Thursday, January 31, 2008

All Quiet on the Western Front, Plot Summary and Analysis

Author: Erich Maria Remarque
Born: June 22, 1898; Osnabrück, Germany
Died: September 25, 1970; Locarno, Switzerland


Type of Work: Novel
Type of Plot: Political
Time of Work: World War I
Locale: Western front and Germany

Principal Characters:

Paul Bäumer, a young german soldier, a private

Kropp,

Müller, and

Kemmerich, several of his young comrades

Tjaden,

Haie Westhus, and

Detering, slightly older draftees, also Bäumer’s comrades

Stanislaus Katczinsky (Kat), the group’s forty-year-old leader

Corporal Himmelstoss, the recruits’ antagonistic training instructor

Kantorek, the younger soldiers’ former high school teacher
The Story:

Paul Bäumer was a typical German soldier in World War I. He joined up, fought, experienced the horrors and madness of war, saw his comrades killed, and was finally killed himself. He told his own story in vignettes that do not follow chronologically, until finally an outside narrator reported his death on a day when the army report said only, “All quiet on the western front.”

Bäumer and his comrades were somewhere behind the lines of the western front late in the war. They had just been relieved from a grueling stint as sappers at the front and were pleased to find that the terrible loss of nearly half their company had the pleasurable consequence of double rations. They ate well, those who were still alive to do so, and later they enjoyed a long game of cards, deploying several portable wooden latrine boxes in a tight circle. Paul spoke often throughout his tale of how soldiering intensified the simple pleasures of eating and defecating. Following this renewing pause, the group of soldiers went to visit their friend Kemmerich, whose leg would have to be amputated because of a battle wound. The friends—Paul Bäumer, Müller, and Kropp—saw that Kemmerich was near death; after leaving him they discussed the matter of his fine boots: Following his death they would be of no use to him, they knew. This was a fact. Kemmerich, also practical, passed his boots on to Müller just before his death. The boots, though good to wear, soon brought death to their wearer, it turned out.

Paul, along with his school chums, had been encouraged to join up by a typically enthusiastic, nationalistic high school teacher named Kantorek. Upon joining the army, Paul was first subjected to the rigors and trials of boot camp at the sadistic hands of Corporal Himmelstoss. His young group of volunteers met new draftees, generally somewhat older North German farmers. Paul’s group, back in camp after devastating losses, watched new recruits arriving. Although Paul and his comrades had been soldiers themselves for no more than a few months, they felt like ancient, hardened veterans. Camp and drill life had taught them about the petty and pointless aspects of the army; but at the same time they had learned to fend for themselves, to view the officers and drill sergeants with suspicion, and to let themselves become indifferent to emotions, pain, and exhaustion. Himmelstoss met Paul and his comrades behind the lines in camp. By now they had experienced the horrors of battle and knew a great deal more than their old tyrant. One fine evening, as Himmelstoss returned alone from a bar, they ambushed and beat him. Their revenge for all his spiteful tortures in months past was pure and sweet, and they felt no remorse.

Back at the front, Paul’s sapper detail once again experienced the horrors of modern trench warfare: artillery barrages, gas attacks, long hours in damp, dark dugouts, death and loss. The convulsed earth was the only refuge for the soldiers, though the screams of wounded horses pierced even the relative safety of their dugouts and caused the survivors even more pain. During the next respite behind the lines, the soldiers spent time killing their lice, stealing and roasting geese, and plotting another round of revenge against Himmelstoss, who had been assigned to their fighting unit. Some of the older soldiers took special pleasure in insulting Himmelstoss; it got them three days’ arrest, which they regarded as a welcome furlough from duty. The next stint at the front, the most gruesome yet, entailed a great deal of hand-to-hand fighting, broken only by artillery barrages and the distractions of corpse-eating rats. New recruits always died at a much faster rate than the veterans like Paul, Kat, and their friends, and the old circle of soldiers saw the folly of sending in barely trained boys. They began to criticize the planners’ conduct of the war, which was resulting in a lost generation. Himmelstoss encountered his former trainees again when Paul found him cowering in a dugout at the front. Upon returning to the rear again, Paul’s company had only thirty-two men, one-fifth of its original number.

Two important episodes followed this devastating mission, an erotic encounter with local French-speaking women, and Paul’s home leave. The meeting with beautiful women only seemed lighthearted, for actually they traded their bodies only because they were nearly starving; a melancholy fog lay over the whole adventure. During Paul’s subsequent home leave he discovered the chasm which from then on would separate him from his past. His mother treated him still as a child and could understand nothing of his changed personality. His father thought he was a war hero and forced him to endure the company of the local armchair generals, who were hopelessly out of touch. No one at home could begin to understand Paul’s loss and the profundity of his change. The tragic state of Russian prisoners of war whom Paul saw at home impressed him with the hopelessness and tragedy of war and his victimization by it. Things were even more painful back at the front. Paul stabbed a French soldier and remained pinned down by the body overnight in a shell crater. Paul retrieved his victim’s wallet and saw his pictures and letters, his life and humanity. Knowing his victim’s name, Paul was nearly crushed by his own deed, which had suddenly become personal. The frequency of death increased; Paul’s comrades were killed off until only he and his best friend Kat were left. Then Kat was shot, first wounded, then killed while being carried to safety. After more death, loneliness, and hopelessness, Paul, too, was killed, another insignificant soul devoured by the war machine.
Critical Evaluation:

Although it is not the first war novel of the “war novel boom” of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Erich Maria Remarque’s book is by far the best known. Within its first year of publication more than one and a half million copies were in print in twelve languages, and about forty million copies were sold in Remarque’s lifetime, making it one of the best-selling German books of all time. Despite—or perhaps because of—its unparalleled popularity, All Quiet on the Western Front received relatively little serious critical attention. The work continued to be considered popular literature by most critics, even though Remarque received many literary awards and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The novel’s popularity is in part due to its omnibus message. Though eventually seen by most as the antiwar book that it is, in the politically and socially chaotic climate of the late Weimar Republic the novel spoke to readers on both the pacifist left and the militarist right. In condemning the war’s needless carnage and attributing that to the officers, Remarque served the pacifist agenda; at the same time, however, the book was seen to glorify the simple patriotic soldiering of Paul and his comrades and, in so doing, to confirm the good memories many soldiers had of the war.

Early reviewers debated the book’s authenticity, many treating it as a memoir or diary rather than as a fictional creation. Others chose to attack the book for what they perceived as its pacifist, antiauthoritarian message by impugning the author and questioning his personal war record. Remarque did indeed serve on the western front briefly in the summer of 1917; though he was not a decorated officer, he was wounded on the first day of the battle of Flanders. In fact, the source of an iron cross pinned to his uniform in one 1918 photograph is suspect. Remarque’s dandified airs—the altered spelling of his name from the original Remark, his high society contacts, and love for auto racing and famous actresses—allowed conservative critics to cast further doubt on the realism of his portrayal of war. It is missing the point, however, to try to tie Remarque’s novel directly to actual war experiences. More than anything else, the novel represents the emotional impact of the war on the young generation of recruits who fought it. Gertrude Stein called these men the “lost generation”: They could no longer have faith in the elders who had thrown them into the trenches, nor did they have anything meaningful to go home to. This was a generation made lonely by the war; as Paul Bäumer put it, “We will be superfluous even to ourselves.”

Copies of All Quiet on the Western Front were burned by the Nazis in May, 1933, along with works by Jewish writers, pacifists, socialists, and others they believed were enemies of the state or of the German people. The Nazis burned Remarque’s works because of what they called his “literary betrayal of the soldiers in the world war.” Remarque emigrated, first to Switzerland, then to the United States, and Nazi Germany revoked his citizenship in 1938. He returned to Switzerland after World War II.

Scholars continue to find the novel interesting because of its immense impact on the popular understanding of World War I. The novel also has much to offer artistically, however. Like many works of the Weimar Republic period (1919-1933), it shows remnants of literary expressionism. Remarque presents a version of the generational conflict, especially between fathers and sons, which had been pointed out so clearly by many of his contemporaries, and there are passages of lyrical organicism, such as those in which Paul seeks safety in the earth or solace in a tree-lined vista, as well as, in certain key passages, an exultant, declarative style. All Quiet on the Western Front tells a tragic story of loss and helplessness, yet it also contains important moments of life-affirming energy.

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