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All Quiet on the Western Front

Monica Kempski

Mrs. Johnstone

Novel Critical Analysis

1 April 2009
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Introduction:

War is an inevitable force that transpires from two nations’ contradicting beliefs

or values. When these opposite forces clash, each side does what is necessary to uphold

their strong conviction and achieve their means; for instance, allowing their young men to

fight in the war for the greater good of their country. These youths are bombarded by

patriotic propaganda, by which they are all too willing to serve their country. For this

reason, they are totally blinded to the true nature of war and its unimaginable

experiences. Upon suffering horrendous ordeals during wartime, young men’s lives are

permanently corrupted, resulting in a nonexistent youth.

In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque attempts to tell the

story of these youths through Paul Baumer, as he comes to realize the horrific reality

involved with serving his homeland of Germany during World War One. Remarque

giftedly delivers this story through superb structure, style, and theme.

Critical Commentaries:

There have been both positive and negative criticisms regarding Remarque’s

chosen writing style that deals with the theme in All Quiet on the Western Front since its

initial publication in 1928. In a positive criticism, Frank Ernest Hill claims Remarque’s

style as a “sharply etched description of suffering, endurance, grim humor, and climactic

event.” (Contemporary Literary Criticism 325.5) Then, he adds that this style is a work of

art that will impact the sensitive reader dramatically. Within the style, the novel contains

intense graphic content that extract varying emotions from the reader. Frank Ernest Hill

continues to say that “there are the passages of vulgar humor, Germanic yet universal in

character.” An example of this vulgar humor is shown when Paul’s artillery talks about
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women. One particular man even comments on his girlfriend’s stockings and boasts

about her mammoth legs. Boasting about huge legs is paradoxical because a man would

usually boast about a skinny wife, rather than one of substance. Nonetheless, the paradox

creates humor for the reader. Even though this humor may not seem vulgar to the modern

day, it was deemed so at the time that the novel was written in the 1920s where it was

scandalous for a woman to display her legs. These archetypes of sexuality and humor are

universal because they do not only happen in Germany, but in all cultures. The

universality created compels the reader because they can identify with the content of the

passage. In grimmer archetypical situations like death and war, a universal connection

allows for the reader to feel strongly towards the narrator and his traumas. By having this

identification with the narrator, the reader can understand the content of the book as

realistic. The more the reader connects and relates to the characters, the more likely the

reader is to be affected by the novel. Hill concludes his criticism by stating in regards to

the impact of the reader, “in this sense it is a work of art.” (Contemporary Literary

Criticism 325.7) Only when the reader is impacted by the characters and the story, can

they truly feel the depression of a non-existent youth that war brings to the young men.

However, Joseph Wood Krutch found Remarque’s style to be unimpressionable.

In the criticism, he notes that the writing style was told with “a sort of naïveté which is

the result of not too little experience, but of too much.” (Contemporary Literary Criticism

326.3) Krutch further remarks that Remarque’s abundant experience of war kept him

from using rhetoric that spurs deep analysis. Remarque, being a war veteran, thought of

the experience of war as something that could never be properly analyzed. Thus, Krutch

scolds Remarque’s simplicity in style because it does not allow the reader to have a
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proper interpretation of his experiences in wartime. However, an intelligent view of the

novel’s style will refute Krutch’s criticism. Even though Remarque’s style is simplistic, it

contains enough careful diction and descriptions that formulate a moving tale that enables

any reader to feel emotion for the characters when they diminish their youth.

Style:

In All Quiet on the Western Front, Remarque’s brilliant style allows for the reader

to be able to feel emotional for his character’s loss of youth. At the beginning of the

novel, Paul visits his friend who is dying in an army hospital from a wound he had

received during combat. “He lies there now- but why? The whole world ought to pass by

this bed and say: “That is Franz Kemmerich, nineteen and a half years old; he does not

want to die. Let him not die!” (29.7) This passage contains syntax of distinguishing

characteristics such as an exclamation point, question marks, and semicolons. The

exclamation point used helps to create a tone of urgency in Paul’s voice. With this

marking, the reader can assume that he is feeling overwhelmed by a rush of demanding

concern for the life of his friend who may not be with him for much longer. The syntax

also affects the passage’s pacing. The semicolons make the passage’s flow very

inconsistent and broken. This is because the semicolons create long complex sentences

that are used for Paul’s long drawn-out and concerned thoughts. These sentences provide

a sharp contrast with the short sentences in the passage that portray thoughts of stress and

exigency. The syntax aids in contributing to the rhetorical effect on the reader because it

shows that Paul is actually thinking about his expiring friend, and expresses Paul’s

feeling that his friend should be entitled to hold on to his life by commanding that he not

die.
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In this situation, both Paul and his friend have lost their youth. Paul’s friend is

paralyzed and dying to the point where cannot have happy, normal experiences that a

normal youth his age could. Paul has also lost some of his youth because he is

experiencing death. For one of the first times, Paul becomes aware of death and starts to

abandon his childish thoughts that all things turn out joyful in life.

A second passage showing Paul’s loss of youth contains moving style. This

passage tells of the moment when Paul is sitting alone in an abandoned trench until he is

joined by a Frenchman whom he stabs to death out of fright. Remarque’s use of

personification and imagery displays Paul’s terrible experience of having to watch a

severely wounded man who slowly dies. The man is described as having eyes that “cry

out.” (Remarque 219.3) This personification shows that the man is struggling, and Paul is

aware of this because he can see the suffering in his eyes. Remarque also depicts the

man’s struggling through auditory and kinesthetic imagery. The words “gazes, still,

without a sound, and gurgle ceased” (Remarque 220) show the progression of the man

inching closer to death and finally dying. After the man passes away, Paul “propped the

man up again so that he lies comfortably. I close his eyes.” (221.9-222) These caring

regretful actions show that Paul respects the man and feels remorse for the terrible ordeal

that Paul inflicted upon not only the Frenchman, but himself as well. The actions of

making the man comfortable are to ease Paul’s mind by thinking that the man no longer

suffers. In conclusion, the style used by Remarque throughout the novel shows the horrid

experience of death suffered by Paul during the war that rob him from his happy

childhood innocence; therefore, drawing empathy from the reader.


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Gruesome diction and visual imagery are also crucial elements of Remarque’s

style that draw emotions from the terrible yet maturing ordeals Paul had to suffer

through. A significant passage describes horses that become critically wounded during

battle. Their piercing cries were described by Paul as, “the moaning of the world, it is the

martyred creation, wild with anguish, filled with terror, and groaning” (62.9). From

Paul’s comment, the reader can agree that the suffering of innocent animals is a lofty

occurrence. Moreover, Remarque continues to describe a particular horses’ fatality

through graphic diction. “The belly of one is ripped open, the guts trail out. He becomes

tangled in them and falls, then he stands up again.” (Remarque 63.8) This appalling

image created through the ghastly diction of the passage further creates a sense of

repulsion with the reader. In a later passage, Remarque uses extremely graphic words to

describe soldiers’ injuries during bombardment. “We see men living with their skulls

blown open, we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off, they stagger on their

splintered stumps into the next shell hole; a lance corporal crawls a mile and a half on his

hands dragging his smashed knee behind him; another goes to the dressing station and

over his clasped hands bulge his intestines; we see men without mouths, without jaws,

without faces.” (134.6)

These descriptions of the injuries to both humans and animals create the

unimaginable scenes of war that construct a sickening feeling that Paul and the reader

both feel. Again, Paul is forced to leave his youth behind him as he literally sees that life

is full of danger and suffering.

Lastly, several paradoxes are used by Remarque to emphasize the contradictory

mentality of war. When Paul is fighting on the front, he says “If your own father came
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over with [the enemy] you would not hesitate to fling a bomb at him.” (114.4) Under

normal circumstances, it would be satanic for someone to want to brutally kill their

father, but because the person fears for their own life during battle, they will do whatever

they can to save themselves. Paul losses his youthful innocence by being required to

murder anyone that is a danger to him.

Techniques:

Remarque utilizes many techniques that satisfactorily tell Paul’s story of the

trauma involved with war that result in his lost youth. The First Person point of view is

crucial to the narration of the story because Paul gives personal accounts of his days in

the trenches. This personal account allows insight on Paul’s thoughts and emotions

throughout the novel as he develops from a child mindset to a disturbed yet mature adult.

With a second or third person point of view, we cannot get fist-hand documentation on

the thoughts and emotions of the dynamic maturing character.

A final technique that Remarque utilizes is a flashback. Through the novel Paul

accounts his childhood memories, such as attending school and church. After these

memories, Paul realizes that that part of his life is no longer with him and that it died

when he stepped into battleground.

Structure:

The novel’s structure contributes to its success by making the content of the story

both realistic and relatable, allowing for the reader to feel empathetic for Paul’s

misplaced youth. All Quiet on the Western Front moves in chronological order from

chapter to chapter. These chapters are short depictions of events from Paul’s point of

view where he tells of his experiences and feelings. In result, this technique mirrors a
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journal entry. The journal entry structure creates a realistic effect because the reader

registers the experiences and events as they happen, step-by-step. Here, they can easily

identify with Paul because they are simultaneously going through the events that destroy

his youth.

A second part of the structure involves the countless conversations throughout

the novel. By experiencing dialogue, the reader can actually feel as if they are with Paul

during the terrible events that destroy Paul’s youthful innocence.

Theme:

The several themes in the novel contribute to Remarque’s purpose of writing the

novel: having the common person understand how the overall emotional effects of war

lead for the young men to have a nonexistent youth. Firstly, the soldiers loose their

youthful innocence by using violence to protect themselves:

We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against

annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of

men in this moment when Death is hunting us down…..we can destroy and kill, to

save ourselves and to be revenged.

Here, they ultimately are trying to avoid death, doing whatever it takes regardless

if they kill a man. Later, Paul reiterates himself by saying that “Through the years our

business has been killing, our knowledge of life is limited to death.” (264.3) The troops

are no longer immune to murder and violence as they were as boys. The young troops are

adapted to killing and fully aware of death.


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In addition, the men lost their youth because they are no longer exposed to

women while at war. When looking at a girl in a poster in the bunker, Paul explains,

“[She] is a wonder to us. We have quite forgotten that there are such things, and even

now we can hardly believe our eyes. We have seen nothing like it for years, nothing like

it for happiness, beauty and joy.” (141.8) It is apparent in this statement that Paul and his

friends have forgotten about the youthful focus of finding and loving a woman. Later on

in the novel, Paul returns home on absence. During this time, we see how Paul is

emotionally disconnected from the world outside of war. When he first returns home and

sees his family he explains, “There is a distance, a veil between us.” (160.5) Paul is

unable to show emotion he showed in his youth towards his family. He cannot connect

with them because they have not experienced what Paul had in war. The people of his

youth are strangers to him. Furthermore, we see Paul’s disconnection with the objects of

his childhood. When he comes upon his beloved schoolbooks he notes:

I implore them with my eyes: Speak to me-take me up-take me, Life of my

Youth-you who are carefree, beautiful-receive me again- I wait. Images float

through my mind, but they do not grip me, they are mere shadows and memories.

Nothing-nothing- My disquietude grows. A terrible feeling of foreignness

suddenly rises up in me.

Here, Paul has lost the passion for the values he had in his childhood.

Paul is also emotionally altered when he discovers that the enemy is an ordinary

person. When he unintentionally stabs a Frenchman, he sees that they are as common as
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brothers. He discovers he has a family and a life of his own, leaving Paul to feel immense

guilt:

Now for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand

grenades, your bayonet, your rifle: now I see your wife, your face, and our

fellowship…Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your

mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, the

same dying and the same agony-Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my

enemy?

Along with his realization that the enemy is similar to himself, Paul has lost his clouded

youthful thoughts that the enemy is an evil person to be destroyed.

Conclusion:

Erich Maria Remarque brilliantly portrays how the unimaginable experiences of war rob

young soldiers of their youth. Remarque’s technique, style, structure, and chosen themes

accurately serve the purpose of his novel, allowing for all readers to relate to and undergo

the appalling event of war. All Quiet on the Western Front will remain a masterwork of

success through time.


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Works Cited

Contemporary Literary Criticism. 21. Galenet, 1982.

Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Fawcett Books, 1982.

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