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Exploring the Setting and Themes of Dickens and Doerr

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.



Works Cited

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.




Contrasting Character Development by Dickens and Doerr

Charles Dickens and Anthony Doerr lived centuries apart, but they wrote stories of trials, love, and desire through a France torn apart in different times of world history. Their styles are different yet both created characters who drew the reader in with their passion and voice. Characters in A Tale of Two Cities and All the Light We Cannot See become real to the reader and share emotions each reader can relate to.

Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities has multiple characters who develop and grow within the story from page one to the very last word. Oddly enough, the most growth does not occur with the main characters, Lucy Manette and Charles Darney. The greatest developments are shown within several other characters, especially in Jarvis Lorry. Mr. Lorry is the banker who had been in the heart of the story since most of them were ever born. He was the one who knew Dr. Manette before it all began and was the one who took Lucy Manette as a babe and rushed her to safety in England. He was the one to take the young woman Lucy becomes to rescue her father from the Bastile and from his mind.

In the beginning of the book, Lorry is an uptight banker unable to create empathy with others. His own dialogue reflects it as he addresses Lucy after nearly two decades after rescuing her:

“Miss Manette, I am a man of business. I have a business charge to acquit myself of. In your reception of it, don’t heed me any more than if I was a speaking machine — truly. I am not much else. I will, with your leave, relate to you, miss, the story of one of our customers” (Dickens, 16).

Lorry lacks emotion when a young woman needs it the most. His desire is only to get the job done which goes beyond what the usual role of a banker is. By the end of the book, he grows into someone who is willing to risk all for those he has come to love.

“Twenty years back, yes; at this time of my life, no. For as I draw closer and closer to the end, I travel in the circle, nearer and nearer to the beginning. It seems to be one of the kind smoothings and preparings of the way. My heart is touched now, by many remembrances that had long fallen asleep, of my pretty young mother (and I so old!), and by many associations of the days when what we call the World was not so real with me, and my faults were not confirmed in me” (Dickens, 241).

Lorry’s heart is now involved. He has become more than an instrument of the dramatic events. He had become embroiled in them.

Dickens using an omniscient narrator to give the reader insight into the development of each character. Various characters were brought in and given access to. If the story had been presented through the view of just one character, too much would have been withheld from the reader that was vital to know and understand.

Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a dramatic story of two main characters, leading up to their paths crossing. Both characters are seen from childhood into young adulthood, but the most developed character that cried out was Etienne LeBlanc.

Etienne was the great-uncle of the main character, Marie-Laure. It is to him that she and her father run to when Paris is overrun. The small, blind child is warned of how unusual her ‘crazy’ uncle is. He had not gone out of his house in years and did not like people. He is introduced as a mentally disturbed recluse who did not like anyone except his housekeeper. He is described as “lost. A mouse in a trap. He saw dead people passing through the walls. Terrible things in the corners of the street. Now your great-uncle does not go outdoors” (Doerr, 127). Expecting a relationship with anyone, including his great-niece is not to be expected, but the unique determination and character of the young girl breaks through the old man’s mental walls.

The reader watches as the young girl breaks through the walls, and the old man brings her into his world as he enters her. When the housekeeper dies and Marie-Laure’s father is arrested, these two handicapped people find themselves binding together to survive. When the young girl who is now a young woman is late coming home from her clandestine walk to the bakery, her great-uncle is so worried that he takes a massive step forward in his development: “When he last went out, almost twenty-four years ago….His heart beats icily in a faraway cage….Twenty heartbeats. Thirty-five minutes. He twists the latch, opens the gate. Steps outside” (Doerr, 418). He overcomes his fear to be the protector she needs through the rest of his life that he can be for her.

After the fear of losing his blind niece, Etienne refuses to let her continue with the dangerous mission of delivering messages. He tells her “I will go. I should have been going all along” (Doerr, 425). His courage has moved to action and words. Doerr let’s the character struggle with his fear and overcome them.

To allow the reader to fully experience the feelings of each character, Doerr switches points of view throughout the story. The majority of the book is presented by vacillating between Werner and Marie-Laure’s point of views. Through Marie-Laure’s view, the reader is introduced to Etienne and watches his development. Only when the young girl is not present does Doerr move to the viewpoint of other characters, in this case Etienne’s. He uses more action to reveal the character development with the dialogue more as a supporting role.

Dickens uses dialogue more to show the development of the characters. He is heavy on narrative, but when dialogue is presented, he uses it to reveal the heart of the character instead of letting the narrator show it. The narrator takes a backseat and lets the characters tell how they feel and where they are at that moment in the lives. Doerr is heavy on narrative and uses to reflect the souls of the characters of the dialogue. The reader hears the changes in Dickens’ work but can see the character development in Doerr’s. Both take a different approach to “exploit the space and tension between character voices and the narrative voices to great creative effect” (Scott).



Works Cited

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.

Scott, Jeremy. Creative Writing and Stylistics: Creative and Critical Approaches. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013. Kindle.

Dickens and Doerr’s Use of Style to Reveal the Soul of Their Work

This is a paper I wrote for my master’s in creative writing. It was a fun read and fun to write. I hope you enjoy it.


The past and the present can be so similar yet stand on different ends of a vivid spectrum. In comparing Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, one is allowed to step back and see poetry manifest in two unique ways. Both authors use their own distinct style to create works that speak to the heart and soul of their story.

Dickens’ classic work, A Tale of Two Cities, is a complex narrative that focuses on the events in two distinct cities a few hundred miles apart and separated by water and ideologies. The conditions in Paris, France in 1789 is the perfect setting for conflict. One would expect to see the tension entirely within the city of Paris. Instead, Dickens’ removes it from the tumultuous French landscape and puts in more civilized England where the reader has to focus on the characters.

Conflict arises when Charles Darnay, a French citizen and renounced aristocrat, is placed on trial before an English court for treason.  It is the French versus the English, but this conflict is just smoke and mirrors for the real conflict that is smoldering across the ocean and waiting for the players to leave the English soil and return to France. Dickens weaves a complex conflict that is multi-layered with doppelgangers and treason. The novel pivots from England to France and back to England again. The reader is allowed to see the conflict increase as Darnay’s relative is murdered and a servant is arrested. The tension of the desire for revolution rises to the point of explosion and in the end is the summons for Darnay to return to France: “the unseen force was drawing him first to itself, now, and all the tides and winds were setting straight and strong towards it” (Dickens 189). Once back on French soil, Darnay is arrested and through a complicated and unjust system is sentenced to die. The resolution is the sacrifice of Sydney Carton, Darnay’s doppelganger, who switches places and places his own head on the chopping block so that the woman he loves will have the man she truly loves.

Dickens’ style was typical for his time, but in today’s world his words are seen as flowery and poetic. The very opening line is a well-known quote that is contemplative and more than just a talented use of verbiage: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” (Dickens 1). Dickens takes contrasting phrases and brings them together in a manner that is completely plausible in the day and times of the French Revolution.

Detailed descriptions are typical of Dickens and the period he wrote in. He did not leave much to the reader’s imagination as he painted the entire scene for the reader to just step into and experience:

There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coachlamps but these its own workings, and a few years of toward; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all (Dickens 4).

A contemporary work, set during another tumultuous time in France, is Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. The setting is World War II, and Germany is moving into France to rape it of everything including its soul. In essence, the conflict and the crisis is centered in the heart of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and movements to take over the Western world. Yet Doerr refuses to let it be as simple as that. He creates sub-conflicts that drive this particular story to its climax.

A young German boy is faced with having to fight for his country and battle his morals within as he watches the evil around him manifest and destroy the ones he loves. His conflict begins when he has to make a decision to stand up for a friend or join the majority, knowing that it could determine his own fate. A young French girl has her own unique challenges in life as she lives in a world with no vision while running from the evil of the German machinery that rips her world apart. Her conflict arises not due to her actions but that of her father who is entrusted with a precious and legendary gem. Their attempt to flee from the German advances to stay alive and protect the gem lead up to all their actions.

Crisis is subtly brought in as it is so tightly interwoven with the conflict on both sides. When both characters are in Saint Malo on the coast of France, they have to make decisions that made all previous ones child play. The young German boy, Werner, commits one act of treason because of a childhood sentimentality of a radio broadcast that once entertained and inspired him and his sister. Listening for illegal French broadcasts, he hears a voice that changes him forever: “The recognition is immediate. It is as if he has been drowning for as long as he can remember and somebody has fetched him up for air” (Doerr 406).

The resolution of Doerr’s is complicated as Werner lies about the transmission to protect a childhood memory and to protect the young girl he finds connected to it, the blind Maire- Laure. He risks his own life to save her and what innocence he has left. As the war ends, death claims Werner while Marie-Laure goes on to teach new generations a love of life.

Doerr takes a step back into the times of Dickens where the descriptive narrative holds the reader in awe. He takes the reader into the world of the young Marie-Laure. The reader does not just know she blind nor is he told what the young girl senses. One becomes the girl. The reader hears “cars splash along streets, and snowmelt drums through runnels…hear snowflakes tick and patter through the trees…smell the cedars in Jardin des Plantes a quarter mile away” (Doerr 40).

Each author weaves a story that comes alive for the reader. Scenes are laid out in minute detail that has the reader sensing everything around the characters. Descriptive phrases are used to draw the reader in. Scenes are not hurried through. Everything is laid out in an intricate pattern for the reader to explore much like Marie-Laure does by heightening her senses and seeing more than the average person does. Dickens and Doerr leave hints through their writing as to what is to come, aiding the reader to “want to read on, or hear more…to have the reader asking questions internally” as to what will happen next (Scott).



Works Cited

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.

Scott, Jeremy. Creative Writing and Stylistics: Creative and Critical Approaches. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013. Kindle.


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