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All Quiet on the Western Front

A Literary Analysis

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“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” 

~ Helen Keller

Some books are read for pleasure. Others are read for an assignment, but the rare few are read because they must be read. These are the world’s real books, and All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, is the epitome of a real book. It is not meant for all readers, only the ones who can bear it, because they need it. A reader does not turn to All Quiet on the Western Front to simply read. They invest their time in the words of Erich Maria Remarque in order to learn, and they must be prepared for the challenges it will bring. In All Quiet on the Western Front, readers uncover the shocking truths of war, and life—an older generation’s hypocrisy, and the animalistic instincts in all of us are exposed. 

    The elders are not always the wisest. In All Quiet on the Western Front, a generation of young men are deceived by the people whom they had respected. Paul Baumer and his classmates are pressured into enlisting in the German Army by their elders. While at war, Paul quickly realizes that they have misplaced their trust, saying, “We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs.” (1). Paul and his friends relax together while discussing their lives before the war. The conversation doesn’t take long to steer towards school. As the young men quiz each other on random facts they consumed in class, they realize that their education didn’t prepare them for war. 

We remember mighty little of all that rubbish… At school nobody ever taught us how to light a cigarette in a storm of rain, nor how a fire could be made with wet wood—nor that it is best to stick a bayonet in the belly because there it doesn’t get jammed, as it does in the ribs. [Chapter 5, Page 85].

The group’s realization about the uselessness of their education is just one example of how they feel cheated by their older generation. Paul describes how the young men didn’t necessarily want to join the war, but felt forced to enlist “because at the time even one’s parents were ready with the word ‘coward.’” (2). Not only did the older generation pressure Paul and his classmates, but they also over-glorified the war, making it out to be more patriotic and heroic than it truly was. Due to this, Paul can no longer feel remorse for people like his teacher, Kantorek. Paul says, “I cannot reconcile this with the menacing figure at the schoolmaster’s desk.” (3). Paul is angered by his elder’s, and their misrepresentation of war. Their deceit altered the trajectory of his and his classmates’ lives.

    Within everyone lies an urge to survive. In All Quiet on the Western Front, a young man’s primordial instincts are exposed through his journey on the front lines and his effort to survive. Paul Baumer goes off to war as a curious, innocent boy, but is quickly changed into a hardened war veteran, willing to do what it takes to sustain his own life. Paul becomes numb to the sensitivity that he once had, saying “When a man has seen so many dead he cannot understand any longer why there should be so much anguish over a single individual.” (4). Paul and his classmates visit one of their friends who was recently wounded in battle. They observe that his leg has been amputated, meaning that he no longer needs his boots, which are amongst the highest quality in the company. Rather than being considerate and supportive friends, the men ask for his boots.

We have lost all sense of other considerations, because they are artificial. Only the facts are real and important for us. And good boots are scarce. [Chapter Two, Page 21].

Paul’s experience at war, even though it is short relative to his entire life, changes his ability to feel sensitivity towards others, and his awareness of what is right, and what is wrong. Later, Paul grapples with his dwindling sense of humanity saying, “I am frightened: I dare think this way no more… This way lies the abyss. (5). In order to live on the front, Paul must be immune to the atrocities occurring around him. Paul remarks, “Here, on the borders of death, life follows an amazingly simple course, it is limited to what is most necessary, all else lies buried in gloomy sleep;—in that besides our primitiveness and our survival.” (6).  Paul can no longer invest in his emotions if he has any hope of survival. Life on the western front hinges on this. 

    All Quiet on the Western Front is for those who want to be strong, yet can only be understood by those who already are. 

Footnotes:

  • (1) Chapter One, Page 12
  • (2) Chapter One, Page 11
  • (3) Chapter Seven, Page 176
  • (4) Chapter Seven, Page 181
  • (5) Chapter Eight, Page 194
  • (6) Chapter 11, Page 273

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