The Issue of Fate in ‘All the Light We Cannot See’
Fate: Is Life Happening To Us?
When reflecting on one’s life up until this very moment, there is a divide between how much of what has happened is directly a result of our own doing, and how much of it was seemingly fate. To delve deeper into that thought, one may find that fate indeed controls a large portion of our lives. The circumstances in which we are unknowingly brought into can ultimately determine the outcome of our lives to some extent. In the novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, this common theme is exemplified heavily throughout the story. Setting the scene in the midst of World War II, Doerr introduces two young children, who quickly become teens, as the novel skips to and from different time frames. One being Werner Pfennig, a brilliant German orphan boy who holds much promise regarding his intelligence in technology. The other key character is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a young French girl, the daughter of a Paris museum locksmith. An important detail in understanding Marie-Laure’s story is the fact that she went blind at the age of just 6 years old. These two characters are of great value when analyzing the story for this aforementioned “fate theme”. As the reader may soon find, within their alternating stories during the climax of World War II, a common theme of a lack of agency over both the teen’s lives is very present. Their ability to make choices that benefit them seem wanted, yet unattainable, as the war influences the choices they make and the events around them. By presenting characters as seemingly helpless children stuck in this grand scale war, Doerr presents the idea that humans are ultimately mere pawns of the greater society, basically casualties of its choices; however, through these character’s journeys, Doerr demonstrates that even those who are in dire situations can make a difference if they defy conformity.
The question of fate and the idea that it controls a large portion of our lives is something that is discussed on a large scale. Can we, as humans, control, or even influence the circumstances around us? Or, does life ultimately happen to us? Daniel Dennet said “fatalism is the rather mystical and superstitious view that at certain checkpoints in our lives, we will necessarily find ourselves in particular circumstances (the circumstances ‘fate’ has decreed) no matter what the intervening vagaries of our personal trajectories…” (Solomon 435). This question remains as the reader can take into account that the development of events are beyond a person’s control, and may be in the hands of a supernatural power. But, with that said, the argument remains… is there any free will within that? (Sienkewicz)
The reader will begin to see the little autonomy the main characters truly have over their lives. This predominately is a result of them being children of course, but from a broader perspective, a result of the war. Beginning with Werner, his lack of control over his own life and the course it soon takes starts with his present circumstances. Doerr describes this: “Werner and his younger sister, Jutta, are raised at Children’s House, a clinker two-story orphanage on Viktoriastrasse whose rooms are populated with the coughs of sick children and the crying of newborns and battered trunks inside which drowse the last possessions of deceased parents” (24). One can assume the lack of opportunity that presents itself in a setting like this one. The only option that children like Werner have is introduced within the same chapter: “‘Down there,” Werner whispers to his sister. “That’s where Father died’” (26). He is referring to “Pit Nine”, one of the largest mining shafts. The importance of this lies in the fact that Werner could very well end up experiencing the same fate as his late father. “An official from the Labor Ministry visits Children’s House to speak about work opportunities at the mines […] All boys, without exception […] will go work for the mines once they turn fifteen. He speaks of glories and triumphs and how fortunate they’ll be to have fixed employment” (43). In the same paragraph “Werner feels the ceiling slip lower, the walls constrict” (43), and this description further emphasizes what role fate has in this young boy’s life. Fate grasps at control over Werner’s life, and at this point in the novel, is succeeding greatly. He visibly feels constricted by the few options he has, creating a feeling of being trapped in his own unfortunate circumstances.
These instances are only the beginning of the concept of fate in Werner’s life. Continuing on in the plot, “‘I think,” Werner says, feeling as though some cupboard in the sky had just opened, “we just found a radio” (32). This is key to the story as a whole. He mentions this feeling of a cupboard being opened, tagging onto the feeling of being trapped earlier on. This shows a bit of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel, as fate can also turn things for good. The negative connotation that the concept of fate has thus far does not apply in this instance, but instead remains consistent in Werner’s life, whatever the case may be.
Upon the discovery of this broken radio, Werner quickly finds a way to fix it. His troubleshooting skills and attention to detail must be innate, and yet again, the recurring fate theme comes to the surface. This short chapter foreshadows what is to happen next in the story. Werner clearly stands out from the other boys and girls in the home. This difference will soon earn him a ticket to what seems like a more promising future. His young and intelligent mind is quickly noticed by the community as he begins to repair the upper class’ radios, giving them reason to look his way at all. This act of fate – the discovery of the radio, the discovery of his own intelligence, has led him to a point of what looks like freedom from what he thought he was doomed to.
“You have been called, says the letter. Werner is to report to the National Political Institute of Education #6 at Schulpforta. He stands in the parlor of the Children’s House, trying to absorb it. Cracked walls, sagging ceiling, twin benches that have borne child after child after child for as long as the mine had made orphans. He has found a way out” (124).
This quote begs an interesting question. The reason for an in-depth summary up until the point is to show that possibly, a way out has found him. Did this young German boy truly have a say in the matter? It does not seem so. Life, as suggested earlier, is happening to him. As he progresses in this academy, constantly impressing others with his mathematical skills and radio-repairing capabilities, he is soon given orders. “You are eighteen years old. Not sixteen, as you have claimed. [… it has been] arranged that you will be sent to a special technology division of the Wehrmacht” (286). To put it simply, he is asked to lie about his age so that he may serve on the Nazi-driven side of the war. They are desperate for those with skills that Werner possesses.
All of these instances lead up to the most present day from Werner’s perspective, which takes place in the Hotel Of Bees. His orders are to stand his ground, but ultimately, he is killed from the bombings that get closer as time goes on.
All of this encapsulates Werner Pfennig’s life in regards to how fate played a great role in the way he had to live. Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the blind French girl, also had a stream of events and circumstances that give way to the idea that the concept of fate is very much present. “Congenital cataracts. Bilateral. Irreparable. “Can you see this?” ask the doctors. “Can you see this?” Marie-Laure will not see anything for the rest of her life” (27). Primarily, to take into account her inability to see, would allow the reader to understand that most of what happens to her must be in the hands of others. The disability she finds herself with forces her into greater dependency involving people like her father, or Etienne her uncle. Following this, the war approaches, and the reader can increasingly relate with the charming young girl. The emotion evoked lies in the fact that Marie-Laure does not want to leave her beloved home of Saint-Malo. Yet, again, she is forced, by circumstances that were not brought upon herself.
By the end of the story, the reader will find her helpless, trapped in the rubble of her uncle’s home. The idea of dependency resurfaces in the sense that she has no way to help herself without her vision. These turn of events that take place to further emphasize that just similarly to Werner, life is merely happening to Marie-Laure. In some pieces discussing this novel, the critic suggests that “in another time they might have been a couple. But they are on opposite sides of the horrors of World War II, and their fates ultimately collide in connection with the radio” (Beck n.p.) as the “The listener knows that slowly, inextricably, Werner’s and Marie-Laure’s lives will intersect” (Murray n.p.).
All of this said, both character’s timelines and complex stories are only a piece of what contributes to this theme and idea of fate. The most predominant side story within the novel tells the story of a stone.
“The stone came to be known as the Sea of Flames. Some believed that the prince was a deity, that as long as he kept the stone, he could not be killed. But something strange began to happen: the longer the prince wore his crown, the worse his luck became. In a month, he lost a brother to drowning and a second brother to snakebite. Within six months, his father died of disease. To make matters even worse, the sultan’s scouts announced that a great army was gathering in the east. […] 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” (21).
In a legend told to Marie-Laure as a wide-eyed six year old, the stone introduces the fateful theme very directly. This Sea of Flames stone seems to be just myth and folklore… something to bounce this recurring theme off of. But in hindsight, it is revealed to mean much more. The symbolism behind the object starts when the story is brought up once more in Marie-Laure’s early teenage years. Her father, a locksmith at the museum that displays this particular diamond, has been entrusted with either the diamond itself, or a prototype. He carries this with him as the war rages closer, in confidence that he will keep it safe. The series of unfortunate events that follow Marie-Laure and her father as they escape their small town in France, allude to the fact that he may have the real stone. No other explanation can be made. Including the ultimate need to leave their town, his eventual arrest in the next city, and Marie-Laure’s unfortunate situation at the end of the novel all give way to the fact that the stone may have some influence.
The story of the stone is to merely add a figurative effect to the novel and the theme of fate, and it has an enormous effect on how destiny can be perceived. Simply, the stone could be thrown into the ocean, no longer possessed by a single person, no longer cursing those around the carrier. A decision as simple as a toss into water, could give one the opportunity to seize and take hold of their future and present circumstances to some extent. This idea of throwing the stone away opens up an entirely new conversation on how fate can be perceived. As one piece states, “while the Sea of Flames allegory may seem to indicate a sort of planned destiny—living forever among the suffering of others—there is also a choice in the matter: the stone could simply be tossed into the sea, absolving the curse” (All…Themes n.p.)
This contradiction alludes to the fact that Werner and Marie-Laure may have not been mere victims of the system and endless cycle of fate. There is some light at the end of this tunnel. Werner is consistently faced with the thought of defying what he has been taught. Within the walls of the school he is attending, severe brainwashing occurs. The reader can know this to be true based on the fact that we are able to see inside his conscience, and know that this power struggle within him is indeed occurring. His sister Jutta becomes cross with him when he speaks of radios as the Nazis would, and she wonders why radios have become a negative thing. (Vollman). Once Werner’s source of inspiration and hope, is now something that he is expected to locate and destroy. But the question is this: will Werner fall to the staunch nationalism mindset like the rest of his peers in his school, or carve his own path based on his childhood and background – what he knows to be true? Jo McGowan describes his mindset shift in this way: “Her German counterpart, a wunderkind plucked out of poverty to work for Hitler’s counter- terrorist wing, is blind in a different sense—neck-deep in Nazism before he finally sees what he is doing” (McGowan 8).
A similar question rings true for Marie-Laure. She “ must choose whether to participate in the resistance actively in a way that may endanger others, at one point asking, “But we are the good guys. Aren’t we, Uncle?’” (All… Themes n.p.). This fight for autonomy over what can happen depending on their own decisions, rather than the act of fate’s, is apparent.
These two characters possess the newfound ability to have agency over their lives, and commit to using it well. But, in a more unfortunate sense they are still victim to some circumstance that surrounds them. The autonomy that is discovered when fighting for what’s right, only works to a certain extent. For example, the war is unavoidable by two people who are not in a higher power position. Anthony Doerr exemplifies people like this and sheds light on those stories that would otherwise be overlooked. Meaning that the lives of specific people like Werner Pfennig and Marie-Laure LeBlanc wouldn’t have been reported on. And, though fiction, it surely reflects what real historical events of day-to-day people, like these two, would have faced. Most documentation around this time period focuses on broader historical events, rather than personal stories. The effect of this is profound as we delve into specific characters live’s, the reader can further understand that this war affected each and every life in both Germany, France, and other areas that the war took place
In the end, they do make the right decision to go against what authority was demanding of them. Because of this, a hopeful undertone begins: they are not just victims of their own destiny, but instead, can mold their future depending on their own actions of defying the conformity that they were once bound to. “Despite the effects of war and the influences of oppressive forces, people from opposite sides can, of their own accord, want to come together to help one another ” (Angelini 227). This is clearly seen in the way that Marie-Laure joins the resistance, and how Werner aids in the resistance in a detached way, by helping Marie-Laure via radio. Along with this, another analysis brings up a good point – “It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self interest” (84). Though the victory of WWII is not seen through in Werner’s lifetime, he, and Marie-Laure are victors against the chains of fate, as they choose to throw the Sea of Flames into the sea, and in other words, take control of their predetermined destiny. At the end of the novel the perspective fully shifts: “His decision to rescue her is one of his first assertions of free will in many years. Marie-Laure remarks, “I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?” In response, Werner says, “Not in years. But today. Today maybe I did” (Rohland 2).
- “All the Light We Cannot See Themes.” GradeSaver, www.gradesaver.com/. Accessed 02 Jan 2020.
- Angelini, Eileen M. “All the Light We Cannot See.” Literary Reference Center Plus, 20 May 2017. Accessed 14 Jan 2020.
- Beck, Evelyn. “All the Light We Cannot See.” Literary Reference Center Plus, 24 Jan. 2014. Accessed 14 Jan 2020
- Campbell, Hayley C. “All the Light We Chose Not to See.” BYU Scholars Archive, Brigham Young University, 18 Mar. 2017, scholarsarchive.byu.edu/. Accessed 24 Jan 2020.
- McGowan, Jo. “Resistance, Then & Now.” Literary Reference Center Plus, 29 Oct. 2017. Accessed 18 Jan 2020.
- Murray, Judy. “All the Light We Cannot See.” Literary Reference Center Plus, 1 Aug. 2014. Accessed 24 Jan 2020.
- Rohland, Lindsay. “All the Light We Cannot See.” Literary Reference Center Plus, 24 Apr. 2019. Accessed 24 Jan 2020.
- Sienkewicz, Julia A. “All the Light We Cannot See.” Literary Reference Center Plus, 1 June 2015. Accessed 27 Jan 2020.
- Solomon, Robert C. “On Fate and Fatalism.” Philosophy East and West, vol. 53, University of Hawai’i Press, 2003, pp. 435–454. Accessed 16 Jan 2020.
- Vollman , William T. “Darkness Visible.” New York Times, 8 May 2014. Accessed 15 Jan 2020.
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