Characters in a story do not talk and move about in a blank world with no color and no objects. They have to conduct their story in some type of setting. Their world helps direct the story and bring the climax to fruition. The setting can be as varied as the characters and support their actions and the underlying theme of the story. In nearly sister stories, A Tale of Two Cities and All the Light We Cannot See, the settings are vital for the plot, character development, and themes to develop.
A major connection between the books is the fact that a large section of their settings are in war torn France. Dickens’ goes between London and Paris as he weaves A Tale of Two Cities about the lives torn apart by the French Revolution. Doerr takes All the Light We Cannot See and sets it in Germany and France during World War II. Both authors used France during very bloody times and set their stories of hope and fear in the middle of it. All the characters strive to survive and reunite with loved ones during times that are dangerous and explosive. The atmosphere is highly charged with multiple conflicts abounding.
Both authors chose settings and time periods that did not require extensive world building. They both took real places and real events to help establish the rules of the world. There was no need to create societal rules, scientific rules, or ethnic rules. These were laid out in the history books and followed by the authors. This left them to focus on creating the characters and the conflict that was placed in these settings. Yet they took their own unique approaches.
Dickens allows the characters to conduct their development and display in a peaceful setting. While France was in revolt, Great Britain was at peace. Nearly half the book is set in a peaceful setting with the conflict in the wings, moving about as it prepared to suck them into intense conflict. He takes the time to describe a dinner, “of a very modest quality…so well cooked and so well served, and so neat…, half English and half French, that nothing could be better” (Dickens, 75). Doerr, on the other hand has both locations the characters play out full of conflict and strife. France is being invaded and occupied with executions and arrests as well as curfews and censorship. Citizens flee and “a child screeches. A man with panic in his voice demands the crowd to make way. A woman nearby moans…” (Doerr, 78). Germany is also full of arrests and censorship as the people are pulled along into a war as the enemy. There is conflict and tension in both settings. The characters are never allowed a place to rest and find peace. They are always in the midst of the conflict. There is continual tension permeating the pages.
Dickens’ limits his worlds where the characters move about. They move between three primary locations in London. In France, most scenes are set in tense Paris with a small detour outside the city. Even within the city, he keeps the characters in close quarters either in the wine shop, in the prison, or right outside the prison. Very little is allowed outside those boundaries. That allows him to use familiar rules for his world. He does not need to stretch to allow certain moves by the characters. Everything is set in an orderly manner. Doerr does not limit his characters. They move about all over the two countries. Various cities and locations are seen on the pages as “in three months…has traveled to Berlin and Stuttgart” one character travels (Doerr, 234). The worlds are changing for Doerr’s characters. He has to make sure each setting is right for that scene. The blind girl’s worlds are slightly more restrictive to the German boy’s as she counts “every day she has been shut up…One hundred and twenty. One hundred and twenty one” (Doerr, 166), but they are more detailed. The author shows Marie-Laure moving about the “cellar in her stocking feet. Here’s a rolled rug…Antique lamp. Madame Manec’s canning supplies” (Doerr, 206). Doerr goes into extreme detail in her world as the reader has to see it through her heightened senses. Even when the reader is observing from a distance, the detail is given. Doerr’s worlds are adapted to appeal to the reader’s senses. Dickens’ worlds are used more as a backdrop to guide the characters.
Various themes run through the stories assisting the reader in seeing how “it relates to reality and life in general” (Carpenter). Both stories touch on the destruction of war and how it can pull families apart. Dickens shows family members pulled from their loved ones and thrown into prison and then usually on to have their head removed. It threatens to tear Lucy and Charles apart and send her father’s mind back into the darkness where they had pulled it from. He uses the setting to show how dark the revolution compared to the peaceful meal in Britain: “…with dripping blood…all their wicked atmosphere seemed gore and fire. The eye could not detect one creature in the group free from the smear of blood” (Dickens, 203). Doerr has war separate Werner from his sister and having it cause Marie-Laure to flew from her home with her father. They see death and lose many who are near to them. Death is always near by due to the war machine Hitler had running over Europe. It buries them: “Maybe they are buried too deep….The rations are long gone, the canteens are empty, and the sludge in the bottom of the bucket…is undrinkable” (Doerr, 379).
Throughout most of Dickens’ book, he has the theme boiling in the background. The characters are not always in the midst of the conflict. The threat is there but only if they reach out for it. Once Charles Darnay does, the turmoil quickly engulfs them which leads to the tense climax near the very end of the book. Doerr allows only a small window of time before the characters are lost in the war theme. It consumes them and drives every decision they make. Dickens has the theme in the shadows most of the time. Doerr has it front and center.
Dickens audience when he published the book were British subjects mainly living in London. Having so much of the story set in London helped the reader to connect to the characters. He used the setting as the character connection and bring sympathy for them when the French, who were commonly at odds with the British, were threatening to ruin the peace they had obtained in London. It helped support his theme of the destruction of war. This is done immediately on the first page when he connects the reader by pointing out that “there was a king…and a queen…on the throne of England…there was a king…and a queen…on the throne of France” (Dickens, 1). Doerr’s technique of having the setting a pivotal force increases the intensity of the story. War is everywhere, even in the peaceful coastal town where Marie-Laure and her father seek sanctuary. The setting and the atmosphere around them is destruction with hope pushing them forward. Even within the place she seeks safety, her finds her “heart scrambling to deliver oxygenated blood, the mind scrambling to unravel the situation” (Doerr, 312).
Both authors use the setting to support the theme but in unique ways. Dickens has it lurking in the shadows ready to pounce to rush the climax forward. Doerr has the theme ever present and driving everything in the story. All actions and decisions are based on the destruction of war. Dickens makes it appear more tertiary until he needs it to wrap it all up. So similar yet so different. Each author takes a unique approach with the same literary elements to create different reactions to their stories and masterpieces to stand on their own.
Carpenter, Courtney. “Exploring Theme – A Key Component to Successful Writing”. Writer’s Digest. 30 April, 2012. Web. 6 February, 2016.
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1999. Print
Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. New York: Scribner, 2014. Print.