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.
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 as mundane yet striking as 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 boots pass from Kemmerich to Muller to Tjaden to Paul (and thus foreshadow his death). For Baumer, the trenches represent the antithesis of the fragile, gentle, and ever-present beauty of nature, the “lost world of beauty.” On the other hand, nature, in the form of butterflies and poplar trees, provides Paul with a reminder of innocence and peace.
Remarque also employs personification-endowing inanimate objects with human qualities-to describe the wind (playing with the soldiers’ hair), and the darkness that blackens the night with giant strides. An example of his use of simile is his description of a man collapsing like a rotten tree. Apostrophes like “Ah, mother, mother! You still think I am a child-why can I not put my head in your lap and weep?” evoke the epic tragedies of ancient Greece.