In Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, what is the effect of Paul with the extended experience of the dead man?
The question – “what is the effect of Paul with the extended experience of the dead man” – seems to refer to the events discussed in Chapter Nine of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel of the Great War, All Quiet on the Western Front. By this point in the story, Remarque’s narrator, Paul Baumer, is clearly deadened to the emotional effects of the war. Years spent in rat-infested trenches (“The rats here are particularly repulsive, they are so fat--the kind we all call corpse-rats. They have shocking, evil, naked faces, and it is nauseating to see their long, nude tails.”) with ceaseless displays of meaningless slaughter and a markedly short life expectancy for all involved, the men in Paul’s company are pretty much operating on a sort of “auto-pilot.” Like soldiers throughout history, protracted periods of boredom punctuated by intense episodes of combat, with the occasional appearance of chemical weapons to lend an added element of horror to the proceedings, are filled with the banter common to men exhausted and disillusioned. Even the eagerly-anticipated arrival of the Kaiser becomes anticlimactic when they observe this disappointing little autocrat up close:
“At last the moment arrives. We stand to attention and the Kaiser appears. We are curious to see what he looks like. He stalks along the line, and I am really rather disappointed; judging from his pictures I imagined him to be bigger and more powerfully built, and above all to have a thundering voice.”
To date, the war has been fairly impersonal for Paul in terms of identifying with the soldiers on the side of the field. He has grown close to his comrades-in-arms, Tjaken, Muller, Kat and Kropp, but the enemy remains an abstract if threatening presence in his life. This is the context in which the events of Chapter Nine occur. Disoriented and separated from his fellow German soldiers, Paul hides in the large hole formed by the explosion of a shell, only to be followed into that hole by a French soldier similarly seeking shelter from the machine guns and mortars. Before he has even identified the nationality of tis interloper, Paul stabs the other soldier only to be confronted for the first time with the humanity on the other side of the war:
”I dare not look again at the dark figure in the shell-hole. The eyes follow me. I am powerless to move so long as they are there. Then his hand slips slowly from his breast, only a little bit, it sinks just a few inches, but this movement breaks the power of the eyes. I bend forward, shake my head and whisper: ‘No, no, no,’ I raise one hand, I must show him that I want to help him, I stroke his forehead. The eyes shrink back as the hand comes, then they lose their stare, the eyelids droop lower, the tension is past. I open his collar and place his head more comfortably.”
Initially, Paul’s efforts at comforting the French soldier are more political than humane; he hopes to be spared brutal treatment if captured by the French and calculates that helping the now-wounded soldier will be seen as a demonstration of good will. Soon, however, his efforts at comforting his victim take on a more meaningful purpose. As he struggles to aid the enemy soldier, he begins to see not an enemy but another human being no less sympathetic than himself. Accustomed to killing at long range, Paul is now in a situation that forces him to recognize the humanity in those against whom he has been fighting:
“This is the first time I have killed with my hands, whom I can see close at hand, whose death is my doing. Kat and Kropp and Müller have experienced it already, when they have hit someone; it happens to many, in hand-to-hand fighting especially-- But every gasp lays my heart bare. This dying man has time with him, he has an invisible dagger with which he stabs me: Time and my thoughts.
“I would give much if he would but stay alive. It is hard to lie here and to have to see and hear him.
“In the afternoon, about three, he is dead.”
The effect on Paul of this encounter is profound. For the first time, he has killed another human being and not a faceless robotic adversary like himself. In so doing, he has resigned himself to the inhumanity of the world in which he lives and to the “fact” that the years of slaughter have been meaningless. Whereas the next world war would provide the clarity one hopes to find in such conflicts between good and evil, this particular war enjoyed no such legitimacy. The purpose of the fighting and dehumanizing way in which the soldiers were forced to live made the value of their lives meaningless, and when Paul is killed, the effect on the war and the world is entirely inconsequential.