All the Light We Cannot See is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Breaking Down an All the Light We Cannot See Essay Prompt
We've explored themes and symbols and provided a summary of the text over on our All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr blog post. If you need a quick refresher or you’re new to studying this text, I highly recommend checking it out!
Here, we’ll be breaking down an All the Light We Cannot See essay topic using LSG’s THINK and EXECUTE strategy, a technique to help you write better VCE essays. If you’re unfamiliar with this strategy, you can learn about it in our How To Write A Killer Text Response study guide.
Within the THINK strategy, we have 3 steps, or ABC. These ABC components are:
Step 1: Analyse
Step 2: Brainstorm
Step 3: Create a Plan
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
‘In All the Light We Cannot See there is a fine line between civilised and uncivilised behaviour.’ Discuss.
Step 1: Analyse
Taking a look at this prompt, the first thing to note is that it is theme-based. Specifically asking about the line that separates civilised and uncivilised behaviour within the novel, this prompt focuses directly on the theme of human behaviours and how you ultimately interpret the fine line (i.e. seamless, difficult, changing, manipulative) between such ideas. Fundamentally, you have to discuss how this theoretical line drawn between the contrasting behaviours is explored within the novel in various ways throughout Doerr’s examination of humanity.
The question tag of Discuss is the most flexible type of prompt/topic you will receive, providing you with a broad and open-ended route to pretty much discuss any ideas that you believe fit within the prompt’s theme of uncivilised and civilised behaviour. Although this may seem hard to know where to start, this is where Step 2: Brainstorm, comes into play. You can read through LSG’s Question Tags You Need To Know section (in How To Write A Killer Text Response) to further familiarise yourself with various ways to tackle different prompt tags.
If you’re not sure what it is meant by ‘theme-based prompt,’ take a look at The 5 Types of Essay Prompts.
Step 2: Brainstorm
A fundamental aspect of writing a solid Text Response essay is being able to use a diverse range of synonyms for the keywords outlined in the prompt. Our keywords are in bold. When you are brainstorming, if any words pop into your head, definitely list them so you can use them later. You may want to have a highlighter handy when unpacking prompts so you can do just this!!
‘In All the Light We Cannot See there is a fine line between civilised and uncivilised behaviour.’ Discuss.
- How people have grown up determines the civil and uncivilised behaviours shown by individuals of different backgrounds and childhoods
- Bastian is symbolised as the eagle that circles the youth camp, which is an uncivilised/unwanted form of hawk-like behaviour. This compares to Fredrick's love of birds as a young boy which makes him a softer character.
- Bernd had ‘no friends’ as a child - showing his isolated past - which could be described as the reason he leaves his father and goes off to join the Hilter Youth ‘just like the other boys.’ (find this analysis in the chapter ‘The Death of Walter Bernd’)
- There is a fine line that Doerr draws between the stereotypes of women and their ability to remain civilised despite being suppressed by uncivil livelihoods and experiences.
- Jutta is characterised as a strong and independent woman instead of the traditional ‘pretty girl in a propaganda poster’. Society expects most women to stand on that side of human behaviour and representation however she defies this.
- The strength of women to cross/overcome the line of uncivilised behaviour is significant within the sexual abuse and misconduct driven by soldiers. Can remain true to oneself despite the horrific behaviours a woman faces.
- The role of women on the homefront (i.e. Fredrick’s Mother) highlights the stark contrast between men fighting and thinking about the ‘men they killed’ and mothers who put on a ‘fake smile to appear brave’ (the line between barbaric behaviours of many soldiers and caring/loving behaviours of those on the homefront) - women and their sacrifices is an important topic here
- It is one’s ability to adapt to change that draws the line between civil and uncivilised behaviours.
- Marie Laure’s ability to look past being a ‘blind girl’, and move on from this hardship. She adapts to the ‘changing times’ around her despite others who are suppressed in such an environment (e.g. Etienne and his ‘dread’).
- The game of flying couch is a symbol of escaping the uncivilised world around them (metaphorical line of the human imagination).
- Werner is predominantly overwhelmed by the world around him, which reflects his inability to no longer ask questions as he did as a young boy. Instead, he succumbs to the uncivilised world of death and destruction as he is unable to change.
- Symbolic use of Werner’s ‘soft covered notebook’ in epilogue - symbolises his loss of perspective and wonder of the world,
- Ultimately it is this line that makes the human existence so unique
Step 3: Create a Plan
After having brainstormed all the ideas that came to mind, I’ll be approaching the essay prompt with the following contention.
In a world where society is grounded by behaviours both civil and uncivil, there is a clear distinction between humanity's response and representation of these behaviours.
Coming up with a clear contention allows you to put together a cohesive and strong essay that answers all aspects of the prompt question.
Now, onto developing our topic sentences for each paragraph!
P1: Embedded within Doerr’s nonlinear narrative*, the environment in which individuals have grown up consequently influences their behaviours later in life.
*A nonlinear narrative is a storytelling technique Doerr uses to portray events out of chronological order.
P2: Encompassing the social paradigms that pervade a woman’s existence, the strength and civilisation of females allow them to traverse a line of unjust behaviours that suppress them.
P3: In essence, it is the human response to change that divides individuals from ultimately displaying civil or uncivil acts in the world.
The art of recognising the ephemera of the human existence is painted by Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See as a fine line between behaviours of civilisation and extreme brutality (1). In the inordinate scheme of history, Doerr fosters the dichotomy between those who remain socially aware and others who are marred by desolation as a reflection on one's past. Further subverting the traditional depiction of women in a ‘war story’, the strength of women is established as a key turning point for individuals to escape barbaric behaviours and cross the line to civilisation. Fundamentally, however, it is the overall response to change that crafts human behaviours that Doerr underpins within society (2).
(1) it is important to include synonym variation in your opening sentence to ensure that it does not look like you have just copied the prompt and placed it on your page. This idea should be carried out throughout your essay - vary your words and try not to repeat anything, this will ensure you are clear and concise!
(2) In order to improve the flow of your writing, the final topic sentence of your introduction can be a concluding statement on why/how the topic is OVERALL expressed within the novel. When you formulate your contention, it is not enough just to state it, you must also provide reasoning as to why you are writing from this point of view or how you came to this conclusion. For example, my final topic sentence here is a concluding sentence about how I believe a fine line between uncivilised and civil behaviour has an influence throughout the entire novel and Doerr’s intention, one’s response to change. As you read on, you’ll also see that this sentence relates to my final paragraph, thus linking together ideas throughout my essay.
Embedded within Doerr’s nonlinear narrative, the environment in which individuals have grown up consequently influences their behaviours later in life. The initial illustration of the ‘smokestacks hume’ and the ‘black and dangerous’ imagery (3) of the war paints a clear picture of the destruction and trauma that individuals have lived amongst, thus why people were ‘desperate to leave’. Empathising with an ‘old woman who cuddles her toddler’ on the streets, Doerr laments how young individuals who end up ‘surg[ing] towards one cause,’ which this toddler may similarly grow up to do in the Hitler Youth, directly reflects the ‘intense malice’ of their childhood. This idea that one’s past affects the future behaviours of a generation is further captured within the chapter ‘The Death of Walter Bernd’ (4), which outlines how Bernd’s upbringing with ‘no friends’ promotes him to ‘just leave’, in order to experience something new, despite knowing this something new would bring unjust decisions into his life. Becoming ‘just like the other boys’, Doerr suggests that the line between civil and uncivil behaviours is so thin (5) that a mere need to escape one’s past is enough to create feelings of negativity and at worst death. Encapsulating the darkness that prevails over such individuals, the symbolism of Bastian’s ‘sharp eyes’ (6) poetically describes the eagle that circles the youth camp where Doerr seeks to paint a metaphorical cruel depiction of Bastian as a harmful hawk. Underpinning the fine line between human behaviour, Fredrick’s ‘love of birds’ is ‘so beautiful[ly]’ representative of his respectful nature and approach to life while Bastian’s immersion in ‘the self interest of the world’ ultimately explains how his fallacious behaviour towards others is embodied by his environment within the war. Overall, the behaviours displayed by humanity are a reflection of past experiences and how they shape the individual.
(3) Imagery is a key aspect of All the Light We Cannot See and goes hand in hand with the vast symbolism Doerr uses within his novel. When including imagery, it is great to include a few related quotes; however, you must then ensure you analyse and delve into how this technique (imagery) demonstrates the idea you are writing about. In this case, the imagery of the chimneys and foggy/dirty air illustrates the desolate environment individuals lived in during the war.
(4) This chapter is something not many students analyse or touch on so if you’re looking to add some spice to your writing I would definitely take a look and see what you can extract from some of those more unique and nuanced chapters!
(5) Referencing the ‘fine line’ continually throughout your essay ensures that you are staying on track and not talking about topics away from the prompt.
(6) Symbolism is very important in All the Light We Cannot See. The use of the quote ‘sharp eyes’, really shows that you have considered not only how Doerr simply explores the behaviour of each character but also the physical interpretations of how individuals may demonstrate a certain persona within the novel. This focus on character description on top of dialogue adds extra layers to your writing.
Encompassing the social paradigms that pervade a woman’s existence, the strength and civilisation of females allow them to traverse a line of unjust behaviours that suppress them. Instead of characterising Jutta as a ‘pretty girl in a propaganda poster’, whom the soldier will ‘fight and die for’, Doerr proffers the unconventional humanisation of women on the home front to pay tribute to the power of staying true to oneself (7). Despite facing the barbaric reality of ‘sex crazed torturers’, Doerr illuminates Jutta’s capacity to ‘look them in the eye’ rather than shy away from them as a meditation on her own morals of (8) ‘what is right’. The tragic nature (9) of such abuse is specifically chronicled by Doerr to concatenate (10) the continual brave behaviours Jutta portrays even when succumbing to the line that attempts to draw women away from strength and independence. Further referencing her desire to ‘lock away memories’ of the past in her life after the war, the novel posits the importance of women during a period of inordinate history as a powerful force that remained civil even in times of ‘absolute blackness’. From the perspective of Fredrick’s mother, Doerr seeks to display how her ‘fake smile to appear brave’ outlines how many mothers and women had to remain strong for their children, such as Fredrick with brain damage, even though they were so close to falling into a world of sorrow and isolation. A clear segregation between soldiers who thought about ‘the men they killed’ and women who were made to ‘feel complicit in an unspeakable crime’ (11) they did not commit overall affirms the sacrifices women made during the war and without such sacrifices and strength the thin line between behavioural acts would be broken.
(7) Here I have included an analysis of Doerr’s message - what he is trying to say or show within his novel. Ultimately an author has a message they seek to share with the world. Providing your own interpretation of certain messages the author may be attempting to send to his readers adds real depth to your writing, showing that you are not only considering the novel itself but the purpose of the author and how this novel came to explore the fundamental ideas of the essay prompt.
(8) This quote directly relates to the keyword: civilised behaviour. Finding quotes that are also specific to your prompt is crucial to producing an essay that flows and has meaning.
(9) The use of adjectives within the essay paints the picture of whether an act is civil or uncivil which is ultimately what we are attempting to discuss from the prompt. Here the phrase ‘tragic nature’, underpins the essence of unjust behaviours shown by the soldiers.
(10) Concatenate - link/connect ideas together
(11) Comparing aspects within the novel is a great way to show your understanding and how the same theme or idea can be shown in many different ways.
In essence, it is the human response to change that divides individuals from ultimately displaying civil or uncivil acts in the world. Established by Marie Laure’s characterisation as a ‘blind girl’ who can ‘project anything onto the black screen of her imagination’, Doerr illuminates her ability to adapt to the ‘changing times’ around her. She is seen to be ‘carried away by reveries’ rather than a plethora of voices who ‘forgo all comforts’ and ‘eat and breathe nation’. Through the chapter and make-believe game ‘flying couch’ (12), Marie’s nature to ‘surrender firearms’ with Etienne in their imagination is a symbolic adoption to escape the world around them, hence the uncivilised society they are learning to live in. Doerr’s congruent imagery of Etienne’s changing voice of ‘dread’ to ‘velvety’ as he becomes intertwined within ‘Marie’s bravery’ underpins the ability for individuals to seamlessly cross the line from a lack of cultured behaviour to a world of hope and prosperity. Contrasting this, however, Werner, an individual who was initially curious about ‘how the world works’, is so ‘overwhelmed by how quickly things are changing around [him]’ that his ‘interest in peace’ is stripped away and no longer exists due to his inability to change with a changing world. Doerr, therefore, laments the transmogrification of his character as a reflection of his uncivil thoughts and ideals as a soldier, ultimately resulting in his loss of ability to ask questions. This idea places emphasis on Volkheimer receiving Werner’s ‘soft covered notebook’ in the epilogue (13) where the translation of the book’s title ‘Fragen’ - to ‘ask’ in English - is symbolic of the moment Werner decided to ‘work, join, confess, die’ he immediately lost the open mind and curiosity he once had. Ultimately, the dichotomy between these two lives and their opposing character transformations resembles the line between remaining calm or acting out of haste when subject to change.
(12) Analysing not only the game but the whole meaning behind chapters and why Doerr has given them certain names is an interesting avenue to take. Here ‘flying couch’ not only underpins the imagination of Marie Laure but also symbolises freedom and bravery within just the name itself.
(13) The analysis and evidence used from the epilogue is a crucial part of this paragraph and is significant to Doerr’s novel. Unpacking All the Light We Cannot See, there is a lot of evidence and juicy ideas you can draw from the beginning and end of the novel. Here I have almost analysed the meaning of Werner’s ‘soft covered notebook’ to the bone; however, this adds a lot of depth to your writing as I’m sure your ultimate goal is to make your essays as unique as possible?!
As a project of humanism, Doerr seeks to portray a fine segregation in people's behaviours as the microcosm (14) of what makes the human existence so unique. Following the journeys of individuals who even ‘see a century turn’’ the novel displays how one’s past has an immense influence on how their future values, actions and behaviours grow and develop. Further subverting the stereotypical representation of women living in a war, Doerr establishes an acknowledgment of their roles and strength in the face of cruel situations. Ostensibly, it is the human capacity to adapt to change that marks the difference between what is just and unjust in a society that weighs both on a very unstable scale.
(14) Microcosm - a community, place or situation regarded as encapsulating in miniature the characteristics of something much larger.
If you find this essay breakdown helpful, then you might want to check out our All the Light We Cannot See Prompts blog post. You can have a go at those essay prompts and feel free to refer back to this essay breakdown whenever you need. Good luck!