What role does Werner’s ambition play in his life and the decisions he makes?
Werner’s ambition leads him to be complicit with evil systems of power and to ignore acts of cruelty happening around him. As a young boy, Werner’s circumstances do not give him many opportunities: he is an orphan who lives in poverty and is expected to grow up to work in the mines like all the men around him. However, Werner is very intelligent and resourceful, and as he develops his skills, it begins to seem possible that he could have a brighter future. Werner’s curiosity encourages him to learn more about the world, and this learning makes him ambitious to someday be a famous scientist. As Werner sees the luxurious lifestyles of those who have money and power, he becomes seduced by what it would feel like to have those things for himself.
Werner’s ambitions encourage him to work very hard once he is admitted to the training school, even though he knows that the training is preparing him to serve in the German war effort. He wants to continue to have the opportunity to learn about science, mathematics, and technology, and so he doesn’t object to things like participating in torturing a prisoner. Even seeing that his good friend has been badly beaten by fellow soldiers does not influence Werner to distance himself from the Nazi party, so willing is he to turn a blind eye to cruelty in pursuit of his dreams. Once Werner is sent to the front lines and travels around Europe, he simply tries not to think about what his esoteric calculations are being used to do in real life. Because Werner does not actually participate in hurting civilians himself, he can try to maintain ignorance about what happens to them. He keeps trying to tell himself that all of the things he has done will pay off for a better life for himself. While Werner’s ambitions do drive him to participate in an evil system, it is also important to note that he is vulnerable and has little agency to object in any effective way.
Which characters in the novel are truly brave and why?
The characters who take action even when they are afraid to do so are the ones who are truly brave. The novel does not spend a lot of time discussing the main war efforts or the Allied forces using bombs to liberate the occupied French town, instead focusing on day-to-day life in Saint-Malo. Characters like Madame Manec, Etienne, and Marie-Laure are only able to take very small actions within the daily life of their town in order to engage in resistance. Still, these actions carry a very high level of personal risk: they would be imprisoned or killed if they were caught. Both Etienne and Marie-Laure have additional reasons to be afraid because they have mental and physical disabilities which make them even more vulnerable. Etienne is already traumatized by the events of a previous war, and it is understandable that he would be terrified by the new war and would simply want to shut himself away. Marie-Laure is without sight and cannot perceive danger as quickly as others. However, these characters show true bravery because they want to do whatever they can to fight back against their German occupiers, regardless of their fears and the personal risks involved.
Marie-Laure further shows true bravery by refusing to give up even under terrifying circumstances. When she is trapped in the house with an unknown German solider, she is an extremely perilous situation as a young woman. Her blindness makes her even more vulnerable because it is harder for her to understand what is happening, and she has very limited access to information about her situation. Still, Marie-Laure manages to keep herself safe and alive for days. She uses all the resources she has and keeps a small supply of makeshift weapons in case she needs to defend herself. She also uses the radio to broadcast the messages that will eventually reach Werner and lead to her salvation. Marie-Laure is terrified throughout this experience, but she does not let this fear distract her from her goal of survival. Her bravery and resilience demonstrate that even someone very vulnerable can be capable of true courage if they refuse to give in and accept their negative circumstances.
Does Volkheimer redeem himself by the end of the novel?
For much of the novel, Frank Volkheimer is portrayed as violent and ruthless. As a boy at the state school, Volkheimer’s size and physical strength put him in a position of power. He does not use this power to protect or help anyone, even though there are weaker boys like Frederick who would benefit greatly from his protection. He seems fully loyal and committed to the Nazi ideology. He is chosen to keep an eye on Werner during Werner’s training because he is physically intimidating and willing to ensure that Werner does exactly what he is expected to. Once Volkheimer and Werner are reunited during active service, Volkheimer continues to occupy a similar role. He is seemingly unbothered by killing and readily executes any civilians who are found using illicit radios. All these actions make Volkheimer seem like the archetypal Nazi soldier.
However, Volkheimer shows a loyalty and devotion to Werner that adds a redemptive element to his character by the end of the novel. When the soldiers are trapped in the cellar after the explosion, Volkheimer refuses to give up and accept their fate. He is the one who comes up with the risky but ultimately successful plan to use a grenade to blast their way out. Without Volkheimer’s persistence, Werner would likely have died. When he and Werner escape from the cellar, Volkheimer does not question where Werner is going, which shows his loyalty to his friend. Many years after Werner’s death, Volkheimer is living alone and struggling with his past, showing that he was perhaps not as thoughtlessly cruel as he originally appeared. Volkheimer also chooses to personally deliver Werner’s personal items to Jutta. Volkheimer seems to genuinely miss his lost comrade and plays gently with Jutta’s young son, Max. While Volkheimer is still guilty of participating in wartime atrocities, he also shows a capacity for compassion which partially redeems him by the end of the novel.