One of the most notable aspects of All the Light We Cannot See is its unique and complex narrative structure, one which weaves together the stories of three individuals that ultimately converge. Marie-Laure, Werner, and von Rumple all have their own motivations and desires, but against the backdrop of World War II, each one ends up searching for purpose in a world suddenly marred by chaos and uncertainty. Displaced from her home in Paris and eventually fatherless, Marie-Laure seeks meaning in her life as she and her great-uncle, Etienne, broadcast illegal messages over his radio. Werner attempts to satisfy his desire for knowledge by enrolling in the National Political Institute of Education, although he becomes so wrapped up in the Nazi war machine that he struggles to make sense of right and wrong. While an inherent goodness grounds Marie-Laure and Werner, von Rumple, the novel’s primary antagonist, treats his greedy pursuit of the Sea of Diamond as his reason to live. His physically diseased body allows him to represent the broader forces of evil against which Marie-Laure and Werner struggle, each in their own right. While tension certainly exists between these three characters as they come into contact with one another, the overarching conflict of the narrative is between the inherent meaninglessness of life during war and their innate need for stability and purpose.    

The way in which the novel continuously shifts back and forth between characters and time periods has a powerful effect on the way in which the reader experiences the novel, continuously underscoring its main themes throughout. By using a nonlinear narrative structure, Doerr is able to create a complex and at times chaotic experience for readers that mimics the instability and uncertainty that the characters face as a result of the war. The choice to begin in media res, or in the middle of the novel’s action, has an abruptness that resonates with impact of the actual inciting incident, the arrival of war, on Marie-Laure, Werner, and von Rumple. When war forces Marie-Laure to flee from Paris and creates an opportunity for Werner to escape the orphanage, they both find themselves thrown into unfamiliar environments. This dramatic shift sets both of them on a path to reorient themselves and find a new sense of purpose. Meanwhile, the chaos of the war adds numerous obstacles to von Rumple’s pursuit of a cure for his disease, namely the Sea of Flames diamond.

The rising action of the novel continues as the three primary characters become involved in acts which they believe will help restore meaning and order to their lives. Guided by her natural curiosity and determined spirit, Marie-Laure’s participation in the resistance of Saint-Malo empowers her by allowing her to support her community. She acts according to her own moral code rather than following occupation laws, fighting for what she believes is right with every secret message she carries. Werner also faces a moral dilemma as he finds himself deeply integrated into the Nazi war machine. He finally has an outlet for his technical skills and is accepted among leaders like Dr. Hauptmann and Frank Volkheimer, but Jutta’s criticisms haunt him as he finds himself enabling brutal acts of violence. Unlike the novel’s protagonists, von Rumple never questions the ethics of his hunt for the Sea of Flames, and his resolve to locate the stone at all costs only grows as disease ravages his body. This unwavering belief in the legends surrounding the diamond leads him to Saint-Malo and puts him in a position to harm Marie-Laure, the unknowing guardian of the Sea of Flames. 

Despite their attempts at securing a sense of stability, the intersection of these characters’ narratives at Number 4 rue Vauborel in Saint-Malo completely upends their individual pursuits and emphasizes the inescapability of war’s chaos. Marie-Laure and von Rumple are the first two characters to meet as he breaks into Etienne’s house searching for the Sea of Flames, an event which puts the two of them into direct conflict. The tension builds as Werner identifies Marie-Laure’s illegal broadcasts, and the climax occurs when he decides to ignore orders and kills von Rumple in order to save her life. While this choice resolves the immediate conflict regarding the Sea of Flames, it sends each of these three characters back into a world of uncertainty. Marie-Laure must flee Saint-Malo all alone, Werner sacrifices his security to uphold his moral code, and von Rumple dies without achieving his goal.

The falling action of the novel, which includes Werner’s untimely death and the meetings that it causes between Volkheimer, Jutta, and Marie-Laure years later, hints at the lasting impact of the war. Doerr emphasizes that each of these characters have well-established, routine lives when they meet in 1974, yet any mention of the past immediately takes them back to feelings of helplessness and uncertainty. This effect suggests that no matter how settled they feel in the present, their individual struggles to make sense of the war’s senseless violence are never-ending.