing so, “blinded himself to the moral atrocities of the Nazi state” (LitCharts). Because he focused on working with the radios, he did not consider “the cost to others” (All The Light We Cannot See: NoveList), so he could not see the immorality of his work because of the radio waves that he attempted to see. However, as he learned in a radio broadcast from Marie-Laure’s grandfather, science “is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth” (328). Werner could not see his mistake of following the general’s commands without question, but he found true light because of his mistake.
Although Werner had a temporary blindness to the immorality of his actions, he eventually figured out that he had lived his life in the darkness. While he and Volkheimer could not escape the dark basement of the hotel, Werner finally realized the darkness he had lived in for the past few years, and the evils of the Germans came to light. In the darkness, he finally had the ability to see, and when he escaped the darkness, he saw the world with different eyes due to the radio broadcasts from Marie-Laure. The invisible light from the radio waves gave Werner hope. His sister Jutta had tried to show Werner the immorality of the Germans’ actions, but Werner did not listen at first.
Throughout the novel, Jutta gave Werner hope, and she helped him by trying to nudge him back on the correct moral path through her letters and through how Werner remembered her. As “the only person in Werner’s life who could see through all [the] stagecraft” of the Germans (393), she served as a moral compass, but Werner did not understand what she said until he figured it out the hard way. “She always [seemed] to recognize what [was] right” (263), and Werner remembered that she had said, “Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it?” (246). He could not see the Germans’ immorality because of his curiosity and his desire to learn and work with radios. He wanted “to use his knowledge of math and science to help the world” (Novel), and his curiosity and questions gave him motivation to accomplish this goal. He knew that people would “chase questions of great importance” (54), and that “minds are always drifting toward ambiguity, toward questions” (264).
Before he went to the military academy, Werner had fixed an old radio he found, and it brought hope to both him and Jutta. They heard many interesting broadcasts that brought hope and curiosity to them, and one said that the brain has the power to create light in darkness, so when no hope remains and everything and everyone around them gives into immorality and darkness, they can stay strong and create light in a situation that seems impossible. They found that the radio had “the ability to bring people, seemily worlds apart, together” (Review), which amazed them and even further sparked their curiosity. However, when a German official came to the orphanage they lived in, Werner broke the radio for fear that they would get in trouble for having it. Through doing this, he broke “off any connection to ‘foreign’ or dissenting voices” (All The Light We Cannot See: NoveList).
Jutta felt betrayed, but Werner thought he “[protected] her” (113), so they began to see the radio differently; Werner saw it as a device to connect people through the invisible light that it emitted, while Jutta saw it as a source of hope. The title of the book served as “a metaphor for the invisible stories of ordinary people”, because the radio connected people through invisible light, and in addition, the “metaphor extends to the inner light, or spirit, of those to whom these stories belong” (All The Light We Cannot See Symbols). This shows that the book displayed “the kinds of loss, confusion and horror that real people encounter in war” (Cherry). “There were civilians on both sides making really complicated moral decisions” (Schulman), and Doerr revealed this through the invisible light of the radio that connected people. Although a “clear distinction between ‘good’ and ‘evil’” (Jeresova) existed in the book, people sometimes fought for a good cause, but gave up their morals to do so, just as Werner did.
After working at the military academy for a while, Jutta sent him the book of question he wrote as a child, and this brought some curiosity and light back into his life, because it changed his mindset and brought part of his old self back. Therefore, through all of Jutta’s letters and through how Werner remembered her, she brought hope and light to his life and gave him motivation. However, Werner still could not see the immorality of the Germans. While they traveled to find the rebel radios, Volkheimer said “what you could be” (499) repeatedly about Werner, because he knew that Werner had so much potential due to his curiosity and hard work, but the German cause and the war had ruined his chances of doing something great with his life. During their mission, they got trapped under some rubble; Werner did not have much hope, and he wanted “just to see again” (380).
He physically could not see at that point, showing his moral blindness, but it allowed “his inner, or spiritual eyes” to open (All The Light We Cannot See: NoveList). When he heard Marie-Laure’s voice through the radio, hope and motivation came into his life through the invisible radio waves, and he had the ability “to see the right thing to do” (All The Light We Cannot See: NoveList). Because of this, Werner discovered the Germans’ immorality and realized his own part in helping them accomplish their goals. This revelation brought him back to the light and allowed him to see clearer than he could before. Werner remembered that as a child, he heard the radio broadcast say “Only through the hottest fires can purification be achieved” (15). The darkness he lived in and helped with eventually brought light, and even though he had to go through something terrible to reach a good outcome, his soul now “glowed with some fundamental kindness” (515). Although Werner had perfect eyesight, he could not see morally until the invisible light from Marie-Laure’s radio broadcast brought light back into his life.
Through the title of the book, “All The Light We Cannot See,” Doerr explains how light and blindness affect people and those around them, and he emphasizes this importance through each of the characters’ stories and through the natural world, which surrounds the characters with both physical and metaphorical light and inspires curiosity and innocence in them. The characters find light in different aspects of their life, even though they all have blindness in some way. Their blindness to certain lights causes them to rely on the other characters, with whom they have a connection because of the war. Therefore, light, both visible and invisible, plays an important role in each of the characters’ lives, because they each have blindness to types of light that they encounter.
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