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The Light We Must See

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Through All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr creates a world in which two invariably different individuals connect to one another by way of fate and personal faults. Werner’s shortcomings – or his inability to visualize his hope – are aligned with Marie-Laure’s lack of sight. Werner and Marie-Laure are forced – in their own realities and together, upon meeting one another – to understand that the world is far from good. That does not, however, mean they can submit to the bad (Nazism, for Werner; sadness, for Marie-Laure). They come to the realization that one must, “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever” (Doerr, 310), adding a tragic dash of situational irony in light of Marie-Laure’s lack of ability to, physically, do precisely that. All The Light We Cannot See, through this connection, becomes a search for light in the tunnel of life, and the presence or lack of sight in the novel provide symbols for hope and the obstacles individuals encounter during that search.

The obstacles Marie-Laure and Werner encounter aim to dissuade them from seeing (physically and metaphorically), but they are ultimately able to overcome those obstacles by acknowledging the errors of their ways and opening their eyes to hope – to light – in life. Marie-Laure’s abilities are obviously hindered by her physical blindness, but her obstacles stand deeper; they begin as a battle against hopelessness and evolve to a battle against the evil of the Nazi cause, a battle for her life. Marie-Laure’s Father instills in her a deep self-sufficiency and intelligence that allows her hope – her light, her sight – to grow, as he works with her to see the city (through his models) in spite of her disability. Her father’s diligent and careful teachings are what gives Marie-Laure the moral standard and courage to help her uncle and what allows Marie-Laure’s hope to thrive. Werner, in his parallel, is forced to work in a Hitler Youth programme on behalf of the Nazi cause. He must turn passion for science and radio that he once used to find music and the philosophical words of a Frenchman – he once used for good – into a tool to find and eliminate those against the Nazi cause. He must to facilitate the deaths of people who want only the same basic humanities he craved as a young, orphan boy; safety, happiness, care. His duty to the Nazi cause and fear of potential repercussions – if he were to demur – destroy his moral and hurt his integrity, stealing his light, and clouding his sight of hope. It is through fulfilling his baneful duties that Werner discovers Marie-Laure; Marie-Laure’s Uncle Etienne had radio broadcasts in the interest of the ‘rebel cause’. (Uncle Etienne, in a perfectly wholesome literary circle, is the same Frenchman who Werner had listened to on his radio and idolized as a child.) Werner, in meeting Marie-Laure – in seeing her for the first time – is reminded of the Werner he wants to be; the Werner who Jutta, his sister, begged him to remain; the Werner he knew he was, at heart. He decides he will not stand by and assist in the murder of undeserving people for the sake of a supposed cause. Werner saves Marie-Laure and Etienne, crediting Marie-Laure as the catalyst that brings light back to him, letting him open his eyes and allowing him to see his hope.

Werner comes to understand the reality he could have had, instead of the misery he endured with the Nazis, before meeting Marie-Laure, and is able to continue the rest of his life for the betterment of his moral stability and correction of his malfeasance; he needed a blind woman to help him see. He finally stands up for who he is and what he believes by helping Marie-Laure in the way he could not help himself or Jutta growing up, and how he could not help the people whose deaths he caused: by protecting her. As he briefly tells Jutta in the latter half of the book, he is a changed man, he knows he must stand up to Von Rumpel and the cause, he sees now. The time Werner and Marie-Laure share is not long, but nevertheless allows them to harbor a deep care for each other; Werner ultimately loses his life protecting her – as he took the stone which, provided a fantastical scapegoat for Marie-Laure’s misfortunes – in doing so, running from his Nazi obligations, and protecting himself.

The biggest troubles of Werner and Marie-Laure stem from their inability to see hope, from their closed eyes. Marie-Laure’s main personal struggles surface in the primary half of the book, as she learns to cope with her developing blindness, the loss of her father, the rise of Nazism, and her spatial ignorance upon leaving Paris. She is tempted, by hopelessness, to simply give up. But through the care and keeping of her father, Marie-Laure is able to develop her own persuasion of sight – to bear witness to the good in life, like the music and literature she broadcasts – which compensates her literal infirmity to visualize. She uses her sight to help the rebel cause in tandem with Etienne, and instill faith and hope (her own forms of sight) in characters like Madame Manec. Werner, in a similarly formatted escapade, begins as an orphaned underdog, eventually having the one thing he loves (science – his radio) used against him. In the wake of carrying out what the Nazi cause labels ‘duties’ – and Werner deems immoral, evil acts – Werner loses the sight that Marie-Laure possesses; the ability to see hope and light. He needs a task, the task of protecting Marie-Laure, to reiterate his personal beliefs and allow him to come into the visible, hopeful light, before he loses his life. Marie-Laure is able to overcome her blindness with moral vision, and Werner is able to move past his own blindness – hopelessness – thanks to Marie-Laure’s sight.

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