Essay, Research Paper: All Quiet On The Western Front

Literature: All Quiet On The Western Front

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All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel set in World War I, based around the
changes formed by the war on one young German soldier. During his time in the
war, the main character, Paul Baumer, changes from an innocent boy to a hardened
veteran. More importantly, during the course of this change, Baumer outcasts
himself from those societal influences that has been the base of his life before
the war. This rejection comes as a result of Baumer's realization that the
pre-enlistment society does not understand the reality of the Great War. His new
society and fellow soldiers then becomes his foundation because that is a group
which understands the truth as Baumer has experienced it. Remarque demonstrates
Baumer's withdraw from his traditional life by stressing the language of
Baumer's past and present societies. Baumer either can not, or chooses not to,
communicate truthfully with those representatives of his innocent and former
days. Further, he is shocked by the dull and meaningless language that is used
by members of his past society. As he becomes estranged from his former,
traditional, society, Baumer is able to communicate effectively only with his
military partners. Since the novel is told from the first person point of view,
the reader can see how the words Baumer speaks are disagreeing with his true
feelings. In his preface to the novel, Remarque maintains that "a
generation of men ... were destroyed by the war," (Remarque, All Quiet
Preface). Indeed, in All Quiet on the Western Front, the meaning of language
itself is destroyed. Early in the novel, Baumer notes how his elders had been
easy with words prior to his enlistment. Specifically, teachers and parents had
used words to persuade him and other young men to enlist in the war effort.
After relating the tale of a teacher who exhorted his students to enlist, Baumer
states that "teachers always carry their feelings ready in their waistcoat
pockets, and trot them out by the hour" (Remarque, All Quiet I. 13). Baumer
admits that he, and others, were fooled by this rhetorical deceit. Parents, too,
were not reluctant to using words to shame their sons into enlisting. "At
that time even one's parents were ready with the word 'coward'" (Remarque,
All Quiet I. 13). Remembering those days, Baumer asserts that, as a result of
his war experiences, he has learned how shallow the use of these words was.
Indeed, early in his enlistment, Baumer understands that although authority
figures, "taught that duty to one's country is the greatest thing, we
already knew that death-throes are stronger. But for all that, we were no
mutineers, no deserters, no cowards-they were very free with these expressions.
We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action;
but also we distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly learned to
see." (Remarque, All Quiet I. 17) What Baumer and his comrades have learned
is that the words and expressions used by the society do not reflect the reality
of war and of one's participation in it. As the novel progresses, Baumer himself
uses words in a similarly false fashion. A number of instances of Baumer's own
misuse of language occur during an important episode in the novel-a period of
leave when he visits his home town. This leave is unfortunate for Baumer because
he realizes that he can not communicate with the people in his home town because
of his military experiences and their limited understanding of the war. When he
first enters his house, for example, Baumer is overwhelmed at being home. His
joy and relief are such that he cannot speak; he can only weep (Remarque, All
Quiet VII. 140). When he and his mother greet each other, he realizes
immediately that he has nothing to say to her: "We say very little and I am
thankful that she asks nothing" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 141). But finally
she does speak to him and asks, "'Was it very bad out there, Paul?'" (Remarque,
All Quiet VII. 143). Here, when he answers, he lies, apparently to protect her
from hearing of the horrible conditions from which he has just returned. He
thinks to himself, "Mother, what should I answer to that! You would not
understand, you could never realize it. And you never shall realize it. Was it
bad, you ask.-You, Mother,--I shake my head and say: "No, Mother, not so
very. There are always a lot of us together so it isn't so bad." (Remarque,
All Quiet VII. 143). Even in trying to protect her, by using words that are
false, Baumer creates a separation between his mother and himself. Clearly, as
Baumer sees it, such knowledge is not for the inexperienced. On another level,
however, Baumer cannot respond to his mother's question: he understands that the
experiences he has had are so overwhelming that "civilian" language,
or any language at all, there would be no use in describing them. Trying to
repeat the experience and horrors of the war through words is impossible, Baumer
realizes, and so he lies. Any attempt at telling the truth would have no point
to it. During the course of his leave, Baumer also sees his father. The fact
that he does not wish to speak with his parent shows Baumer's movement away from
the past. Baumer reports that his father "is curious, about the war, in a
way that I find stupid and distressing; I no longer have any real contact with
him" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 146). In considering the demands of his
father to discuss the war, Baumer, once again, realizes the impossibility, and,
in this case, even the danger, of trying to relate the reality of the war
through language. There is nothing he likes more than just hearing about it. I
realize he does not know that a man cannot talk of such things; I would do it
willingly, but it is too dangerous for me to put these things into words. I am
afraid they might then become gigantic and I be no longer able to master them. (Remarque,
All Quiet VII. 146). Again, Baumer notes the impossibility of making the
experience of war meaningful within a verbal context: the war is too big, the
words describing it would have to be accordingly enormous and, with their
symbolic size, might become uncontrollable and meaningless. While with his
father, Baumer meets other men who are certain that they know how to fight and
win the war. Ultimately, Baumer says of his father and of these men that
"they talk too much for me ... They understand of course, they agree, they
may even feel it so too, but only with words, only with words" (Remarque,
All Quiet VII. 149). Baumer is driven away from the older men because he
understands that the words of his father's generation are meaningless in that
they do not reflect the realities of the world and of the war as Baumer has come
to understand them. Also during his leave, Baumer visits the mother of a fallen
comrade, Kemmerich. As he did with his own mother, he lies, this time in an
attempt to shield her from the details of her son's death. Moreover, in this
conversation, we see Baumer rejecting yet another one of the traditional
foundations: religious obedience. He assures Kemmerich's mother that her son
"'died immediately. He felt absolutely nothing at all. His face was quite
calm'" (Remarque, All Quiet VII. 160). Kemmerichs' mother doesn't believe
him. She asks him to swear "by everything that is sacred to" him (that
is, to God, as far as she is concerned) that what he says is true (Remarque, All
Quiet VII. 160). He does so easily because he realizes that nothing is sacred to
him. By corrupting this oath, Baumer shows both his unwillingness to communicate
honestly with a member of his home town and his rejection of God in his society.
Thus, another break with an look of his past life is effected through Baumer's
conscious misuse of language. Contrasted with Baumer's experiences during his
visit home are his dealings with his fellow trench soldiers. Unlike Baumer's
feelings at home where he chooses not to speak with his father and makes an
empty vow to Frau Kemmerich, Baumer is able to effect true communication, of
both a verbal and spiritual kind, with his fellow trench soldiers. Indeed,
within this group, words can have a meaningful, soothing effect. Not long after
his return from leave, Baumer and some of his friends go out on patrol to
establish the enemy's strength. During this patrol, Baumer is pinned down in a
shell hole, becomes disoriented, and suffers a panic attack. He states:
"Tormented, terrified, in my imagination, I see the grey, implacable muzzle
of a rifle which moves noiselessly before me whichever way I try to turn my
head" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 184-85). He is unable to regain his patience
until he hears voices behind him. He recognizes the voices and realizes that he
is close to his friends in his own trench. The effect of his fellow soldiers'
words on Baumer is contrary to the effect his father's and his father's friends'
empty words have on him. At once a new warmth flows through me. These voices,
these quiet words ... behind me recall me at a bound from the terrible
loneliness and fear of death...(Remarque, All Quiet IX. 186). Here, Baumer
understands the reviving effects of his comrades' words. Strikingly, as opposed
to his town's citizens' empty words, the words of Baumer's comrades actually go
beyond their literal meanings. That is, since Baumer notices that the words of
the traditional world have no meaning, the words of his comrades have more
meaning than even they are aware of. In fact, true communication can exist in
the world of the war with few or no words said at all. This circumstance is
perhaps best demonstrated in the novel during a scene involving Baumer and his
friend, Stanislaus Katczinsky. This scene can be compared to Baumer's meeting
with Kemmerich's mother. During that meeting, Kemmerichs' mother insisted on
some kind of verbal statement of Baumer's spiritual personality. As noted above,
he is quite willing to give her such an assertion because the words he uses in
doing so means nothing to him. With Katczinsky, though, the situation is
different because the spirituality of the event is such that words are not
necessary. The scene is a simple one. After Baumer and Katczinsky have stolen a
goose, in a small deserted lean-to they eat it together. "We sit opposite
one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the
middle of the night. We don't talk much, but I believe we have a more complete
communion with one another than even lovers have ... The grease drips from our
hands, in our hearts we are close to one another ... we sit with a goose between
us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak. (Remarque, All
Quiet V. 87). These basic and original activities of getting and then eating
food bring about a communion, a feeling "equality," between the two
men that clearly cannot be found in the environment of Baumer's home town.
Perhaps Remarque wants to make the point that true communication can occur only
in action, or in silence, or almost accidentally. At any rate, Baumer
demonstrates toward the end of his life that even he is not immune from verbal
dishonesty of a kind that was used on him to get him to enlist. Soon after he
hears the comforting words of his comrades, Baumer is caught in another shell
hole during the bombardment. Here, he is forced to kill a Frenchman who jumps
into it while attacking the German lines. Baumer is horrified at his action. He
notes, "This is the first time I have killed with my hands, whom I can see
close at hand, whose death is my doing" (Remarque, All Quiet IX. 193). That
is, the war, and his part in it, have become much more personalized because now
he can actually see the face of his enemy. In his grief, Baumer takes the dead
man's pocket-book from him so that he can find out the deceased's name and
family situation. Realizing that the man he killed is no monster, that, in fact,
he had a family, and is evidently very much like himself, Baumer begins to make
promises to the corpse. He indicates that he will write to his family and goes
so far as to promise the corpse that he, Baumer, will take his place on earth:
"'I have killed the printer, Gerard Duval. I must be a printer'" (Remarque,
All Quiet IX. 197). More importantly, Baumer renounces his status as soldier by
apologizing to the corpse for killing him. Ultimately, that is all that Paul
Baumer and the reader are left with: war is war. It cannot be defined; it cannot
even be discussed with any accuracy. It has no sense and, in fact, is the
idealization of a lack of any kind of meaning. In All Quiet on the Western
Front, Erich Maria Remarque shows the disorder created by the war. This disorder
affects such elemental societal institutions as the family, the schools, and the
church. Moreover, the war is so chaotic that it infects the basic abilities, not
the least of which is verbal, of humanity itself. By showing how the First World
War harmfully affects the syntax of language, Remarque is able to demonstrate
how the war hopelessly changes the order of the world itself.
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