All the Light We Cannot See

  • Study Guide
Main Ideas

Themes

Main Ideas Themes

War

The brutality of war is a driving force that shapes the fates of individuals and corrupts people into betraying their principles. Marie-Laure, Werner, and Daniel Leblanc all had hopes and dreams for their lives. They were innocent bystanders who got caught up in the tide of a huge and violent war, and only one of them survives. Their fates are all impacted by a global war that they did not start and cannot finish. Etienne is so affected by the brutality of war that he spends more than twenty years of his life unable to leave his own home after the first World War. The physical and psychological trauma experienced by these characters shows that both combatants and non-combatants alike end up being affected by war in ways they cannot anticipate or protect themselves against. Werner proves that the brutality of war can lead someone who has a kind heart and protective instinct into being an accessory to death. Werner would never willingly contribute to harming an innocent woman and child, but once he is caught up in the war effort, he has no choice.

The Power of Knowledge

Even though she loses her sight, Marie-Laure continues to read and learn as much about the natural world as she can. Because of her persistence, she eventually becomes a scientist who explores unknown regions and identifies new species. If she had not been motivated by her love of books and knowledge, Marie-Laure might have simply lost hope and given up. After her father’s disappearance, Marie-Laure lapses into depression, but she starts to recover when Madame Manec takes her to the beach and lets her experience the sounds and textures of the seashore. The desire to learn about this new environment gives Marie-Laure hope. Likewise, Werner never stops trying to learn everything he can about technology and science. In the midst of war, it does not seem like he can aspire to much, but he never gives up on the hope that he will someday learn about the origin of the mysterious radio program that brought him knowledge and joy.

The Legacy of the Past

Individuals in the novel are always shaped by the events that have come before and can never fully leave their pasts behind. When Marie-Laure first meets her great-uncle Etienne, she is confused by his nervous and eccentric behavior. Over time, she learns that he is still haunted and traumatized by his experiences fighting in the first World War. Etienne is the first character to reveal that individuals cannot fully break free from the past, especially if that past involved suffering. As time passes, the novel shows that this is true for the characters who survive World War II as well. The recovery of Werner’s personal goods in the 1970s brings the remaining characters face to face with their memories of the war. Volkheimer lives a lonely and isolated life because he is haunted by what he experienced during wartime, while Jutta carries intense shame about the atrocities Germany committed. When Jutta travels to France to investigate what happened to Werner, she feels a legacy of shame and guilt simply because she is German. Marie-Laure carries less trauma, but everything she experiences even up until the year 2014 continues to be shaped by her memories of the past.