Theme of War and Fear in “All the Light We Cannot See”: Anthony Doerr’s book review

Theme of War and Fear in “All the Light We Cannot See”: Anthony Doerr’s book review


The themes of fear and war dominate Anthony Doerr’s book, All the Light We Cannot See. The story is set in the French coastal town of Saint-Malo,  at a time when world war II is reaching its climax. With regards to this context fear refers to an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm while war refers to a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country. All actions of human beings are informed by their desire to achieve self-preservation and prosperity.

War goes against every fiber of human beings desire of self-preservation and is often the last option in settling irreconcilable differences. This is because the effects of war have far-reaching effects on both parties. These effects extend to loss of life, damage to property and a damaged relationship between parties to the war.

In his text All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr, describes the effects of war from the perspective of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure. As a consequence of war, Marie-Laure’s life is turned upside down by the Nazi invasion of France.

The story opens with a description of leaflets falling from the sky in France, informing and urging the people to leave town. This setting sets the stage for the themes of fear and war. The reason why people are being asked to skip town is out of fear of the imminent war that is set to come when the Nazi invade France.

The threat of war is imminent and alive to the people living in the town. More so because during war all sanity is thrown to the wind and man is stripped of his conscious and is left with his basic animal instinct which is kill or be killed. The effects of war are captured by the suffering that Marie-Laure has to go through. ‘Marie-Laure’s life is thrown into upheaval by the war. Her father taught her from ages ten to sixteen to understand and navigate her neighborhood, but the threat of invasion sent them to a new town.’

The plight of Marie-Laure is shared across the board, by all civilians. In response to the leaflets urging people to flee from the town, innocent civilians flee from their comfort zones and venture into a world unknown. The threat of death is more alive than ever, the presence of the bombers is testament to this fact. ‘ All spring the bombers come, every single night, their only goal seemingly to burn the city to its roots. Most nights the girls hurry to the end of the block and climb into a cramped shelter and are kept awake by crashing of stonework.’

The war as described by Doerr has the overall effect of instilling immense fear in the lives of civilians, life has since changed from fending for themselves to defending themselves from the fear of death and the enemy. This situation is made worse by the bodies left lying in the streets. ‘Once in a while, on the walk to the factory, they see bodies, mummies turned to ash, people scorched beyond recognition. Other times, the corpses bear no apparent injuries, and it is these that fill jutta with dread; people who look like they are a moment away from rising up and slogging back to work with the rest of them, but they do not wake. Once she sees a row of three children face down backpacks on their backs. Her first thought is; wake up. Go to school. Then she thinks; there could be food in those packs’ This statement best captures the effects of war to the extent of turning normal human beings to savages.

No one understands war better than Ettiene, Etienne was an active participant in World War 1. To the extent that he suffered post-traumatic stress stemming from his involvement in world war 1. His involvement has taken a serious toll on his person to the extent that it limits his interaction with fellow human beings. Etienne is unable or unwilling to leave his house, only interacting with the world via his radio transmissions. Despite the war having ended, Ettiene is trapped in his own mind and home. Making him a prisoner of war, years after the war ended. The post-traumatic stress is caused by the things he did or witnessed in a bid to survive. Etienne understands and relates to the description by Doerr, ‘ An avalanche descends onto the city. A hurricane. Teacups drift off shelves. Paintings slip off nails. In another quarter second, the sirens are inaudible. Everything is Inaudible. The roar becomes loud enough to separate the membranes in the middle ear. The anti-ear guns let fly their final shells. Twelve bombers fold back unharmed into the blue night.(Doerr 40)

Symbolism in All the Light We Cannot See

The novel, all the light we cannot see brings in focus familial loyalty and love. Marie-Laure’s great-uncle Etienne happens to have actively participated in world war 1. As such he is well versed on the virtues of loyalty and survival during the time of war. Etienne advises his niece, on the importance of familial loyalty and love during the time of war. ‘If your same blood doesn’t run in the arms and legs of the person you’re next to. You can’t trust anything.’  ( Doerr 50)

This advice stems from the fact that during hard times, the only people we can rely on and trust are family members. Indeed, during hard times, all friendships are dissolved by the desire to survive. Making it easy for friends to betray each other. However, family members will always have each other backs regardless of the situation they face.

In his text, All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr employs imagery of literal darkness and light. This is done through the motif of vision and sight for Marie Laure. In the context of the book, darkness represents evil while light represents good.  Marie-Laure happens to be blind, but that does not stop her from seeing the kindness and goodness in people and in sensing the dark side of the people with selfish intentions aimed at harming her or her family.

Marie-Laure is able to maintain her human nature despite the fact that her family has suffered immensely in the hands of the Nazis. This can be attributed to the fact that she lacks the ability to see first hand the effects and damage of war. The best she could do is form imaginations that cannot effectively capture the consequences of war.


Doerr has excelled in his quest to portray and relay the effects of war to civilians. War has the effect of taking away the peace and happiness enjoyed by people and replacing it with fear and barbarism.

Fear has the effect of making people engage in extremely selfish acts all in an attempt to preserve their life at least for a moment. Etienne best captures the life of civilians who survive war. Survivors of war are robbed of their innocence and are forced to live and deal with post-traumatic stress. As such, human beings should make a solemn promise to themselves not to engage in war, until all avenues of dispute resolution are exhausted.

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