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In the short note that comes just before Chapter 1, Remarque lets us know exactly what theme he intends. He says that All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of a generation of young men who were destroyed by World War I-even if they survived the shelling. To arrive at a fifth statement of this main theme, Remarque weaves several related themes into the story. The outline that follows points out chapters you can read to see how he presents each idea.
1. THE HORROR OF WAR
Remarque includes discussions among Paul's group, and Paul's own thoughts while he observes Russian prisoners of war (Chapters 3, 8, 9) to show that no ordinary people benefit from a war. No matter what side a man is on, he is killing other men just like himself, people with whom he might even be friends at another time.
But Remarque doesn't just tell us war is horrible. He also shows us that war is terrible beyond anything we could imagine. All our senses are assaulted: we see newly dead soldiers and long-dead corpses tossed up together in a cemetery (Chapter 4); we hear the unearthly screaming of the wounded horses (Chapter 4); we see and smell three layers of bodies, swelling up and belching gases, dumped into a huge shell hole (Chapter 6); and we can almost touch the naked bodies hanging in trees and the limbs lying around the battlefield (Chapter 9). The crying of the horses is especially terrible. Horses have nothing to do with making war. Their bodies gleam beautifully as they parade along-until the shells strike them. To Paul, their dying cries represent all of nature accusing Man, the great destroyer.
In later chapters Paul no longer mentions nature as an accuser but seems to suggest that nature is simply there-rolling steadily on through the seasons, paying no attention to the desperate cruelties of men to each other. This, too, shows the horror of war, that it is completely unnatural and has no place in the larger scheme of things.
2. A REJECTION OF TRADITIONAL VALUES
In his introductory note Remarque said that his novel was not an accusation. But we have seen that it is, in many places, exactly that. This accusation-or rejection of traditional militaristic values of Western civilization-is impressed on the reader through the young soldiers, represented by Paul and his friends, who see military attitudes as stupid and who accuse their elders of betraying them.
In an early chapter Paul admits that endless drilling and sheer harassment did help toughen his group and turn them into soldiers. But he points out, often, how stupid it is to stick to regulations at the front-how insane this basic military attitude becomes in life-and-death situations. One such scene occurs in Chapter 1 when Ginger, the cook, doesn't want to let 80 men eat the food prepared for 150, no matter how hungry they are. Another occurs in Chapter 7 when Paul is walking around in his hometown and a major forces him to march double time and salute properly-a ridiculous display, considering what he has just been through at the front. The emptiness of all this spit and polish shows up again in Chapter 9 when the men have to return the new clothes they were issued for the Kaiser's inspection: rags are what's real at the front.
The betrayal of the young by their elders becomes an issue on several occasions. In the first two chapters of the book we learn how misguided Paul was by the teachings of parents and schoolmasters. We also see how older people cling to the Prussian myth of the glory of military might when Paul goes home on leave in Chapter 7. The Kaiser's visit in Chapter 9 adds some hints of Remarque's specific disillusionment with the leaders of his own country. From a broad study of literature and world history, we can see that these older people were not individually to blame for their views. They were simply handing on what was handed on to them. Still, we can also understand why Paul and his friends are so bitterly disappointed and so angry to discover that their elders were wrong. Most readers feel a little sad that young men should consider the act of ridiculing adults their greatest goal in life, but we can also understand why they take revenge on Himmelstoss and Kantorek (Chapters 3 and 7). We even get a certain kick out of what they do, understanding their need to take out their disappointment on someone they know. These situations are, in miniature, an acting out of the bitter anger and disillusionment Paul feels when he says in Chapter 10, "It must all be lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out."