Chaos Is Better Than Order

I don’t even know where to begin in describing and reviewing All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr. It is a sweeping and gorgeous novel about Germany and France during World War II. In some ways, it is “just” another one of those novels capitalizing on the horror and tragedy of our shared history. In other ways, it is new and needed and full of original characters and observations of that time.


What stood out to me most was the way in which the novel demonstrated the danger of the efficiency that ruled the Nazi ideal. Any and all systems engage in this, in wanting order, not chaos, uniformity, not messiness. However, I learned from thinking about efficiency throughout the novel that I should be embracing more chaos and messiness in my life, and that order isn’t necessarily always good nor praiseworthy.

This idea struck me most during the German boy Werner’s time at school. He is a poor boy from an orphanage, destined to work in the mines, that ends up being recruited for an elite training school (meant to funnel the brightest minds into the Nazi system of hierarchy and military). He is rescued from his “dead-end” life, in which he’s been told he has no future. And he’s bright. He has figured out how to fix and build radios on his own, and he listens to a science broadcast for children in French that teaches him more about what he is interested in.

However, while at school, he discovers what he must sacrifice in order to get the education he desires. He must give up his morality, while his friend Frederick does not. Frederick refuses to participate in the torture of Jewish and Russian prisoners as part of their training, and he pays dearly for it. He is beaten so badly by his fellow students that he ends up brain damaged. Werner loves his friend, but Werner realizes that he is a coward compared to Frederick. He is unable to stand up the way Frederick does, and he is unwilling to take the heat for staying true to one’s values.

Such resolve is difficult under the circumstances. At school, Werner learns to define “entropy.” His teacher explains, “Disorder. You hear the commandant say it. You hear your bunk masters say it. There must be order. Life is chaos, gentlemen. And what we represent is an ordering to that chaos. Even down to the genes. We are ordering the evolution of the species. Winnowing out the inferior, the unruly, the chaff. This is the great project of the Reich, the greatest project human beings have ever embarked upon” (p. 240). Yet those of us who know this project as history know that this isn’t true. We know that you cannot control others, order the species, or make neat our chaotic world. We know that the world is messy and disordered, and that life is often better that way. We know that agency is more important than efficiency, and we know that it is okay for people to be different. The control of the Nazis led to the horror of the Holocaust. Order is not inherently moral or good.

Werner’s story is connected to Marie-Laure’s, a young French girl who is blind and lives with her father. They must flee Paris during its occupation by Germany, and do so with a valuable gem from the museum where her father works. They live with her uncle, Etienne, and his housekeeper in Saint-Malo for a time, until that seaside city is completely destroyed in August of 1944, when the Germans are beginning to be defeated. Marie-Laure’s uncle, Etienne, and his brother, her grandfather (now dead), are the men responsible for broadcasting the French science program for children that Werner grew up hearing. Marie-Laure herself is intelligent and inquisitive. She learns to read in Braille and loves the works of Jules Verne.

She learns of truth and order from her books: “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth” (p. 328). I love this idea, because it combines with chaos and messiness to mean that our lives, full of mistakes and problems, are ways of getting closer to truth and enlightenment. We learn from our mistakes. We learn from disorder. We do not learn by being controlled or having our freedoms taken from us. We do not learn by getting rid of those who are different and rejecting everybody who does not look, act, think, or feel like we do. We do not learn by being perfect or by having all of the answers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I plan to be a little more carefree. I plan to embrace the messiness of my life. I will continue to learn from my mistakes and to let failure drive me on. I will not insist that others be like me. I will allow others the freedom to learn from their own chaos and messes. I will keep reading great literature that makes me think.

56 thoughts on “Chaos Is Better Than Order

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  1. Thanks for the review – this book is on my to-read list and just moved up a few notches. Your analysis resonates for me, especially since I’ve been studying and writing about the massive changes taking place in progressive Christian thinking these days. It’s clear that this human need for rules and orderliness has muddied and even tortured the message of love and non-judgment that Jesus actually taught. Mystery and diversity is so much a part of reality, and yet humans try to squash and control and mold themselves, others, and life in general. Sigh. Thanks for the food for thought!

    1. Very nice insight! I think we can always become over-focused on control and rules (even in parenting) rather than love and the “spirit of the law.”

  2. Great review, Emily. I especially appreciated your focus on the dangerous ideal of an orderly world. The world, and our lives in it, are not black and white. There are no easy answers, and certainly no one, true way to live a rich and meaningful life in a world that largely presents us with shades of grey. We do not have to look far to see the modern-day results of the true chaos that ensues when one is determined to inflict one’s idea of order upon others.

    I thought “All the Light We Cannot See” (which I reviewed on my blog) was one of the best books I’ve ever read. I was thrilled when Doerr won the Pulitzer for it.

    1. Oh my goodness! I didn’t realize that he had won the Pulitzer for it. Very cool. And yes, agreed. Life is not black and white. The older I get, the more I learn that.

  3. All the Light We Cannot See certainly lived up to the hype. In fact, I added it to my “Books I Borrowed from the Library but Need to Own for Myself” list.

    1. Thanks for sharing your review! I love your idea too, that humanity was underneath all of the conflict and fighting, and that people were able to reach out to each other under these circumstances.

    1. Yes, come back! I tried not to give too much away, but I’m with you. I hate reading a book that I already know too much about. I want to be “surprised.”

  4. I love how you boiled this book down to this one concept–brilliantly done! I first read this in June for one Book Club, then the Book Club I facilitate selected it for early August so I took the opportunity to re-read and was amazed at how much more I noticed Doerr’s writing techniques. It is one of my absolute favorite reads ever! Like so many others, I am also thrilled this won the the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year! I haven’t even started drafting a blog post yet. There are comments from the first book club discussion I want to include and am anxious to see what the second book club yields… I can’t imagine who wouldn’t find this book enjoyable and enlightening, but that’s just me!

    1. Neglected to include my immediate thought upon reading your review, in the words of a former coworker–“Just let your freak flag fly!!” LOL

    2. It’s a pretty great read! I was at first a little annoyed with the short chapters and switching back and forth between time and characters, but I got used to it. And Doerr’s writing is so beautiful. He has a gift!

  5. What an untenable (but sadly believable) dilemma in which to place a child–advancement versus values! Great review–I enjoyed the book very much, too!

    1. I really sympathized with Werner. I think this book shows how there are always victims on both sides when a hierarchy gets way too powerful.

  6. I cried while reading the denouement of this book, and what surprised me and made me admire the author’s technique most is that I was sad for one of the “villains” as well as the clear protagonist.

    The writing is beautiful and heart rending at once.

  7. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this, but when I tried reading it about a year ago, I couldn’t get very far. I kinda felt that it was melodradatic and a bit corny. Maybe I should give it another chance….?

  8. I don’t understand all the praise for this book. Beautifully written, to be sure, but my God it bored me to sleep. I couldn’t even finish, though I made it two-thirds of the way through, because the plot was so unbearably slow, and the character development just wasn’t there.

    Is something wrong with me? Have I lost my appreciation for good literature or something? Because every time I encounter someone who RAVES about this book, I feel like hiding in a corner with a dunce cap.

    1. I feel you! I had trouble getting into it. All of the short chapters and switching back and forth were hard for me to connect with at first. Once I kept going and saw where the narrative was going, I was able to continue and start to appreciate. Don’t feel bad. 🙂

      1. Everyone who’s read it has said I needed to stick with it, and the last third of the book is the best part. Problem is, why should I have to slog through 250 pages before it gets “good”?

        My mother in law gave me this book, so I think I’ll try it again. Because it really seems like a book I should love.

  9. Emily, this sounds fascinating. I love the revelations of morality and trial and error to learn. The old line is we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. I need to look into this. Thanks, BTG

  10. I love this review, Emily. The book has been on my to-read list since it came out – I don’t know what’s taking me so long!

  11. I loved this book. So many great scenes. The one I can’t forget is the vivid scene of Marie-Laure hiding in the attic hearing the German soldiers footsteps approaching. Took my breath away.

    1. That part was terrifying! Especially since she is blind. I kept worrying that he would burst on her and she wouldn’t have a chance to defend herself.

  12. From the first paragraph, I loved the book and could not put it down. Granted, I had to keep track of the characters and places…Interestingly, our book club was divided. Possibly one of my favorite books this summer.

    1. That’s interesting that your book club was divided. I can see where some might immediately LOVE this one and others might have to warm up to it or never get there.

  13. I have had this book laying around in my house for a few weeks but I haven’t decided when to read it yet. What a beautiful way of wrapping up this review – we could all use a little bit more of reflection upon ourselves. What you wrote about chaos and order was wonderfully put! One of my favorite things is reading a book that makes me think the way this book did for you.

  14. Fabulous review, Emily. I find your descriptions captivating. I will put this book on my “Must Reads”list. Thanks!

  15. Coming back to this now that I recently finished it. I thought it was a beautifully written book, full of detail but not too much. Doerr perfectly blends darkness and light, sound and silence, chaos and control — and as you say, the meeting of the two characters doesn’t feel forced or coincidental. I very much enjoyed the evolution of Marie-Laure’s relationship with her great-uncle, which was in contrast to Werner and Jutta’s fading one. Wonderful book.

    1. I like what you’ve noticed about the two relationships. It really was sweet to see how Marie-Laure loved her great uncle, especially since her father disappeared.

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