All the Light We Cannot See offers a view of World War II from a fascinating perspective. Its two teenage protagonists are on opposite sides of the war, yet they have more in common than it appears. Their separate stories progress toward each other until they intersect at a crucial moment. Anthony Doerr’s historical fiction novel explores the nature of humanity through these extraordinary characters.

A pre-reading lesson about the French Resistance could be beneficial to students, who might be unfamiliar with that aspect of WWII. For help visualizing the multiple settings and places identified in the story, students could plot the locations on a map as they read. To expand the activity, have students create a timeline of events for the main characters, Marie-Laure and Werner.

All the Light We Cannot See is rich with literary elements to analyze and discuss. For example, technology is an important theme—it can be used for good or for evil. Marie-Laure uses radio transmissions to aid the French Resistance; Werner uses them to track Resistance members. Radio transmitters, like the internet today, were a way to communicate with others on a massive scale and had the power to change lives. To help students connect this idea to their own lives, you could ask them to reflect on their experiences with the internet and social media. They could write about a time when a post affected them in some way or had widespread impact.

Other interesting aspects of the novel involve motifs relating to remembrance, light, and obstacles. Doerr also addresses the question of choice vs. destiny. The characters do what they must to survive the challenges they face—but do their choices matter, or are their paths predetermined? A class debate on whether free will or fate shapes people’s lives would be a great way to wrap up the unit.

Read on for more illuminating information about All the Light We Cannot See; we would love to enlighten you!

Summary of All the Light We Cannot See

Key Facts

  • Publication Date: 2014
  • Length: 531 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 880L
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9-12
  • Awards: 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction

Marie-Laure LeBlanc lost her sight as a child, but she reads books in Braille and loves science. Her father, Daniel, is the master locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris. When the Germans invade, the two flee to the walled city of Saint-Malo to live with their reclusive uncle, Etienne. Daniel takes with him a legendary diamond that the museum has entrusted to him to keep safe from the Nazis. Marie-Laure becomes involved in the French Resistance, sending messages to the Allies through Etienne’s radio transmitter.

Werner Pfenning and his sister, Jutta, live in an orphanage in a mining town in Germany. Werner excels in math, engineering, and science, and his aptitude for radio repair earns him a place in a military school for Hitler Youth. Knowing that the school will save him from a life in the mines, Werner accepts, which upsets Jutta, who rejects Nazi ideology. The Nazis put Werner’s skills to use by having him track illegal radio transmissions by the French Resistance.

Werner is sent to Saint-Malo to hunt down the source of the transmissions. At the same time, a German officer named Von Rumpel arrives in Saint-Malo to look for the diamond, which he believes is in Etienne’s house. Is it destiny or the choices they’ve made that bring these characters together at this moment in time?

Content Warning: All the Light We Cannot See contains mature subject matter relating to war including violence, rape, and death; there are also instances of profanity and bullying.

What Your Students Will Love About All the Light We Cannot See

  • Very short chapters that toggle between the characters’ stories, making the reading easier to digest and more engaging
  • Relatable teenage characters struggling to find their place in the world and meaning in their lives

Potential Student Struggles With All the Light We Cannot See

  • Emotionally difficult subjects relating to the atrocities of war
  • Keeping track of the complex storyline

Learning Objectives for All the Light We Cannot See

  • Identify the ways in which the novel’s title is a metaphor.
  • Discuss why Marie-Laure loves mollusks and explain their symbolic significance.
  • Analyze the symbolism of the Sea of Flames.
  • Compare the meanings of the motifs relating to light, darkness, and color.
  • Examine the importance of science and technology and how it drives the story.
  • Consider how family and remembrance affect the characters’ lives.
  • Explore how the tragedies resulting from war influence the characters and their actions.

Literary Elements in All the Light We Cannot See

  • Allusion
  • Historical Context
  • Imagery
  • Metaphor
  • Motif
  • Point of View
  • Symbolism
  • Theme
  • And more!

Major Themes in All the Light We Cannot See

Survival and Endurance — All the characters are forced to endure the war, but Marie-Laure and Werner demonstrate the strength, determination, and courage needed to survive.

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War — War destroys lives and challenges people in extraordinary ways. The choices the characters make in response to the war reveal who they are and shape who they become.

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Science and Technology — Technology is important and can be beneficial, but it can also be dangerous in the wrong hands. Marie-Laure and Werner are fascinated by science and use technology as a means of survival and rebellion.

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Other Resources for All the Light We Cannot See

Order All the Light We Cannot See Resources from Prestwick House

Resource Format
All the Light We Cannot See Paperback Student Edition