Amy asked:

This question contains spoilers… (view spoiler)

To answer questions about All the Light We Cannot See, please sign up.
Colleen Aungst This scene was very interesting and I agree with the comments that the owl may have been Werner connecting on some level.

Did anyone else think that all of the spirals Frederick drew had something to do with the prisoner and what Frederick's stand cost him? When he was first depicted as drawing the spirals, I immediately thought of the description the commandment used for the prisoners as "circling the drain".
Barb Halaburt I just finished this book within the last 2 hours and I am still haunted by it. This scene especially (Frederick and the owl), remains mysterious. I too want to believe that the spirit of Werner, in the form of the owl, awakened Frederick back to life. On the last page, Marie-Laure contemplates "all the light we cannont see" and wonders if our souls fill the world around us just like radio waves and text communications. She thinks: "That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings" For me, this is a strong reference that Werner's soul visited Frederick and awoke him back to life.
Kaye I didn't get that he was recovering. His mother didn't react in a surprised way to his comments, so it didn't seem out of normal. It seemed to me to imply that he had better moments, and worse moments. And it made me feel that there was still some part of Frederick in there, no matter what had been done to him.

At one point in the story, Werner comments that Frederick is stronger than him. I felt like this is what was being said here. Werner was right. Frederick was the strong one. In spite of everything, some part of Frederick survived, while Werner was just gone.
Clayton Rodgers I love all the threads everybody is pulling out in the responses; this whole novel is a heavy spool laden with anticipation to be unraveled.

Does Frederick’s mental health start to convalesce after seeing the owl? Perhaps there is a transient moment of clarity, but I agree that his mother’s mundane reaction seems to intimate these instances are not unprecedented. However, there is still a profusion of hope held in the symbolism of the owl.

Going back a few chapters, before Werner dies, we gain a brief insight into the deluge of his thoughts. He is inundated with memories of his childhood home: farmers ice-skating on the frozen ponds of Zollverein, building scrap sailboats, wagon rides with Jutta, and a return of his youthful curiosity. Werner stares at the moonlight outside the medical tent and ponders “why doesn’t the wind move the light?” The question is of the same quizzical order that he used to fill his notebook with during his time in the Children’s House. Together, his concatenated childhood memories and recovered curiosity, indicate that in his last moments alive, Werner recaptures and returns to his past state of childhood innocence before Schulpforta and the Reich tried to void him of himself. It is not a coincidence that the owl that visits Frederick is “as big as a child.” The affinity of the owl being childlike in size, works in tandem with the childhood memories Werner ruminates on before dying to highlight Werner’s connection with the owl symbolically.

Further buttressing this, Werner’s final recollection of the sailboat he and Jutta constructed, and the uncertainty of them building a second after the first had sunk reinforces the possibility of a second life. Much like the boat, Werner is built up from the “scraps” of Zollverein and sent downstream to Schulpforta. However, the water is not white like the frozen snow-topped ponds he watched ice-skaters on; it is fetid, roiling “black water” with a current that comes and “[sags]” the boat under. If we view the stream as the Reich, we can see how it not only took Werner away from Zollverein, like the pulling current, but also how it drowned him, too. After matriculating at Schulpforta and being filled with dictums to “breathe country and eat country,” it is his own country’s trigger mine that leads to Werner’s poignant “end.” Yet, the uncertainty of him saying “maybe we built another boat, I like to think we did,” evokes the same existential uncertainty and hope for an afterlife. Werner, in his last seconds on Earth, wants to believe in another life—in another boat. Coupled with his return to his childhood life in memory, and the desire for an afterlife shown through the second boat, Werner’s reincarnation is realized as the owl.

Additionally, rifting off Barb Halaburt’s comment, Marie-Laure’s ideation on souls filling the world like “radio waves,” and “flocks of birds,” also shares an affinity to the way we are shown Frederick has an “understanding of things others don’t,” and further evidences the connection between the owl and Werner. In Schulpforta, after being teased, upbraided, bullied, and beaten, Frederick always ends his day at the window listening to birds. It is vital to note: Frederick cannot see without his glasses. He also cannot attend school with them, under threat of being deemed inferior. Yet, Frederick’s love for ornithology will not be hewn from him, so he listens to birds and learns to understand them without seeing. Similarly, Marie-Laure expounds on her belief that souls might “harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns,” and yes, like owls, but you can only notice them “if you listen closely enough.” This is the light you cannot see but hear. It is the light felt only by those who can learn to experience the world without sight, it is a world filled with “shoals of sound” where “shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible.” Frederick is someone who saw the world by listening at Schulpforta. He is someone, who like Marie-Laure, knew how the “brain, which without a spark of light, builds for us a world full of light.”

Finally, the final scene of the owl is portended in the chapter Sum of Angles. One night, after Werner receives plaudits from Hauptmann, Frederick whispers to Werner that he “heard an eagle owl […] perfectly.” Frederick pontificates on the attributes of the owl, while Werner ignores him as his mind wanders to winning awards in Berlin. This moment marks a point of divergence between their paths, each one growing more distant from the other. Henceforth, Werner experiences recurrent successes with his studies on the transmitter under Hauptmann. Conversely, Frederick’s torment seems immitigable, only increasing in severity. During the day, Werner dreams of winning “big scientific prizes,” and at night his thoughts are plagued with his willing complicity in Frederick’s suffering. Throughout the novel we see Werner struggle with his failure to help Frederick, eventually claiming that his “heart feels like it’s being crushed in a vice,” as he contemplates the horror Frederick had been subjected to. All of his regret stemming from the night he chose to ignore what Frederick could perceive, and he could not—the owl. It is in this impetus where Frederick’s ability to see without sight and understand what others cannot is first juxtaposed to Werner’s complacency. Soldering this to what others have mentioned in the comments: owls are regarded as symbols of guardianship and vigilance, and when the owl returns at the final pages of the book, through its connection with Werner, we see him given another chance to right the wrongs of his past. Werner may not have helped Frederick in Schulpforta, but he can watch over Frederick now.

Ultimately, Werner’s reclamation of his childhood memories and curiosity before dying, the desire for an afterlife shown through the second sailboat, Frederick’s ability to understand without sight, Marie-Laure’s ruminations on souls felt by those who can listen closely, and Werner’s second chance to right a wrong, all work in conjunction to show Werner’s manifestation as the owl posthumously.
Jenny Fairchild I thought maybe the owl was Werner...? I read once that owls are knows as/symbolize guardians, which is fitting for Werner and Frederick. I want to BELIEVE that Frederick had a moment of clarity and really saw the owl, don't you?
Allie Coleman
This answer contains spoilers… (view spoiler)
Linda Stuckey Owls often symbolize wisdom. His question, "What are we doing?" is one we should all ask about war and violence. So many lives damaged or ended! And for what? On the surface, it looks like a question that shows a disabled person is confused, but it's more likely that the question is intended to carry a more philosophical meaning.
This answer contains spoilers… (view spoiler)
Trisha agree with Jenny......owls and birds are symbolic messengers of those that have passed on. Also, right here on goodreads there is an iinterview with the author and he briefly mentions the use of the owl in another thing he wrote. Interesting.
Matthew Smith
This answer contains spoilers… (view spoiler)
Tommie i think the owl was sent to their balcony by werner. like werner's soul whispered to the owl to go do that for frederick. because the book states that the owl is listening to something. naturally, self centered as always, frederick's mom thinks the owl is there for her.
Ashish Sharma Sometime before the owl visits Frederick, his mom is thinking about what the doctors had said about his recovery.
'The doctors claim Frederick retains no memories, that his brain maintains only basic functions, but there are moments when she wonders.'
Maybe the incident with the owl is just one of those moments.
Amy Thanks I agree. I just wasn't sure if the visit had a lasting effect on Frederick. I didn't think so, but a friend interpreted it as an awakening for Frederick. I think I like his interpretation better :)
Image for All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr (Goodreads Author)
Rate this book
Clear rating

About Goodreads Q&A

Ask and answer questions about books!

You can pose questions to the Goodreads community with Reader Q&A, or ask your favorite author a question with Ask the Author.

See Featured Authors Answering Questions

Learn more