All Quiet on the Western Front: Literary Analysis
Erich Maria Remarque’s novel depicting the horrors of the First World War, All Quiet on the Western Front, known to be his greatest work, is a piece rife with hidden meanings and symbols. In All
Quiet on the Western Front, Remarque utilizes the change war makes on the soldiers in the story as an apparent and consistent theme throughout the story that plays a dramatic role in the growth of
the characters. Every second on the front a soldier must fight against the physical threats that fly amuck everywhere to take a life. Remarque writes in a style ascribed during the post-war called
“new objectivity,” which entails a highly objective, realistic style of narration (Clardy 1). Remarque’s style is a tempered version of a Modernism style of writing (1). In the novel Remarque
narrates through the eyes of Paul Baumer, a young German soldier; he expresses much in the first person plural “we,” to emphasise that Paul is speaking for likelihood of all the soldiers in the
war. Throughout the story his excursions in the war change him, and thus how the theme of the war affecting him comes into play.
Let’s take into account Paul Baumer: when his close friend and classmate, Kemmerich, is lying on his deathbed in a malnourished and maltreated state in a war hospital. Here he ponders, describing, “We are no longer soldiers but little more than boys; no one would believe that we could carry packs” (Remarque 27). He watches Kemmerich before he dies, narrating, “He says nothing; all that lies behind him; he is entirely alone now with his little life of nineteen years, and cries because it leaves him” (29). The effect war has here is eminent—how it steals one’s life, one’s hopes and dreams—all deprived with one single wound that festers until the final moment of death. Paul insists earlier that they have been through so much turmoil that it seemed to have been that years had passed: “We are none of us more than twenty years old. But young? Youth? That is long ago. We are old folk” (19). Accordingly, this demonstrates how their continuous and (at times) calamitous efforts on the front seem to increase their mentality of experience in the war. Geoff Dyer explains in a book review of All Quiet on the Western Front, “The 30-year-old author’s largest purpose was ‘to give an account of a generation destroyed by the war’” (Dyer 1). Later on, after his company returns from duty at the front, Paul says,
“We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war” (Remarque 69).
The realization of a fragmented future becomes existent in their minds. What would they come home to? They would not be themselves—no, they would be changed people, molded into new men after the war.
The times where Paul is on duty at the front are the times where the most prominent changes occur between man and soldier. Paul says as they arrive at the front in one chapter, “We march up, moody or good-tempered soldiers—we reach the zone where the front begins and become on the instant human animals” (Remarque 47). Once within the whole army’s march, he says, “…Individuals are no longer recognizable… A column—not men at all” (48). This instance enlarges when they are entrusted on the battlefield. The soldiers are but boys, prime in their instinct to just stay alive.
Patrick Clardy, a professor of Modernism at Yale University, writes in his review of All Quiet on the Western Front, “Another crucial scene shows Paul going home on leave. The people at home have a conception of the war that differs from the experience at the front” (Clardy 1). When Paul gets to go home on leave, he says to himself, “‘You are at home, you are at home.’ But a sense of strangeness will not leave me, I cannot feel at home amongst these things… But I myself am not there. There is a distance…” (Remarque 117). Paul continues later at home, saying, “They are different men here, men I cannot properly understand, whom I envy and despise” (123).
Further into the story the essence of the change in the soldiers is realized sharply by Paul, in two instances: when he guards a group of Russian prisoners, and when he kills a French soldier in no-man’s land (Clardy 1). Paul essentially considers and believes that he is no different than these men, succumbed to the same war, the same distress and involuntary plunder of hope from their lives (1). Moreover, when he is sent to a military hospital to recover from shrapnel wounds, Paul is given time to gain insight and contemplate over the effects and happenings of the war. But by the end of the book is where Paul ponders the most potent deliberation of the war. By this time, all of his comrades and classmates have been killed or died in hospitalization. Paul reflects, saying, “And men will not understand us—for the generation that grew up before us, though it has passed these years with us, already had a home and a calling… and the generation that has grown after us will be strange to us and push us aside” (Remarque 205). Paul dies in the very last two pages of the book, with a bittersweet ending—“Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come” (206).
All Quiet on the Western Front enacts a common theme portraying the effects of war on the characters and they moods they exhibit. Remarque uses this consistency of the theme to dominate the overall composure and mood of the novel. Paul Baumer is one of the foremost characters that display this example of change in a soldier, an unknown soldier—a soldier that represents the whole of the army. In his biography, “Erich Maria Remarque: A Literary and Film Biography,” Harley U. Taylor Jr. explains, “…the novel’s pacifistic prose lingered on the criticism of the effects of the German army and ideologies at the time” (Taylor 65). The inhumanity of man is a present cause to the effect of demoralization and apathy in a soldier, like Paul. War does that to people, and no one could really understand it as Paul (an allusion to Remarque) did; and he could not understand the people outside the war either, because he had grown so used to the war. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front demonstrates the change of man against the odds of war, and it stands as one of the few of its kind.
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