RN FRONT- PAUL BAUMER –
Paul Baumer is the 19-year-old narrator of the story. At the front, Paul’s special friends in Second Company include his classmates Behm, Kemmerich, Muller, Leer, and Kropp. The six of them were among 20 who enlisted together, prodded on by Schoolmaster Kantorek. Although he doesn’t say so, Paul is obviously a natural leader: Franz Kemmerich’s mother implored him to look after her son when they left home. Paul is also courageous. He may momentarily panic, but he doesn’t break under the most terrible battle conditions.
He learns the sound of each type of shell; he dives for cover or grabs his gas mask at the right instant. In one battle, he gently comforts an embarrassed rookie who has soiled his underpants, and later soberly contemplates shooting the same man to spare him an agonizing death after his hip has been shattered.
Cool as he is in battle, though, Paul has a hard time making sense of it all. He keeps recalling Behm, the first of his class to die, and when a second- Kemmerich- dies, he rages inwardly at the senseless slaughter of scrawny schoolboys. The callous attitude of commanders and orderlies toward an individual death saddens and disillusions him.
His elders were wrong- there is nothing glorious about war- but he has no new values to replace the patriotic myths they taught him. At first his companions seem shallow to him- immediately forgetting the dead and turning their total attention to stockpiling the cigarets and food originally meant for the deceased soldier- and he is at pains to tell us why this callousness is necessary.
Gradually, though, he comes to accept their approach: that poetry and philosophy and civilian paper-pushing jobs alike, all are utterly pointless in the midst of so much carnage. All you have is the moment at hand, and getting from it all the physical comfort you can is a worthwhile goal. There is another important element, too, to being with your comrades, as going on leave proves to Paul: no civilian understands you the way these men do, and nothing from your former life sustains you the way their friendship does. These values come together for Paul the evening he joins an older friend, Katczinsky, on a goose-hunting raid. They spend the night roasting the goose before eating it, and each time that Paul awakens for his turn at the basting, he feels Katczinsky’s presence like a cloak of comfort. At other times, panicked and alone in the dark of the trenches, all it takes to steady his nerves is the sound of his friends’ voices. If he awakens from a nightmare, the mere sound of their breathing strengthens him: he is not alone.
Paul gradually comes to realize that the enemy is no different from himself or from one of his friends. The Frenchman he kills in the trenches, Duval, looks like the kind of man whose friendship he would have enjoyed. The Russian prisoners he guards have the same feelings and desires and needs as he. He comes to see war as the ultimate horror. It’s bad enough that it pits man against man. But even animals and trees and flowers and butterflies are innocently caught up in the carnage inflicted by Man, the great Destroyer.
As his friends are killed one by one, Paul can only cling to his newfound beliefs in the brotherhood of all men and the value of the spark of life within each individual. At the end, alone, he has only the blind hope that his own mysterious inner spark will somehow survive and guide him after the war. Otherwise, he sees no meaningful future.
– 1. THE HORROR OF WAR –
Remarque includes discussions among Paul’s group, and Paul’s own thoughts while he observes Russian prisoners of war (Chapters 3, 8, 9) to show that no ordinary people benefit from a war. No matter what side a man is on, he is killing other men just like himself, people with whom he might even be friends at another time.
But Remarque doesn’t just tell us war is horrible. He also shows us that war is terrible beyond anything we could imagine. All our senses are assaulted: we see newly dead soldiers and long-dead corpses tossed up together in a cemetery (Chapter 4); we hear the unearthly screaming of the wounded horses (Chapter 4); we see and smell three layers of bodies, swelling up and belching gases, dumped into a huge shell hole (Chapter 6); and we can almost touch the naked bodies hanging in trees and the limbs lying around the battlefield (Chapter 9). The crying of the horses is especially terrible. Horses have nothing to do with making war. Their bodies gleam beautifully as they parade along- until the shells strike them. To Paul, their dying cries represent all of nature accusing Man, the great destroyer.
In later chapters Paul no longer mentions nature as an accuser but seems to suggest that nature is simply there- rolling steadily on through the seasons, paying no attention to the desperate cruelties of men to each other. This, too, shows the horror of war, that it is completely unnatural and has no place in the larger scheme of things.
– 2. A REJECTION OF TRADITIONAL VALUES –
In his introductory note Remarque said that his novel was not an accusation. But we have seen that it is, in many places, exactly that. This accusation- or rejection of traditional militaristic values of Western civilization- is impressed on the reader through the young soldiers, represented by Paul and his friends, who see military attitudes as stupid and who accuse their elders of betraying them.
In an early chapter Paul admits that endless drilling and sheer harassment did help toughen his group and turn them into soldiers. But he points out, often, how stupid it is to stick to regulations at the front- how insane this basic military attitude becomes in life-and-death situations. One such scene occurs in Chapter 1 when Ginger, the cook, doesn’t want to let 80 men eat the food prepared for 150, no matter how hungry they are. Another occurs in Chapter 7 when Paul is walking around in his hometown and a major forces him to march double time and salute properly- a ridiculous display, considering what he has just been through at the front. The emptiness of all this spit and polish shows up again in Chapter 9 when the men have to return the new clothes they were issued for the Kaiser’s inspection: rags are what’s real at the front. The betrayal of the young by their elders becomes an issue on several occasions. In the first two chapters of the book we learn how misguided Paul was by the teachings of parents and schoolmasters. We also see how older people cling to the Prussian mythof the glory of military might when Paul goes home on leave in Chapter 7. The Kaiser’s visit in Chapter 9 adds some hints of Remarque’s specific disillusionment with the leaders of his own country. From a broad study of literature and world history, we can see that these older people were not individually to blame for their views. They were simply handing on what was handed on to them. Still, we can also understand why Paul and his friends are so bitterly disappointed and so angry to discover that their elders were wrong. Most readers feel alittle sad that young men should consider the act of ridiculing adults their greatest goal in life, but we can also understand why they take revenge on Himmelstoss and Kantorek (Chapters 3 and 7). We even get a certain kick out of what they do, understanding their need to take out their disappointment on someone they know. These situations are, in miniature, an acting out of the bitter anger and disillusionment Paul feels when he says in Chapter 10, “It must all be lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out.”
– 3. FRIENDSHIP: THE ONLY ENDURING VALUE –
The theme of comradeship occurs often and gives the novel both lighthearted and sad moments. In Chapter 5 it’s easy to overlook how the farmer felt about having his property stolen and to chuckle aloud when Paul is struggling to capture the goose! We appreciate the circle of warmth that encloses him and Kat that night as they slowly cook and eat the goose, and then extend their warm circle by sharing the leftovers with Kropp and Tjaden. In Chapter 10 we enjoy their sharing of the pancakes and roast pig and fine club chairs at the supply dump, and we understand why Paul fakes a high temperature to go to the same hospital as Albert Kropp. Friendship emerges as an even more important theme at the front. In Chapters 10 and 11 we see men helping wounded comrades at great personal risk- or even, like Lieutenant Bertinck, dying for their friends. The handing on of Kemmerich’s fine yellow leather boots also acts as a symbol of friendship- a symbol we can almost touch, and one that keeps us aware of how deeply a soldier feels the loss of each of his special friends. We can understand how hearing the voices of friends when one is lost (Chapter 9) or even just hearing their breathing during the night (Chapter 11) can keep a soldier going. We grieve with Paul and almost put down the book when Kat dies.
4. A GENERATION DESTROYED BY WORLD WAR I
Taking all of the themes together and adding Paul and his friends’ hopeless discussions of what is left for them to do after the war (Chapter 5), we can conclude that Remarque succeeds in his main theme: showing that Paul’s generation was destroyed by the Great War, as World War I was then called.
In the case of All Quiet, Paul is young and immature. Until he enlisted, he had never experienced real pain or tragedy in his life. Older people generally know from experience that human beings can survive incredible pain and still find meaning in life. Paul hasn’t had any time to gain that kind of experience to sustain him. Therefore it’s asking quite a bit to have us accept, from him, whole theories about war and life and the nature of human beings. Still, whatever Paul might lack in age or experience is balanced for us by the honesty and sensitivity we see in him.
Over all, then, in All Quiet on the Western Front, the advantages of first person narration outweigh the disadvantages. There is a perfect fit of first person point of view with what Remarque wanted to say about World War I- that it destroyed a whole generation of the young. How better to show us that than to let us experience the war through the eyes of a young soldier?
Remarque is proposing the view that human existence can no longer be regarded as having any ultimate meaning. Baumer and his comrades cannot make sense of the world at large for the simple reason that it is no longer possible to do so, not just for this group of ordinary soldiers, but for a substantial proportion of his entire generation. Remarque refuses to lull his reader into a false sense of security, into thinking that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.
The Destructiveness of War
This is a major theme of this novel. Throughout this book, the men are exposed to limbs being blown off, blood flow everywhere, and innocent men dying in pain and agony. When they take shelter, bombs explode around them and they observe men squirm in order to save themselves. The destructive power of war is so great that even the fundamental difference between life and death become blurred.
The theme of comraderie, or friendship, occurs constantly in the novel. The friendship held within Pauls company keeps them from being driven insane by the horrors that surround them. These young men were brought to fight on the battlefield almost directly from the schoolyard.
At first Paul and his friends still behave as if their lives will someday return to normal. In the middle of the book, Paul goes home on leave, only to discover that his real home is now with his friends on the front. By that time, Kat dies, and Paul geels that his own life no longer has meaning.
Although Paul comes to think of his comrades as brothers, he also learns that all men are brothers under their skin. The irony of war is that brothers are forced to kill each other. Paul expresses this theme when he showed compassion for the captured Russian soldiers and the French soldier he kills in the trench.hough Paul comes to think of his comrades as brothers, he also learns that all men are brothers under their skin. The irony of war is that brothers are forced to kill each other. Paul’s expresses this theme when he showed compassion for the captured Russian soldiers and the French soldier he kills in the trench.