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Sheri Wells-Jensen

Anthony Don’t: On Blindness and the Portrayal of Marie-Laure in ‘All The Light We Cannot See’

This is the third installment of A Month of Blind Women, presented by LightHouse Interpoint and The Toast. Interpoint is the new literary supplement from LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco. Read previous essays at this link.

Cover Art: All The Light We Cannot See

By Sheri Wells-Jensen

 

When I think of All The Light We Cannot See, the latest, most popular portrayal of blindness, there are many scenes that run through my head. Here are two, summarized, for your consideration:

In 1940, under the imminent threat of German invasion, a middle-aged locksmith and his twelve-year-old blind daughter are fleeing Paris. Everything happens quickly and their escape is urgent. The locksmith is working furiously, but, short of running her hands over a toy model of the city, the blind daughter does nothing. Her father asks nothing of her except that she use the bathroom, and so she waits, passive as an upholstered chair, while he assembles their possessions, packs their food, then buttons her into her coat, and leads her out the door.

Why isn’t this adolescent girl participating in her own escape?

Four years later, the locksmith is drawing his now-sixteen-year-old daughter a bath, despite the fact that there is a decidedly maternal female character just downstairs. The locksmith washes his daughter’s hair, and she is docile as he explains that he is leaving. At the end of the bath he hands her a towel and helps her climb onto the tile.

Why is a middle-aged man bathing his sixteen-year-old daughter, even if he does step outside while she puts on her nightgown? Who is this girl? Is she the heroine or the victim of the story? Does she get to be both?

***

This helpless, sexless child is the blind girl who is one of the main characters of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a book which first enraged me, then began to haunt me and fill me with a kind of appalled despair. The book has raised neither widespread outrage nor offense in most readers. People love it. It won a Pulitzer. Book clubs are gobbling it up. Every morning, on my way to work, I hear ads for it on my local NPR station. And every morning, I feel the same gut-deep sense of despair, a kind of a mental nausea, as Marie-Laure begins to slide into her place in the public consciousness as a reasonable representation of what it’s like to be blind. Continue reading Anthony Don’t: On Blindness and the Portrayal of Marie-Laure in ‘All The Light We Cannot See’