At a Glance
- All Quiet on the Western Front is an antiwar novel told from the point of view of Paul Bäumer, a German soldier fighting in the trenches in World War I. Through his eyes, the reader witnesses the horrors of war, in which soldiers are maimed, shot, and killed.
- Kemmerich's boots symbolize death, because everyone who wears them ends up dying in the war. The butterfly Paul reaches for at the end of the novel symbolizes innocence and nature, which is being destroyed by the horrors of war.
- Remarque wrote All Quiet on the Western Front in the style of a bildungsroman, a coming of age novel that follows characters through their formative years. Paul's spiritual growth is most obvious in his eventual disenchantment with the war.
Point of View
Remarque has been praised for the simple, direct language of his war novels in contrast to their often violent subject matter; he is also acknowledged for his ability to create moving, realistic characters and situations. His prose style is punctuated with fragmented narrative passages that mirror Paul's often disoriented state of mind. The plot moves in a "bildungsroman" format, demonstrating a young man's personal development. There are impressionist details that move in tableau fashion. Remarque's choice of a first-person narrator does, however, create one possible problem: the two concluding paragraphs have to stem from a new, apparently omniscient third-person narrator whose intervention is needed after the death of the first-person narrator. The story does not suffer from this change of viewpoint or from the absence of any explanation of the mechanics by which it came to be set down.
The narrative stance provides Remarque with a realistic context for a naive and simple style, which is part of the novel's popular appeal, as well as a fragmented, uncoordinated syntax and use of the present tense, a form that reflects immediacy; these features thus became part of the famous 'frog's eye view' of the war. He is able to comment on events through Paul Baumer himself—and through him of the other characters—without the need to provide an omniscient narrative perspective: indeed with a requirement not to do so. Style and point of view are matched, and both reflect the incomprehensibility of war.
Narrative viewpoint and the focus on the central character are also closely linked with structure. The work is divided into small sections, separated by asterisks. This feature makes it easier to read but it also makes for a realistic effect—that of a journal entry or a brief conversation. The novel operates structurally, in fact, on an alternation between the cruelty and despair of the battle scenes, and a gradual return to life during periods in reserve. The book is divided into short episodes and has a heavy reliance on conversation, characteristic of Remarque's style in general.
Description alternates with speculative passages by Baumer, and there are inconclusive discussions on the futility of the whole war. There are no historical details, certainly no heroics, and not even a real enemy except death, although Baumer is forced to kill an equally terrified Frenchman.
Though the novel is set during World War I, in the northern Belgian border between Langemark and Bixschoote, Flanders, Remarque does not really present the conflict of a war between the Germans and Allied forces. The battles are almost never identified and dates are rarely given; he writes of "the troops over there" more often than he does of specific nationalities, for they are not the real enemy. Speaking in a foxhole in no-man's land to the Frenchman he has killed, Paul blames the carnage on the desire for profit and on "national interest" as defined by authorities and institutions on both sides.
The symbols in the novel are mundane yet striking: for example, the soldiers' boots, which pass from one man to the next as each man dies violently; and potato cakes, which represent home and comfort to Paul. Indeed, the...
(The entire section is 5,093 words.)