Book Review || All Quiet on the Western Front

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All Quiet on the Western Front is the most famous novel dealing with WWI, and it’s also a biographic novel of itsauthor- the famous German novelist, E.M.Remarque. Novelist Erich Maria Remarque was drafted into the German army at the age of 18 and was wounded several times. After the warhe worked as a racing-car driver and as a sportswriter while working on AllQuiet on the Western Front. Thebook was an immediate international success.

Remarquewrote several other novels. Some hadpopular success, but none achieved the critical prestige of his first book. The first hand experience in WWI of the authorgives birth to the realistic power of the novel, rendering its representativestatus among similar works. The simplebut powerful weaving of the up-and-down plot effectively attracts attention,and the use of chronological narration and flashback constructs the narrativeforce of the book to a great height. Thenovel mainly reflects the author’s own thoughtful critiques to WWI for itsdevastation to human beings by recalling the experience of the contemporarypeople(soldiers) on the battlefield of WWI, picturing vividly the young,bewildered soldiers in the war. The bookraises the greatness of humanity by showing the destroy of it through a vividrecord of a generation growing and dying on thebattlefield, however, like many novels about the war, the book ultimatelyhighlights the fragility of human life during the tragedy of the war.

Thenovel tells the story of Paul, the protagonist, and his comrades being servicein the German army in first person. Their experience during WW1 includesfights, vacations, and other typical trifles; the book is also filled withdetailed emotion depiction. Some of the experience depicted reflectsthe cruelty of the war, others concentrate on the piercing discussion on thenature of human and the good part of it, which the war couldn’t kill, forming a sharp conflict.

Thechoice of the characters are very representative under the background of thedevastation brought by the war, which could effectively reveal the bewilderedfigure of the young people under their appearance of a group of veterans on thebattlefield . “And four are nineteen years of age, and all four joined up fromthe same class as volunteers for in volunteer army.” As stated by Paul, themain characters are almost young teenagers but at the earlystage of the plot they have already shown skills and habits of well trainedsoldiers who get used to the war, which seems so much for teenagers who justfinish their school from the readers’ perspective. “Then we change our possy and lie down again to thewar, we know how to do that: to play cards, to swear, and to fight. Not much for twenty years;—and yet too much for twenty years.” “We are forlorn like children, and experiencedlike old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial—I believe we are lost.” Paul, as the narrator of the story, alwaysshows great sympathy toward himself and his comrades in every detail that theauthor mentions, especially in the emotional activities of Paul. The lively andthree-dimensional figure of a group of bewildered young people is successfullysculptured through the description of the author, which forms sharp contrastwith the cruelty of the war. The youngadults, almost like the teenagers, don’t have jobs and families, and all theyhave is life as students living a simple life with their parents. “……But wenever had any(job). How will we ever get used to one after this, here?” The striking and piercing question istherefore come up by the author: what will happen to them when the war ends? What will be the rest of their life if theyare alive no matter if the war is won or lost? The war is tragic for the young, it’s becausethe war is cruel, but the uncertain future it brings to the young people is amore serious problem. They give theirlife as adults to the war before they actually have got that—-what adevastating fate that war causes for the innocent, bewildered young people!

The devastation of humanity also appears in a form of forgetting. In one paragraphof Paul’s confession, the author writes that: “habit is the explanation of whywe seem to forget things so quickly. …… we forget nothing really. But solong as we have to stay here in the field, the front-line days, when they arepast, sink down in us like a stone; they are too grievous for us to be able toreflect on them at once. If we did that, we should have been destroyed longago.” The war forces the innocent youngpeople to be indulged in the ruthless forgetting that does not fit their ageand mind, which causes the anguish of hearts. Moreover, the author discusses the word “memory” in depth in the book,by which the author intends to reveal the trauma of mind that the war causes, whichdrags the mind of the young people into a confused and twisted state. “Thedays, the weeks, the years out here shall come back again, and our deadcomrades shall then stand up again and march with us, our heads shall be clear,we shall have a purpose, and so we shall march, our dead comrades beside us,the years at the Front behind us: — against whom, against whom?”

Evenfor those experienced and elder soldiers, the war is also tough and bitter. “Detering stands up. ‘God! ForGod’s sake! Shoot them.’ He is a farmer and very fond of horses. It gets underhis skin.” Detering is a farmer beforehe comes to the front, so he gets more sympathy to horses that are wounded bythe bombardments; while on the front waiting for the raid, he can do nothing tohelp the wounded horses–even killing them he couldn’t have chance to doso. Here the author precisely reflectsthe weakness and helplessness of humanity in face of the ruthless war, whichput the former into torment and persecution. Another impressive detail is a gathering acfter a bitter fight, theauthor writes that “he(the commander) morning is grey, it was still summer whenwe came up, and we were one hundred and fifty strong. Now we freeze, it isautumn, the leaves rustle, the voices flutter out wearily: ‘One—two—three—four–––’and cease at thirty-two. And there is a long silence before the voice asks: ‘Anyoneelse?’—and waits and then says softly: ‘In squads–––’ and then breaks off andis only able to finish: ‘Second Company–––’ with difficulty: ‘Second Company—march easy!’ A line, a shortline trudges off into the morning. Thirty-two men.” The description of characters’ wordspowerfully reveals the tensity and sorrow in each old soldier—-each soldierin silence; on the battlefield, no one would escape the fate of death—-theirown death, the death of their comrades and friends, or the death of the heartand the soul.

Although people are living under the shadow of bombardment and assault, the bond betweencomrades, families, and even enemies, are still strong enough to put somedilution into the dark colour of the story. The most touching piece might be the short-spoken conversation betweenPaul and his mother during the leaving of Paul from the intense war, or itmight be the warm picture of Paul and his best comrade Kat sitting in a dimlittle room under the bombardment of the hostile aircraft, baking afresh-caught goose, or it could even be the experience of Paul and his comradescrossing the river with bare bodies and food to play with the French women inthe other side of the river. The potatocakes baked by mom would not be much impressive in the daily life, however,that ones baked by an apprehensive mom in serious cancer for his child going tothe front in a few days could even render the compulsive tear of thereaders. Remarque catches the mostpowerful and the most realistic trifles of characters in different positionunder the great background of WWI to show the greatness of humanity, which isimmortal and inexorable in every humane heart. Ironically, there is more kind things own by human beings that areinexorable than normal people have thought about in face of the juggernautwar. Remarque reveals an insight aboutwar, in which humanity often veils its face from us.

Besidesthe detailed description of the characters, the scrupulous portray of theenvironment also contributes greatly to the central idea of humanity in thewar. Remarque makes excellent use ofenvironmental depict serving as a mirror of the emotional activities and arealistic extension of the typical landscape on the battlefield. For example,when Paul is in the trench during a fight between Germany and France, he seesthe scene that “one morning two butterflies play in front of our trench. Theyare brimstone-butterflies, with red spots on their yellow wings. What can theybe looking for here? There is not a plant nor a flower for miles. They settleon the teeth of a skull. The birds too are just as carefree, they have longsince accustomed themselves to the war. Every morning larks ascend from NoMan’s Land. A year ago we watched them nesting; the young ones grew up too.” A clear, beautiful, and sorrowful picturewoven by both life and death is unfolded in front of the readers’ eyes, whichreflects the delicate heart under the crude appearance of the young soldier andextends the landscape of the battlefield to a level of the deep thought of lifeand death.

The most touching and shocking description of the battlefield would be the pictureof dead people. For example, “a fewminutes after they appear, shrapnel and high-explosives begin to drop on us. Welose eleven men in one day that way, and five of them stretcher-bearers. Twoare smashed so that Tjaden remarks you could scrape them off the wall of thetrench with a spoon and bury them in a mess-tin.” “Bombardment, barrage,curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine guns, hand-grenades—words, words, butthey hold the horror of the world.” Suchpicture stimulates the great agony in readers’ minds, bringing back the mostrealistic battlefield, which is heartless and filled with death anddespair.

The climax and the ending of the novel is shocking and though-provoking. In aterrible assault, the last friend of Paul in the army, Kat, fell down. Timepasses by, Paul stays alone in the army, and the rumor about truce and peacebegins to accumulate in everyone’s heart. But Paul’s confusion about the future deepens day by day. Finally, thewriter writes in third person that “he fell in October 1918.” with “anexpression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.” We know that WWI ended in November 1918, butwe do not know whether Paul is dead on the peaceful day in October 1918. The author leaves a question for us to thinkabout. It could be inferred that thespirit of the main Character, Paul, is destroyed by the war, the death offriends, and the misfortune of his family, and the future of the generationgrowing during the war is destroyed as well because no one would understandthem anymore for all their youth indulging in the war instead of living asnormal people with jobs and families. The flag of humanity finally falls in front of the war while beingraised in the war with the bitter humor, warm tenderness, and sweet sorrowcomposed by Remarque.

The works of Remarque and other contemporary German writers were burnt by the Naziduring WWII, however, the humanity that those masterpieces praise and the blameand accusation toward the war and the fascism would not perish from theinheritance of human history.

Work cited

“Erich Maria Remarque.” Biography, https://www.biography.com/people/erich-maria-remarque-9455107.

Remarque, Erich Maria. AllQuiet on the Western Front. Ballantine books, 1929.

作者:王乐鲲Bill Wang

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