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· Boys’ attitude to war
· Reasons for enlistment
· Experiences on the front
How do these change their attitude to war? What does this tell you about the similarities and differences the Australian’s and German’s experiences?
Analysis of Major Characters
As the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Paul is the central figure in All Quiet on the Western Front and serves as the mouthpiece for Remarque’s meditations about war. Throughout the novel, Paul’s inner personality is contrasted with the way the war forces him to act and feel. His memories of the time before the war show that he was once a very different man from the despairing soldier who now narrates the novel. Paul is a compassionate and sensitive young man; before the war, he loved his family and wrote poetry. Because of the horror of the war and the anxiety it induces, Paul, like other soldiers, learns to disconnect his mind from his feelings, keeping his emotions at bay in order to preserve his sanity and survive.
As a result, the compassionate young man becomes unable to mourn his dead comrades, unable to feel at home among his family, unable to express his feelings about the war or even talk about his experiences, unable to remember the past fully, and unable to conceive of a future without war. He also becomes a “human animal,” capable of relying on animal instinct to kill and survive in battle. But because Paul is extremely sensitive, he is somewhat less able than many of the other soldiers to detach himself completely from his feelings, and there are several moments in the book (Kemmerich’s death, Kat’s death, the time that he spends with his ill mother) when he feels himself pulled down by emotion. These surging feelings indicate the extent to which war has programmed Paul to cut himself off from feeling, as when he says, with devastating understatement, “Parting from my friend Albert Kropp was very hard. But a man gets used to that sort of thing in the army.”
Paul’s experience is intended to represent the experience of a whole generation of men, the so-called lost generation—men who went straight from childhood to fighting in World War I, often as adolescents. Paul frequently considers the past and the future from the perspective of his entire generation, noting that, when the war ends, he and his friends will not know what to do, as they have learned to be adults only while fighting the war.
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Though he is not central to the novel’s plot, Kantorek is an important figure as a focus of Remarque’s bitter critique of the ideals of patriotism and nationalism that drove nations into the catastrophe of World War I. Kantorek, the teacher who filled his students’ heads with passionate rhetoric about duty and glory, serves as a punching bag as Remarque argues against those ideals. Though a modern context is essential to the indictment of Kantorek’s patriotism and nationalism, Kantorek’s physical description groups him with premodern evil characters. The fierce and pompous Kantorek is a small man described as “energetic and uncompromising,” characteristics that recall the worried Caesar’s remarks about Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. / He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous” (I.ii.195–196). Napoleon also springs to mind as a historical model for Kantorek.
The inclusion of a seemingly anachronistic literary type—the scheming or dangerous diminutive man—may seem out of place in a modern novel. Yet this quality of Kantorek arguably reflects the espousal of dated ideas by an older generation of leaders who betray their followers with manipulations, ignorance, and lies. “While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing,” Paul writes in Chapter One, “we already knew that death-throes are stronger.” As schoolboys, Paul and his friends believed that Kantorek was an enlightened man whose authority derived from his wisdom; as soldiers, they quickly learn to see through Kantorek’s rhetoric and grow to despise him, especially after the death of Joseph Behm. That Kantorek is eventually drafted and makes a terrible soldier reflects the uselessness of the ideals that he touts.
Like Kantorek, Himmelstoss does not figure heavily in the novel’s plot, but his thematic importance makes him significant to the book as a whole. One of the themes of All Quiet on the Western Front is that war brings out a savagery and hunger for power that lie latent in many people, even if they are normally respectable, nonviolent citizens. Himmelstoss is just such a figure: an unthreatening postman before the war, he evolves into the “terror of Klosterberg,” the most feared disciplinarian in the training camps. Himmelstoss is extremely cruel to his recruits, forcing them to obey ridiculous and dangerous orders simply because he enjoys bullying them.
Himmelstoss forces his men to stand outside with no gloves on during a hard frost, risking frostbite that could lead to the amputation of a finger or the loss of a hand. His idea of a cure for Tjaden’s bed-wetting—making him share a bunk with Kindervater, another bed wetter—is vicious, especially since the bed-wetting results from a medical condition and is not under Tjaden’s control. At this stage of the novel, Himmelstoss represents the meanest, pettiest, most loathsome aspects of humanity that war draws out. But when he is sent to fight at the front, Himmelstoss experiences the same terror and trauma as the other soldiers, and he quickly tries to make amends for his past behavior. In this way, Remarque exhibits the frightening and awesome power of the trenches, which transform even a mad disciplinarian into a terrorized soldier desperate for human companionship.
Paul Bäumer -
A young German soldier fighting in the trenches during World War I. Paul is the protagonist and narrator of the novel. He is, at heart, a kind, compas-sionate, and sensitive young man, but the brutal expe-rience of warfare teaches him to detach himself from his feelings. His account of the war is a bitter invective against sentimental, romantic ideals of warfare.
Paul Bäumer (In-Depth Analysis)
Stanislaus Katczinsky -
A soldier belonging to Paul’s company and Paul’s best friend in the army. Kat, as he is known, is forty years old at the beginning of the novel and has a family at home. He is a resourceful, inventive man and always finds food, clothing, and blankets whenever he and his friends need them.
Albert Kropp -
One of Paul’s classmates who serves with Paul in the Second Company. An intelligent, speculative young man, Kropp is one of Paul’s closest friends during the war. His interest in analyzing the causes of the war leads to many of the most critical antiwar sentiments in the novel.
One of Paul’s classmates. Müller is a hardheaded, prac-tical young man, and he plies his friends in the Second Company with questions about their postwar plans.
One of Paul’s friends in the Second Company. Tjaden is a wiry young man with a voracious appetite. He bears a deep grudge against Corporal Himmelstoss.
A pompous, ignorant, authoritarian schoolmaster in Paul’s high school during the years before the war. Kantorek places intense pressure on Paul and his classmates to fulfill their “patriotic duty” by enlisting in the army.
Kantorek (In-Depth Analysis)
Corporal Himmelstoss -
A noncommissioned training officer. Before the war, Himmelstoss was a postman. He is a petty, power-hungry little man who torments Paul and his friends during their training. After he experiences the horrors of trench warfare, however, he tries to make amends with them.
Corporal Himmelstoss (In-Depth Analysis)
Franz Kemmerich -
One of Paul’s classmates and comrades in the war. After suffering a light wound, Kemmerich contracts gangrene, and his leg has to be amputated. His death, in Chapter Two, marks the reader’s first encounter with the meaninglessness of death and the cheapness of life in the war.
Joseph Behm -
The first of Paul’s classmates to die in the war. Behm did not want to enlist, but he caved under the pressure of the schoolmaster, Kantorek. His ugly, painful death shatters his classmates’ trust in the authorities who convinced them to take part in the war.
One of Paul’s close friends in the Second Company. Detering is a young man with a wife and a farm at home; he is constantly homesick for his farm and family.
Gérard Duval -
A French soldier whom Paul kills in No Man’s Land. Duval is a printer with a wife and child at home. He is the first person that Paul kills in hand-to-hand combat, one of Paul’s most traumatic experiences in the war.
One of Paul’s classmates and close friends during the war. Leer serves with Paul in the Second Company. He was the first in Paul’s class to lose his virginity.
Haie Westhus -
One of Paul’s friends in the Second Company. A gigantic, burly man, Westhus was a peat-digger before the war. He plans to serve a full term in the army after the war ends, since he finds peat-digging so unpleasant.
A soldier in a neighboring unit. Kindervater is a bed wetter like Tjaden.
A patient in the Catholic hospital where Paul and Kropp recuperate from their wounds. Lewandowski desperately wants to have sex with his visiting wife but is confined to bed because of a minor fever.
One of Paul’s classmates. Mittelstaedt becomes a training officer and enjoys tormenting Kantorek when Kantorek is conscripted as a soldier.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Horror of War
The overriding theme of All Quiet on the Western Front is the terrible brutality of war, which informs every scene in the novel. Whereas war novels before All Quiet on the Western Front tended to romanticize what war was like, emphasizing ideas such as glory, honor, patriotic duty, and adventure, All Quiet on the Western Front sets out to portray war as it was actually experienced, replacing the romantic picture of glory and heroism with a decidedly unromantic vision of fear, meaninglessness, and butchery. In many ways, World War I demanded this depiction more than any war before it—it completely altered mankind’s conception of military conflict with its catastrophic levels of carnage and violence, its battles that lasted for months, and its gruesome new technological advancements (e.g., machine guns, poison gas, trenches) that made killing easier and more impersonal than ever before. Remarque’s novel dramatizes these aspects of World War I and portrays the mind-numbing terror and savagery of war with a relentless focus on the physical and psychological damage that it occasions. At the end of the novel, almost every major character is dead, epitomizing the war’s devastating effect on the generation of young men who were forced to fight it.
The Effect of War on the Soldier
Because All Quiet on the Western Front is set among soldiers fighting on the front, one of its main focuses is the ruinous effect that war has on the soldiers who fight it. These men are subject to constant physical danger, as they could literally be blown to pieces at any moment. This intense physical threat also serves as an unceasing attack on the nerves, forcing soldiers to cope with primal, instinctive fear during every waking moment. Additionally, the soldiers are forced to live in appalling conditions—in filthy, waterlogged ditches full of rats and decaying corpses and infested with lice. They frequently go without food and sleep, adequate clothing, or sufficient medical care. They are forced, moreover, to deal with the frequent, sudden deaths of their close friends and comrades, often in close proximity and in extremely violent fashion. Remarque portrays the overall effect of these conditions as a crippling overload of panic and despair. The only way for soldiers to survive is to disconnect themselves from their feelings, suppressing their emotions and accepting the conditions of their lives.
In Remarque’s view, this emotional disconnection has a hugely destructive impact on a soldier’s humanity; Paul, for instance, becomes unable to imagine a future without the war and unable to remember how he felt in the past. He also loses his ability to speak to his family. Soldiers no longer pause to mourn fallen friends and comrades; when Kemmerich is on his deathbed, at the beginning of the novel, the most pressing question among his friends is who will inherit his boots. Among the living soldiers, however, Remarque portrays intense bonds of loyalty and friendship that spring up as a result of the shared experience of war. These feelings are the only romanticized element of the novel and are virtually the only emotions that preserve the soldiers’ fundamental humanity.
Nationalism and Political Power
In many ways, the precipitating cause of World War I was the ethic of nationalism, the idea that competing nation-states were a fundamental part of existence, that one owed one’s first loyalty to one’s nation, and that one’s national identity was the primary component of one’s overall identity. The ethic of nationalism was not new, but it had reached new heights of intensity in the nineteenth century, and this fervor generally carried over into the start of World War I.
In its depiction of the horror of war, All Quiet on the Western Front presents a scathing critique of the idea of nationalism, showing it to be a hollow, hypocritical ideology, a tool used by those in power to control a nation’s populace. Paul and his friends are seduced into joining the army by nationalist ideas, but the experience of fighting quickly schools them in nationalism’s irrelevance in the face of the war’s horrors. The relative worthlessness on the battlefield of the patriots Kantorek and Himmelstoss accentuates the inappropriateness of outmoded ideals in modern warfare. Remarque illustrates that soldiers on the front fight not for the glory of their nation but rather for their own survival; they kill to keep from being killed. Additionally, Paul and his friends do not consider the opposing armies to be their real enemies; in their view, their real enemies are the men in power in their own nation, who they believe have sacrificed them to the war simply to increase their own power and glory.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Pressure of Patriotic Idealism
Many of the novel’s harshest critiques of nationalism are reserved for the character of Kantorek, the teacher whose impassioned speeches convinced Paul and his friends to join the army at the onset of the war. Kantorek uses an idealistic, patriotic, and poetic rhetoric to convey the concepts of national loyalty and glory. In his letter to the young men, for instance, he calls them “Iron Youth,” implying that they are hard, strong, and resilient, a description that fails to consider the horror of the war, which traps the men in a constant state of panic and despair. As Kantorek and his speeches are recalled throughout the novel, Paul and his friends become increasingly disgusted by them; their experience of war has made them increasingly cynical about patriotism and nationalism. Even at the start of the novel, they blame Kantorek for Joseph Behm’s untimely death, claiming that the teacher failed to understand that no lofty ideal can possibly offer physical or emotional protection or comfort in the heat of battle.
Carnage and Gore
The novel’s main weapon against patriotic idealism is simply its unrelenting portrayal of the carnage and gore that the war occasions. Every battle scene (roughly every other chapter) features brutal violence and bloody descriptions of death and injury. Hospital scenes portray men with grisly wounds that go untreated because of insufficient medical supplies. Paul carries the wounded Kat on his back to safety, only to discover that Kat’s head was hit by a piece of shrapnel while Paul was carrying him. As part of the overall exploration of disconnection from one’s feelings, death is treated with impersonal efficiency: the cook wonders whether regulations permit him to give the surviving soldiers the dead men’s rations; when Kemmerich dies, he is hauled away with the tears still wet on his face so that another soldier can have his bed. Amid this horrific violence and numbness, the overblown phrases of nationalistic rhetoric quickly lose their persuasive power and take on a loathsome quality of hypocrisy and ignorance.
Remarque indicates throughout the novel that the only way for a soldier to survive battle is to turn off his mind and operate solely on instinct, becoming less like a human being and more like an animal. Paul thinks of himself as a “human animal,” and the other soldiers who survive multiple battles operate in the same way. The experience of battle is quite animalistic in this way, as the soldiers trust their senses over their thoughts and sniff out safety wherever they can find it. This motif of animal instinct contributes to the larger theme that war destroys the humanity of the soldier, stripping away his ability to feel and, in this case, making him act like a beast rather than a man.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t employ a great deal of symbolism, but one important symbol in the novel is Kemmerich’s boots. Kemmerich’s high, supple boots are passed from soldier to soldier as each owner dies in sequence. Kemmerich himself took them from the corpse of a dead airman, and as Kemmerich lies on his own deathbed, Müller immediately begins maneuvering to receive the boots. Paul brings them to Müller after Kemmerich dies and inherits them himself when Müller is shot to death later in the novel. In this way, the boots represent the cheapness of human life in the war. A good pair of boots is more valuable—and more durable—than a human life. The question of who will inherit them continually overshadows their owners’ deaths. The boots also symbolize the necessary pragmatism that a soldier must have. One cannot yield to one’s emotions amid the devastation of the war; rather, one must block out grief and despair like a machine.