Dramatic Irony in Fiction: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

Don’t you love it when you’re reading a novel and you find a passage of writing so good, so vivid or haunting or revelatory that you want to stop and read it again? I marked scores of such passages in All the Light We Cannot See:

“From afar, the smoke appears strangely solid, as though carved from luminous wood.”

“They drive a dusty track surrounded by square miles of dying sunflowers so tall that they seem like trees. The stems have dried and stiffened, and the faces bob like praying heads, and as the Opel bellows past, Werner feels as if they are being watched by ten thousand Cyclopic eyes.” 

“The tip of her cane shudders as it knocks against the runnels, finding every storm drain. She walks like a ballerina in dance slippers, her feet as articulate as hands, a little vessel of grace moving out into the fog.”

There are literally dozens of different craft topics I could have chosen to write about in this book, but I zeroed in on one particular issue that I noticed on the very first page: the use of dramatic irony as an engine for suspense. Consider these passages from the book’s brilliant opening:

“At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.”

“They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama. The sea glides along far below, spattered with the countless chevrons of whitecaps. Soon enough, the navigators can discern the low moonlit lumps of islands ranged along the horizon. France.”

It’s a killer opening, not only because of the vivid, poetic prose – we know we’re in the hands of a talented wordsmith – but because we’ve been put on notice about what’s coming. We’ve been granted a wider view than the inhabitants of the town, and so we need to read on to find out what happens to these poor unwitting souls.
And then a few chapters in we have this passage. Our characters are children in a German orphanage:

“Every evening he carries his radio downstairs, and Frau Elena lets her wards listen for an hour. They tune in to newscasts, concerts, operas, national choirs, folk shows, a dozen children in a semicircle on the furniture, Frau Elena among them, hardly more substantial than a child herself.    

We live in exciting times, says the radio. We make no complaints. We will plant our feet firmly in our earth, and no attack will move us.       

The older girls like musical competitions, radio gymnastics, a regular spot called Seasonal Tips for Those in Love that makes the younger children squeal. The boys like plays, news bulletins, martial anthems. Jutta likes jazz. Werner likes everything. Violins, horns, drums, speeches – a mouth against a microphone in some faraway yet simultaneous evening – the sorcery of it holds him rapt.         

 Is it any wonder, asks the radio, that courage, confidence, and optimism in growing measure fill the German people? Is not the flame of a new faith rising from this sacrificial readiness?”

The dread is completely our own – the characters don’t feel it at all. They don’t need to, because we perceive what’s coming. Our dread grips us, and we have no choice but to read on.
     Although most of the book is written in the present tense, in what you might call “alternating close third POV,” the omniscient voice established in the opening pages bleeds through at various points, always bringing with it the chill of dread:

“The walls creak; the window between the curtains is black; the town prepares to sleep. Somewhere out there, German U-boats glide above underwater canyons, and thirty-foot squid ferry their huge eyes through the cold dark.”

“Neumann One, who, if he were not scheduled to die ten weeks from now in the Allied invasion of Normandy, might have become a barber later in life . . . ”

In a sense this whole novel is built on dramatic irony, which is probably true of any story that begins with a sequence from the chronological ending before looping back to the beginning. Throughout the book we have a sense of an accelerating rush toward a foregone conclusion, an inevitable convergence on the terrible event that is described at the beginning of the book. This is the dreadful power of dramatic irony: the idea that we know what’s coming but we’re still unable to look away. Of course, you have to be an amazing writer to pull this off, and Doerr does so with stunning effectiveness.
Do you enjoy this kind of literary craft analysis? Read more here.
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