” We are little flames sheltered by frail walls against the storm of dissolution and madness, in which we flicker and sometimes almost go out. Then the muffled roar of the battle becomes a ring that encircles us, we creep in upon ourselves, and with big eyes stare into the night. ” (Ch.11, p.275)
This book is narrated by Paul Bäumer, a young man of nineteen who fights in the German army on the French front in World War I. Paul and several of his friends from school joined the army out of their own volition after listening to the stirring, provoking, patriotic speeches of the school master, Kantorek. Bust after experiencing first-hand the atrocity and brutality, they realize that the empty talk of nationalism and patriotism made by these so-called intellectuals, who know nothing about the constant physical terror and encroaching fear, has consumed a whole generation of young men who are disconnected from their normal lives.
I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow . . . Through the years our business has been killing;—it was our first calling in life. (Ch.10, p.263-4)
The young men belong to Second Company, which is soon dispatched to the front line. After the first combat with heavy shelling, only 80 of the 150 men survive. They also endure the strictest disciplinary actions meted out by the reckless Himmelstoss, a postman in civilian life who has taken up bullying, Soon Paul witnesses the slow death of his friend Kemmerich, who is eaten up by gangrene after having one leg amputated. What eagerness and enthusiasm in soldiering at the first place have turned into inconsolable misery. This is exactly the aim of the novel—sets out to portray war as it was actually experienced, replacing the romantic picture of glory, honor, and heroism with a decidedly unromantic vision of fear, meaninglessness, and butchery.
We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our booms, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down . . . (Ch.6, p.113)
All Quiet on the Western Front depicts soldier as an everyman in any given war. Despite the physical horror and carnage, the book focuses on the ruinous effect that war has on the soldiers. The intense physical threat serves as an ceaseless attack on the nerves. That constant fear of death has deprived them of reasonable thought process. Along with the meager provisions, the appalling living situation, the poor sanitation, the book gives an 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 conditions of their lives. That is the reason Paul feels there exists a thickness, a veil in place between him and his family when he goes home during leave. What makes this book so powerful is Paul the universal soldier—his voice speaks for all the soldiers, for all of humanity. Despite the military differences, regardless of the sides, soldiers are just ordinary men who have rights to live a normal life.
296 pp. Ballantine Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]