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Leer, one of the minor characters in Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, is depicted in a number of different episodes before he meets his ultimate fate. Those episodes include the following:
- At one point, as the men are looking at a poster featuring a young woman,
Leer and Tjaden stroll up; they look at the poster and immediately the conversation becomes smutty. Leer was the first of our class to have intercourse, and he gave stirring details of it.
In other words, Leer is associated here with sexual experience but also with a certain sexual crudeness.
- Later, Leer is excited at the prospect of having sex with a French woman and succeeds in doing so.
- Later still, however, Leer is hit by shrapnel, is seriously injured, and quickly dies:
Leer groans as he supports himself on his arm, he bleeds quickly, no one can help him. Like an emptying tube, after a couple of minutes he collapses.
What use is it to him now that he was such a good mathematician at school. [sic]
Leer, then, is one of many characters in this novel whose experiences seem highly ironic. He is young, healthy, sexually motivated, sexually potent, and sexually mature, and in all these ways he is associated with life, liveliness, vigor, and strength. Yet in a second his life and body are torn apart by shrapnel and in a few seconds or minutes he bleeds to death. He was “a good mathematician at school” (a fact that unexpectedly links him also with the intellect, not merely the body); he was sexually experienced, self-confident, and successful; yet in almost no time he is dead. Everthing that he symbolized is now snuffed out. His apparent superiority (in some ways) to the other men vanishes in an instant. He typifies the young men who, during World War I, died by the millions upon millions. He symbolizes the tragic waste of war, and of that war especially.
Something extra: Leer is a character who invites attention from the perspective of "archetypal" criticism. This is an approach to literature that stresses certain basic stories, themes, and character types that tend to appear in numerous works of literature and that tend to appeal to readers regardless of their different personal or cultural backgrounds. Leer fits the archetype of the Virile Young Man -- the man who seems destined for success in life because of his strength, his confidence, and his appeal to the opposite sex. Leer seems to embody some kind of elemental life force. He seems the very opposite of anything that is weak, sickly, or subject to death -- a fact that makes his abrupt, unexpected death seem all the more ironic. If Leer had been a weakling or full of fear, his death might not seem so shocking. But he is just the opposite, and so his death drives home to us the horror and waste of war.
Yet Leer seems to be an "archetypal" character in another way as well: Often in works dealing with warfare, it is precisely such characters as Leer who are cut down by death. (A different kind of example of this archetype is the character played by Mark Lee in the great film about World War I titled Gallipoli.) Writers often emphasize the tragedy of war by emphasizing the deaths of young men who seem full of life. Such deaths are almost archetypal in war fiction, and so Leer is selected by Remarque to play this archetypal role.
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