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).
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.