Chris Heath (2017)

All the Time We Cannot Be

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is an epic novel set in Europe during World War II. It tells its story through snapshot chapters that gives the reader a window into the lives of the main characters during pivotal moments in their lives. The chapters are not chronological and give the reader some suspense for what’s to come and insight into what has been. The two main characters are Werner Pfennig and Marie-Laure Leblanc. Werner is a smart young German boy with an inquisitive and scientific mind. Marie-Laure is a fearless young French girl with a logical and positive outlook on life, despite losing her sight when she was six. Doerr weaves an intricate web of connections between the characters and themes of his novel, but there seems to be a unifying undertone that continually reappears in various ways throughout the novel. While destiny eventually awaits us all in the end, that time waits for no one.

For Werner, this theme of destiny and time linked together is embedded in one of the quotes from Henri and Etienne Leblanc’s educational recordings that resurfaces many times throughout the novel. “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” First introduced on page 48, it is the conclusion of the first lesson that Werner and Jutta tune into when they initially find Etienne’s broadcasts on Werner’s home-made radio. The quote does not promise that by opening their eyes they will be able to see all, but does remind them that one day they will close forever, so they must see what they can while they still can see.

The chapter titled “Open Your Eyes” begins on page 53 and illustrates the deep influence that the broadcasts have made in the lives of Jutta and Werner. The story is told from Werner’s perspective, so there is more description of the impact that the broadcasts have made upon him, but it is clear that they are both deeply changed by the broadcasts. They mimic the experiments and ruminate about the Frenchman. They imagine what he’s like, where he broadcasts from and why. Their imaginations have been stoked and their eyes have been opened. Werner remembers the quote on page 86 after repairing Herr Siedler’s radio. Some time has passed since the last time he had heard the Frenchman’s broadcasts due to Germany’s efforts to block all non-Reich radio signals, but fixing Herr Siedler’s radio gets Werner into the school at Schulpforta and continues him along the path towards his destiny.

The chapter titled Intoxicated Werner notices how the war propaganda and nationalism have effected everyone at the school and likens it to a drug. “As if, at every meal, the cadets fill their tin cups not with the cold mineralized water of Shulpforta, but with a spirit that leaves them glazed and dazzled, as if they ward off a vast and inevitable tidal wave of anguish only to be staying forever drunk on rigor and exercise and gleaming boot leather.” (p.262-263) Fighting off this intoxication, Werner thinks of Jutta and how he misses her loyalty, obstinacy, and her moral compass for what is right. He also uses Dr. Hauptmann’s Grundig tube radio to search for broadcasts in an effort to fight off this change in himself that Jutta had feared would happen. As the chapter comes to a close he shuts off the radio. “Into the stillness come the voices of his masters, echoing from one side of his head while memory speaks from the other. Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” (p.264) This is clearly conveying the inner struggle that Werner is undergoing as he is being indoctrinated in to the Nazi war machine while trying to not lose his own identity. The result of this struggle will have a large influence on the rest of his life, on his destiny.

The final time the quote appears in the novel is at the end of the chapter titled Antenna. Werner hears Etienne’s broadcast but does not report it and even though he knows that this is treasonous, he is filled with joy. He is compelled to meet the Frenchman and goes out on his own to find the exact location of the antenna. When he finally finds the antenna and watches it rise and unfold he remembers the conversation with his sister Jutta years ago contemplating what kind of mansion that the Frenchman would occupy. Werner recites the quote to himself as he returns to his unit at the hotel and is inspired. His destiny is waiting for him at Number 4 rue Vauborel.

The diamond gemstone known as the Sea of Flames, its legendary history, and its mysterious curse are introduced very early in the novel. “The curse was this: the keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those he loved one after another in unending rain.” (p. 21) The story of the Sea of Flames is intertwined with the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner. Werner is never aware of the stone and its supposed powers, and Marie-Laure is not aware that she is in possession of the stone until the day before the bombing of Saint-Malo. But like destiny, a curse does not require knowledge of its existence or belief that it is real. From the day she first hears about it Marie-Laure is curious about the Sea of Flames and its curse. Her father, Daniel, discourages her belief in superstitions and so she does not get caught up in selfish desire. At age six when she is first told the story of the Sea of Flames and how it has been locked away for almost two hundred years she suggests throwing the diamond into the sea as a way to evade the curse. That suggestion is laughed off, but years later that is exactly what she would do.

Sergeant Major von Rumpel is a character that is very concerned with his own destiny and believes in the curse of the Sea of Flames. He has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and has a tumor in the small intestine and another in his throat. When von Rumpel is first introduced to the reader Doerr foreshadows his illness. “He tries to cross his legs but a slight swelling troubles his groin today: odd, though not painful.” (p. 143) He is searching for information about a specific diamond, the Sea of Flames, even though his task for the Reich is more broad. Doerr doesn’t explain how von Rumpel knows of the legend but it is clear that above all other treasures he is most interested in the Sea of Flames. He has not yet been diagnosed by his doctor and does not know that he has a terminal illness, so the reader is left to assume that greed is what drives the Sergeant Major. For the rest of the novel he will travel all over Europe hunting down the diamond trying to change his destiny.

The argument can be made that the Sea of Flames is the physical representation of destiny in this novel. One of the main definitions for the word destiny is a hidden power believed to control what will happen in the future. That definition almost directly correlates with how the Sea of Flames is presented in All the Light We Cannot See. Some characters, like Sergeant Major von Rumpel, believe in it and become fated to live their lives chasing their destiny. Other characters, like Werner Pfennig, choose to believe that they can make their own choices in life and create their own destiny. Werner is told that his destiny is to work in the coal mines forever and he does not succumb to that destiny. He chooses to live for his own interests and works hard to make his own destiny. Sergeant Major von Rumpel learns of his terminal illness and tries to cheat death and change his destiny with the Sea of Flames. Destiny, like a curse, does not require belief in it or not, because destiny is something that can only be known over time, and can only truly be fully understood after death.

The temptation of cheating death that von Rumpel succumbed to, the way that it consumed his life at the end and kept him from spending his final days with his family is the kind of power that leads good men to do bad things. In a way, the Sea of Flames allows Doerr to make an observation about how good people in Germany could go along with the Nazi plans. When Marie-Laure is first discussing the Sea of Flames and it’s curse with her mentor Dr. Geffard, he says, “certain things compel people. Pears, for example, and sinistral shells, shells with a left-handed opening. Even the best scientists feel the urge now and then to put something in a pocket. That something so small could be so beautiful. Worth so much. Only the strongest people can turn away from feelings like that.” (p. 52) Forty years later in 1974 Marie-Laure is reminded of this wisdom imparted upon her by Dr. Geffard when the model of Etienne’s house is returned to her by Jutta. Apparently, to Werner the object so small and so beautiful was the model house that would remind him of the Professor and of Marie-Laure, not the stone.

Every choice that one makes over the course of a lifetime can be summed up and totaled, compounded with the randomness and the chance one encounters over time, but that total does not equal one’s destiny. That total equals their life up to that point in time. Destiny is not the choices made, the circumstances of those choices, and the results of those choices. Destiny is what will become of someone in the end. That question cannot be truly answered until that person has lived their full lifetime. Only when their time has run out can their destiny begin to be understood, and often a beginning of understanding is all that can be done at that time. Our destiny is not always clear when our clock runs out and we expire. One thing is for certain, though, and that is that time will go on – with or without us.