Objects and Tension in “Herr Siedler”

Techniques tracked:
-raising tension
-using the objective correlative (to raise tension and/or show the character’s emotional state without telling it)

This is an example class presentation post adapted from a post on Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, where you can find out the rest of what happens in the novel if you don’t feel like reading it. For this presentation, I highlighted Doerr’s use of objects (yellow) and development of tension (blue) throughout the chapter, which often intersect.

In the chapter “Herr Siedler,” the title character is a Nazi soldier who comes to the orphanage where Werner lives with his sister Jutta, causing Werner to think the Nazis must know about the radio they listen to that they’re not supposed to have. The soldier takes Werner with him back to his house, where he asks him to try to fix a radio (the nicest radio Werner has ever seen) that no one else has been able to. Werner examines it and successfully fixes it. The soldier gives him pieces of cake with forbidden cream as a reward and is so impressed with Werner that he says he’ll write a letter for him to a Nazi recruiting board. Werner goes back to the orphanage, where the frau, relieved they just wanted him to fix a radio, gives him his dinner—a boiled potato. Werner eats, though he’s not hungry, then later that night crushes the radio they’re not supposed to be listening to with a brick.

The acute tension of the chapter is what will happen to Werner in this particular encounter with this Nazi soldier. The chronic tension is that he’s been doing something he isn’t supposed to (listening to a radio) that gives him a reason to be more stressed about having a direct encounter with a Nazi soldier than one already would be. Werner’s love of his radio is an important part of the tension that Doerr’s been developing in the chapters leading up to this.

The first objects in the chapter are there mostly to instill tension—“the shortwave radio” Werner is worried the soldier knows about, and the “children’s book about a talking train” the soldier flips through before announcing what he’s actually there for—the longer the soldier waits to make the announcement that confirms he’s not there to arrest anyone, the higher the tension gets; the Nazi knows this, not just Doerr, which is why he flips through the book; he enjoys the tension his presence raises, the anxiety he produces in others. Doerr is able to make a lighthearted children’s book seem dark; the meaning of objects changes depending on the context.

Objects are also how Doerr communicates how unfamiliar the luxury of the soldier’s house is to Werner: the daisies in the woman’s hair, the thick carpet, the electric bulbs (something that most people would not even notice; the fact that Werner does lets us know that electricity is not something he’s used to), the roses on the wallpaper, the fire in the fireplace. Every object that’s listed is, we can assume, something Werner does not have. Except for a radio, though of course the one the soldier has is much nicer, the nicest Werner’s ever laid eyes on.

At first, the tension in the chapter is whether the Nazis know about their forbidden radio, and whether Werner will be arrested for it. Even after he’s been with the soldier for awhile and hasn’t been arrested, even once he’s at the soldier’s house, the tension that he might be arrested still exists for Werner (and thus, for the reader): “Is this where they arrest boys whose sisters listen to foreign radio stations?” The soldier also calls the radio “the offending device,” referring to the fact that his specific one is broken, but reminding us yet again that having a radio is an arrestable offense, thus maintaining the tension. Once Werner figures out they’re not there to harm him, but rather want his help, the tension shifts, a new thread raised by a heretofore unexpected possibility—that maybe getting to join the Nazi regime wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. In this moment Werner starts to consider the possibilities opened up by the regime that he hasn’t quite let himself before, because he hasn’t been confronted with their concrete manifestations (the super nice radio, the cake with forbidden cream). The objects the character interacts with literally in the acute tension (being at a Nazi soldier’s house to fix his radio) are what have raised this chronic tension (will Werner join the Nazi regime? What havoc will he directly/indirectly wreak if he does?).

The contrast between the niceness of the soldier’s radio and Werner’s, not to mention the fact that he’s allowed to use one while Werner isn’t, is precisely what starts to escalate that second thread of tension, to transmute the chronic into the acute–any good climax should be the intersection of chronic and acute, the acute events causing the chronic tension to breach the surface and thus reach some sort of resolution/closure. Werner and his sister seem to know the Nazi regime is evil. But they live in a mining town where their father was killed on the job. They don’t exactly have a lot of options. This chapter is important in Werner’s overall arc for raising the specter of his getting to use radios as part of his livelihood, something he never would have gotten to do otherwise. Doerr has basically put Werner in a position where the reader can’t help but understand his potential desire to join the Nazi regime, where they can see that, were they in Werner’s position, they would make the same choice, because they would see that there wasn’t much of a choice in the matter at all.

And in case the reader still can’t understand why Werner might be tempted to join the regime at this point, Doerr seals the deal with the bloody potato, in this case a boiled one. The boiled potato is everything bland about Werner’s current circumstances, while the cake represents the alluring (if dangerously decadent) opportunities available in the Nazi regime. The reader can feel the conundrum viscerally on this level–we all know that cream-topped cake is preferable to a boiled potato. The choice between these two things is a no-brainer, just as Werner’s is to take the opportunity to enter the Nazi school. It’s that, or die in the mines like his father.

Doerr confirms that this is the moment Werner is making a critical choice by showing him smash the Nazi radio. The action of Werner smashing the radio correlates to his choosing to take the opportunity to enter the Nazi school.

-SCR

 

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