Chapter 1 Introduction
1.1 Anthony Doerr and All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr is a famous contemporary young American writer who won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for literature for his novel All the Light We Cannot See (2014). The novel remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for over 200 weeks. This exceptional honor makes his works widely concerned by the academic circles. Before this honor, Doerr has won lots of awards for his works, including five O. Henry Prizes, the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts, the 2010 Story Prize, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, an Alex Award from the American Library Association, and some other prestigious prizes. In 2007, Granta, an old authoritative British literary magazine founded in 1889, ranked Doerr among the 21 best young American writers.
Doerr was born in Cleveland, Ohio on October 27, 1973. He grew up on a farm so that he would have more opportunities to get close to nature. When he was 8 years old, Doerr moved to Cleveland with his parents, where there was great environmental pollution caused by the process of industrialization. The pollution triggered Doerr’s reflection on the relationship between man and nature. He attended the University School in nearby areas and graduated in 1991. In 1995, he majored in history at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. After that, he continued to study at Bowling Green State University and received his MFA. Doerr currently teaches creative writing in the master’s class at Warren Wilson College.
1.2 Literature Review
Anthony Doerr is a highly praised contemporary American writer. His works have attracted the attention of scholars at home and abroad. The novel All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is the focus of scholars’ research.
1.2.1 Studies Abroad
First of all, most scholars explore the war theme and emphasize the importance of technology in the novel. In the thesis “The Second World War and Technological Progress in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See: A Thematic Analysis”, Barbora Bílová (2017) analyzes the historical events during World War II in the novel and especially highlights the important role of wireless technology in connecting the two protagonists. In the thesis “Myth versus Technology in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See”, Sarjana Humaniora (2019) collects all the segments or events in the novel and proves that myth and technology are two opposing elements in the novel. Although Doerr uses myth as a story-builder element, his purpose is to demystify the meaning of myth and remind the reader that technology is actually something more worthwhile to believe in.
Some studies focus on the characters in the novel. The thesis, “Marie-Laure’s Struggle as Blind Teenager in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See”, which was written by Monica Herdianti (2020), mainly analyzes the personality characteristics of Marie-Laure, such as intelligence, bravery and curiosity. Meanwhile, the author explores how Marie-Laure struggles to fulfill her needs in a precarious situation based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory. In the essay “Sovereignty of Liberalism in Anthony Doerr’s Novel All the Light We Cannot See”, Maharani Deta Putri, Kurnia Ningsih, and An Fauzia Rozani Syafei (2014) explore the sovereignty of liberalism through Marie-Laure’s character, as well as her reaction to the conflict and circumstances around her from two aspects: personal liberty and social liberty.
Chapter 2 The Topographical Space of Werner and Marie-Laure’s Growth
2.1 Werner’s Growth as an Orphan
Werner Pfenning was born in Germany. His dream is to be an engineer. But the outbreak of World War II changes the trajectory of his life. He is forced to stay away from his hometown and join the army. The topographical space of Werner’s growth mainly includes Zollverein, the National Political Institute, Vienne and Saint-Malo.
2.1.1 Zollverein: A Steel Country
Where Dreams Begin Werner is an orphan whose father lost his life once down a mine shaft. He was raised together with his younger sister Jutta at the Children’s House in Zollverein. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard claims that “our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word” (1994)4. “House” is the spiritual home and the purest existence in one’s inner world. For Werner, the Children’s House in Zollverein is the place carrying his emotions and memories, and the starting point of life and dreams.
The most common way to construct a topographical space in a novel relies on direct description. Zollverein is located in western Germany, and the steel and coal in Zollverein are used as fuel reserves for German Fascism’s aggressive war. As Doerr describes in the novel, “It’s steel country, anthracite Smokestacks fume and locomotives trundle back and forth on elevated conduits and leafless trees stand atop slag heaps like skeleton hands shoved up from the underworld” (2014)24. The workers here earn their living by doing the most dangerous physical work. They drag their tired bodies to work underground in turns and repeat their hard work day after day. The orphans in Children’s House wear patched clothes, use stained utensils, and sometimes even eat mustard greens to fill their stomachs. Through these descriptions, it can be seen that the people living in the mining area are the representatives of the lower class in Germany. Living in such an environment, though Werner is full of curiosity about everything around him, exploring and understanding this attractive world in his own unique way, the map of the world in his eyes is limited to the topographical space, which is surrounded by the noise of cables swinging and hammers banging in almost every minute.
2.2 Marie-Laure’s Growth as a Blind Girl
Zoran claims that “only one aspect of the structure of topographical space is dependent on the logic of the narrative text: the special spatial existence of the characters. The characters are generally perceived as belonging to a separate narrative level with its own particular problems” (1984)317. Marie-Laure is a blind girl. The world she perceives is different from others. She can only recognize the world through senses other than vision. The topographical space of Marie-Laure’s growth mainly includes her hometown in Paris and her granduncle’s house in Saint-Malo.
2.2.1 Paris: The Hometown Bombed by German Forces
Marie-Laure’s hometown is Paris, which is also the starting point of her growth. Because of a congenital cataract, she could see nothing at the age of six. There is no doubt that the blindness was a heavy blow to a child. Marie was plunged into desperation because the once colorful world suddenly became dark. “The world pivots and rumbles. Cows shouts, brakes hiss, someone to her left bangs something metal with what might be a hammer” (2014) 36. For Marie-Laure, who has just lost her sight, Paris is like a huge maze. Everything around has changed, which is different from what it was in the past. Marie-Laure cried because she could not escape from the sudden danger on the roads like ordinary people and threw away her walking stick in despair. Her father made her a scaled-down model of the city of Paris. Thanks to his encouragement, she gradually adapted to the dark world of the blind. Marie-Laure “makes the real neighborhood and the miniature one get mixed up in her mind” (2014)30. She could cross several blocks smoothly and find her own way home. “Left on rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Right on rue Daubenton. Three storm drains four storm drains five. Approaching on the left will be the open ironwork fence of the Jardin des Plantes, its thin spars like the bars of a great birdcage” (2014)41.
Chapter 3 The Social Space of Werner and Marie-Laure’s Growth ................ 27
3.1 The Social Space of Werner’s Growth .............................. 27
3.1.1 Growth Under the Influence of Nazi Ideology ............................... 27
3.1.2 Growth Under the Influence of Family and Friend ............................ 29
Chapter 4 Werner and Marie-Laure’s Growth in Mental Space ...................... 36
4.1 Werner’s Growth in Mental Space ............................. 36
4.1.1 The Self-numbing Period ........................................ 36
4.1.2 The Inner Struggle Period ............................................. 38
Chapter 5 Conclusion ........................................ 47
Chapter 4 Werner and Marie-Laure’s Growth in Mental Space
4.1 Werner’s Growth in Mental Space
The growth of Werner’s mental space mainly includes three periods: the self-numbing period, the inner struggle period, and the awakening period.
4.1.1 The Self-numbing Period
As a 14-year-old child, Werner has yet to form a set of established values, judging the external world only by his limited life experience. In the early stage of Werner’s growth, his hometown has already been controlled by the Nazi regime and the children in the orphanage exhibit a streak of violence after pledging allegiance to the Hitler Youth. In spite of being aware of the changes in the surroundings, Werner insists on studying at the National Political Institute in a bid to fulfill his dream of being an engineer. Therefore, he has to succumb to the ideology instilled by the German Nazi government. Whenever the atrocities of the Nazis run counter to his inner conscience, he is inclined to seek temporary peace of mind by resorting to self-numbing.
Werner’s first experience with self-numbing was when he took the entrance examination for the National Political Institute, which was rather harsh. All students competed for the best results in various subjects with a profound yearning for admission. The cutthroat competition of survival of the fittest in natural selection rendered Werner uncomfortable: “And yet at other times, despite his ambitions, he is visited by instants of vertigo” (2014)114. But at the same time, Werner enticed himself into the belief that the school was a place for elite training, as the examiner claimed: “We will take only the purest, only the strongest” (2014)116. In fact, the self-suppression serves as an approach for him to escape the contrition within. He still labors under the misapprehension that only by passing the examination can he earn the opportunity to take control of his own destiny. During the exam, Werner saw a boy fall to the ground when climbing a ladder, resulting in a serious fracture of his forearm, and being carried away by the examiner without any show of empathy. He chose to ignore it and made a conscious effort to keep reminding himself that how desperate he was to make the cut, saying “So do I. So do I” (2014)114 and shouting “Heil Hitler” (2014) 116. He remained adamant that he deserved a better place in order to realize the value of life, and the envy of other children from the mining area bolstered Werner’s determination to go to school. In the face of seemingly better life choices, he gives up independent thinking and sensible judgment voluntarily, reconciling himself to the trend of the times and following the Nazi system as the majority do.
Chapter 5 Conclusion
All the Light We Cannot See is a novel set during World War II. In contrast to other war novels, the author combines the grand historical narrative with the personal stories using a binary structure, instead of giving too much prominence to the blood and gore as well as historical events in wartime. The main plot of the novel revolves around two children from rival nations. Guided by the spatial narrative theory, the thesis finds that Doerr displays the growth process of the child protagonists in an all-round fashion through multiple-layered spatial narration, which not only enriches the connotation of the novel and the structural level of the text, but also highlights the adverse impact of the war on children’s individual development.
Firstly, according to Gabriel Zoran’s spatial narrative theory, this research delves into the topographical space where the two protagonists grow up. The safety and stability of the topographical space is the prerequisite for children’s growth. During World War II, the German Nazis devastated the growth environment of the two children, who came from Germany and France respectively. Affected by the war, they are compelled to leave their familiar hometown and wander around in strange cities. Werner, with the aspiration of becoming an engineer, sets foot on the battlefield, which makes him lose the orientation of life. He finally grows up in the frontline city of Saint-Malo, where he decides to save the girl from a hostile country. Marie-Laure, who used to lead a happy life with her father in Paris, is forced to flee to Saint-Malo and ends up growing up under the surveillance by Germany. The shift of the topographical space overturns the children’s original cognition of the external world, exerting a negative effect on their growth.