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Introduction

Published in 1929, All Quiet on the Western Front masterfully depicts the horror of war. Erich Maria Remarque based the book on his own experience as a young infantryman in the German army during World War I, and was partially influenced by Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu Journal d’une Escouade, (1916) a war novel published while the war was still being fought. His avowed purpose in writing the novel was “to report on a generation that was destroyed by the war-even when it escaped the shells.” More than a million copies of the book were sold in Germany the first year it appeared, followed by millions more when translated and distributed in the other nations. However, Nazi Germany took away Remarque’s citizenship in 1938. Later on, he became a citizen of Switzerland and the United States. Though Remarque published ten novels and various screenplays, he was known primarily as the author of this novel.

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Erich Maria Remarque

Erich Maria Remarque is considered one of the most significant war novelists in contemporary literature. In his works, he displayed his concern for the physical and spiritual effects of the First World War on a generation in Germany. Born in Osnabruck, Germany on 22 June 1898, Remarque came from a poor family; his father, Peter Franz Remark, was a bookbinder who supported Erich, his mother Anna Maria, and two sisters. The writer took the name of his mother and the spelling of his family name, Remarque, from his French ancestors. At school, he clashed with authorities (whom he later criticized in his character Kantorek). Remarque began writing at sixteen years of age and published his essays, poems, and an early novel later in Die Traumbude or The Dream Room (1920). Though he began training as an elementary school teacher at the University of Munster, he was unable to finish, since he was drafted at the age of nineteen into the German army to serve on the Western front. Wounded five times, Remarque, like his protagonist, Paul Baumer, swallowed poison gas and sustained injury to his lungs. Both visited their mother, to whom they were close, during leave. The similarity ends there, of course, since Baumer makes the ultimate sacrifice. However, shortly after Remarque returned home from duty, his mother passed away in September 1917.

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Plot Summary

A Part I-Behind the Lines

All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of a young German foot soldier, Paul Baumer, during the waning days of the First World War. Since Paul narrates his story-which consists of a series of short episodes-in the first person and in present tense, the novel has the feel of a diary, with entries on everyday life interspersed with horrifying battle episodes.

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Characters

A Paul’s mother

She is a self-sacrificing and long-suffering woman who tries to give Paul what he needs, including potato cakes, whortleberry jam, and warm woolen underpants. His last night at home on leave, she sits by his bedside to express her concerns for his welfare. She later receives treatment for cancer at a charity ward in Luisa Hospital.

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Themes, Individual, Alienation

A Individual vs. Machine

The patriotism of war is a thing of the past, Remarque suggests, as the young recruits quickly learn about the reality of trench warfare. Paul Baumer, fresh from school at the beginning of the novel, is sent after skimpy but brutal basic training to the trenches in France. He quickly learns that living or dying has little to do with one’s prowess as a soldier but more as a conditioned reflex. Since the Allies outgunned the Axis in artillery and machinery, the German youth took refuge in trenches that were no match for the kind of warfare waged. As more and more of his comrades are killed, Baumer sees that death comes from afar in the artillery shells and the bombs, and as the trenches offer less and less refuge from the other side’s new tanks and airplanes and its better guns, survival becomes little more than a chance.

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Construction, Setting, Imagery

A 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.

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Historical Perspective, World War I

A World War I

Named for its complex involvement of countries from Northern Europe to Africa, western Asia, and the U.S., World War I, called the Great War, was ignited by a single episode. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Bosnia. As the Austrian government plotted a suitable retribution against the Serbs, the effect on Russia was taken into consideration. Because Russia was closely allied with Serbia, Austrian officials worried that the slightest aggression against the Serbs would result in Russian involvement. As a precaution, Austria sought support from Germany, its most powerful ally. Kaiser Wilhelm II immediately vouched for Germany’s assistance, telling the Austrian powers that his nation would support whatever action the Austrian government might take.

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Questions

Compare the soldier’s viewpoint in The Red Badge of Courage with All Quiet on the Western Front. Examine the similarities and differences of battle in the Civil War and World War I. Compare as well the quality of camaraderie, as presented by Stephen Crane and Erich Maria Remarque.

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Compare and Contrast

1920s: In the world of finance, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hits 381. A period of general prosperity for the country (except for the farmer), the government adopts a “laissez-faire” attitude towards big business. This policy ends with the collapse of the economy following October 29, 1929, the stock market crash, when $30 billion disappears, a sum equal to what the war cost America. Today: The Federal Reserve keeps a steady watch on the burgeoning economy and cautions investors of the ever-present possibility of high inflation and interest rates that could adversely affect the market. The Securities and Exchange Commission and Banking Acts established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Administration set the precedent for improved vigilance in the stock market.

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