Week 5: Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all-the-light-we-cannot-seeSerena and I would like to welcome you to the fifth discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

For this week, we’ve read sections eight and nine. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments.

What do you think the purpose of the “Fort National” opener is at the beginning of Section 8?

ANNA:  Well, we know from the very beginning of the book that that’s where Etienne and the other Frenchmen  were taken. And now we have to wonder whether he has been killed. It’s looking pretty bleak all around. What do you think?

SERENA: It’s almost as if the author wants us to buy into the legend of that diamond, and that Marie-Laure is only alive because she has it, but the consequence is that everyone she loves ends up dying.  But are they dead? Her father? Etienne?  We don’t really know yet.  But maybe that’s because my mind is skeptical about the whole curse.

ANNA:  I think the curse is only as real as they want to believe it is. It certainly is an interesting layer to the story. Life and death is, in many ways, a matter of chance, especially during war. The real danger is the von Rumpel believes the legend is real.

SERENA: I agree with you on von Rumpel.  And that is dangerous.

What did you think of the scene where Werner and Marie-Laure cross paths?

SERENA:  I think we knew that they had to cross paths, and I think it was in a way that was less intrusive to Marie-Laure’s story.  I think because he sees her and follows her, it builds a strong connection in him, especially after the death of the other young girl.  This is the thread I think he’s going to need to pull himself to safety or at least redeem himself before he dies.

ANNA:  I liked the way it was handled, and I agree that this connection is going to be the pinnacle for him. There were two things I was struck by most when reading these sections. First, when Werner hears Marie-Laure over the radio reading from her book, and then her fear about von Rumpel being in the house, and he wants to be able to save her. And in that moment, he thinks about the Nazi fervor and how all boys were caught up in it, but how Jutta saw through it all. And second, you realize this observation comes after his desire to save the professor, how hearing his voice over the radio again was “as if he has been drowning for as long as he can remember and somebody has fetched him up for air.” This is where Werner chooses to act, where he finally grows a backbone, where he finds himself again. Though whether he is able to help Marie-Laure seems improbable but still anyone’s guess.

What did you think about this line: “Frederick said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices…”

SERENA: I’ve thought long and hard about Frederick’s statement since the beginning because I’ve always thought that statement was a mild excuse for someone who is too scared or to paralyzed to make a decision.  People who passively make decisions, all the while claiming that they are not making decisions, are deluding themselves.  However, when Frederick said it, it gave me pause because he did make a decision.  He refused to dump that cold water on the prisoner, he refused to give into the bullies. I know he didn’t have a choice but to go to the school, but he was strong enough to make a decision or two on his own and stay true to himself — though with dire consequences.  So it makes me wonder why he would say it at all.

Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate to Werner that he had made a choice in not intervening and going along to get along with the others.  Or maybe he just wanted to make peace with his friend and keep him happy in his delusion.  If that’s the case, it seems he may have failed him a little bit as a friend.

As for Werner, it’s good that this has come to the forefront for him now.  It’s a critical time for him; he’s been going with the flow and ignoring what’s around him for too long.  He can only live outside reality so long.

ANNA: Yes, not doing something is a choice in itself. I think maybe the point was that part of their Nazi indoctrination was that they weren’t supposed to make choices, just follow orders. And Werner was so torn about what he was seeing and being told that it was just easier for him to say he didn’t have a choice.

Do you think his impending doom is what makes him take action? If so, explain?

ANNA: After what happened to Frederick and the little girl, and the memories brought back by hearing the professor’s voice, this time Werner has to do something. I don’t know whether it’s impending doom that compels him to take action; it almost seems as though he’d been in a sort of trance for so long, and Etienne’s voice seems to knock him out of it. It was something familiar and soothing, and it was an important part of his childhood, what gave him the ambition to want something more than a life in the mines. I think the professor symbolized light and hope for Werner and that was a driving force in his decision to keep quiet about the professor’s location. It’s almost like it made him forget the war for a minute, as he thinks about going to the professor’s home and having a conversation with him, and then realizes that can’t ever happen.

There was a definite shift in these sections, with Werner emerging from his fever and seeming to grow stronger, deciding to act for a change, and Marie-Laure showing signs of weakness. Don’t get me wrong, I still think she’s an extremely strong character, but we see the toll the war and her blindness and the loss of her father have taken on her. She is knocked off kilter by von Rumpel’s appearance at the grotto, the fear of being found out, and realizing that she gave him the bit of information he wanted. And then the lack of food and water in the attic, coupled with the disorientation of not knowing whether it’s day or night or whether von Rumpel is still in the house, and hearing her father’s voice…I was worried that she was going to do something foolish for a moment. What do you think?

SERENA:  I agree; the professor’s voice woke Werner out of a stupor.  He’s been in that too long.  And while he is haunted by the death of that other little girl, I think Marie-Laure’s fate would be more devastating for him because he feels as though he knows the family after listening to those recordings for so long.

Marie-Laure has similarly been awakened from a bubble.  Up until this point, she’s been strong because of her family’s faith in her ability to do anything even though she is blind.  She went about her business as if she were untouchable almost.  Not that she didn’t fear the Germans or what was happening, but that it really didn’t hit her just how vulnerable she is because she is blind.  Von Rumpel saw to that.  Her foundation was definitely shaken by his appearance in the grotto and his questions and insistence.

ANNA:  Speaking of Marie-Laure’s bubble bursting and the diamond, I was struck by her asking Etienne whether he ever felt like she was a curse, and his response that she was the best thing that ever came into his life was so touching. It’s as though he’s finally started to live again, even leaving the house, and then just as he seems to be getting the spring back into his step, he is arrested.

In the letter Werner writes to Jutta, why do you think he talks of his love of the sea and what do you think he is talking about when he says, “It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel”?

ANNA:  As soon as they arrive in Saint-Malo, Werner is drawn to the sea. It’s almost as if his eyes have finally been opened and he can truly see everything around him, and the sea is certainly a different, brighter view than he had in the drab mining town. I’m not sure exactly what he means when he writes that, but it reminded me of when he first heard the professor and thought about how many miles away his voice was and how far it was carrying, and the sea in its endlessness is a bit like that too. It also seems as though this could be connected to the diamond, the Sea of Flames, which has taken on an importance larger than its physical shape.

SERENA:  I agree, the Sea of Flames is taking on a larger importance.  It seems as though Saint-Malo has become that sea of flames — it’s where everything will come to a tipping point.

That’s it for this week. Please feel free to answer the questions in the comments and continue the discussion by asking questions of your own.

We hope you’ll stop by next Friday, April 7 for the final discussion. Happy reading!


  1. The story is really starting to come together now. I can’t wait to find out what happens next, but I’m also afraid to know.

  2. I cannot believe we are almost done with this. I’ll be sad to leave Werner and Marie-Laure.

  3. Me, too! I can definitely see why it won the Pulitzer.

  4. […] in a more in-depth discussion of the book, but beware of spoilers: Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, and Week […]

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