The Transformation of a Man through War in Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front "I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another (263)". Powerful changes result from horrifying experiences. Paul Baumer, the protagonists of Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front utters these words signifying the loss of his humanity and the reduction to a numbed creature, devoid of emotion. Paul's character originates in the novel as a young adult, out for an adventure, and eager to serve his country.
He never realizes the terrible pressures that war imposes on soldiers, and at the conclusion of the book the empty shell resembling Paul stands testament to this. Not only does Paul lose himself throughout the course of the war, but he loses each of his 20 classmates who volunteered with him, further emphasizing the terrible consequences of warfare. The heavy psychological demands of life in the trenches and the harsh reality of war strip Paul of his humanity and leave him with a body devoid of all sentiment and feeling. Remarque introduces Paul at the beginning of the novel as a veteran. We never see his first days in combat, but we do see comparable experiences in the battles of the replacement soldiers. Paul comments in the beginning on the secrets to staying alive in the trenches by learning the skill of differentiating between the different kinds of shells by the sounds that they make.
He can distinguish between gas shells, trench mortars, and long range artillery by saying, "That was a twelve-inch, you can tell by the report. Now you " ll hear the burst (52)". and imparts this key knowledge to the recruits. These actions exemplify Paul's character at the beginning of the novel. He cares about the other soldiers and uses his veteran's status as a source of knowledge for the volunteers. Paul has light humor in regards to a soldier's life as well. This quote exhibits Paul's carefree attitude toward his situation, The soldier is on friendlier terms than other men with his stomach and intestines.
Three-quarters of his vocabulary is derived from these regions, and they give an intimate flavour to expressions of his greatest joy as well as of his deepest indignation... Our families... will be shocked when we go home (8). Paul comments on the soldier's life by describing the soldier's vocabulary. He states that when he goes home, his family will be shocked to hear this language. Paul treats his lingual freedom as privilege that soldiers have, and shows the benefits of living a soldier's life.
He refers to the front as if it were a paradise, for he can use vulgar language and not worry about manners and decorum. He treats his service as a time for relaxation, recreation, and a little excitement. This attitude becomes short-lived as the realities of war sink in. When Paul volunteers for reconnaissance one night, he becomes stranded in No Man's Land (the area between opposing trenches) and begins to realize the brutality of war and starts to lose his own humanity. At the beginning of the book, Paul shows care towards his fellow soldiers and treats his service as an adventure by his education of the recruits and his excitement towards the boundaries of his vocabulary. When Paul becomes stranded in No Man's Land, he undergoes the transformation from a carefree young adult to an inhumane, lifeless shell of a man.
The change begins when Paul hides in a shell-hole, waiting for a pause in the bombardment. A French soldier jumps in as well, looking for shelter. Paul has prepared for this circumstance and stabs him three times. Paul's strikes are not mortal enough, for the wounds do not immediately kill the Frenchman.
The enemy soldier dies over the next day, and while the soldier slides inexorably into the throes of death, Paul reflects on his actions and realizes the change within him saying, .".. comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too (223)". Paul expresses his deep remorse as the Frenchman dies, and he realizes the full extent that the war has changed him. Paul feels closer to the enemy more than to his own superiors.
Paul knows that the only disparity between his enemy and himself is the language. While the soldier dies, Paul peruses the diary and the pictures that the Frenchman has with him. The more time Paul spends with the enemy, the less he wants to fight them. Paul acknowledges this by saying "I will fight against this, that has struck us both down; from you taken life - and from me -? Life also. I promise you comrade.
It shall never happen again (226)". With these words, Paul makes a vow to repair the broken relationships that different cultures have between them. He experiences genuine remorse over the Frenchman's death, and Paul agonizes over the grief that he has suffered at the hands of war. Before this experience Paul only knew the war as numbers, not as real people and lives.
Paul now understands that war kills the family and the life of decent men, and this horrifies and frightens him. Before this incident, Paul never faced death up and close; he never butchered an enemy before. Now he realizes the full extent of the horror of war, where a man kills a man more like himself than the political figurehead for which he fights. Paul knows of the horrors of war, but he does not yet understand how he can survive mentally.
The scene in the shell-hole marks the climax of the novel, as Paul begins to lose his humanity here. Remarque exposes the inhumanity of war in this scene, and R.W. Last recognizes this by saying, "Death and suffering have become so routine that it requires a major offensive or a particularly gory occurrence to force the war back into the headlines (173)". Last emphasizes the numbing effects war has on a man's humanity where "death and suffering" occur so frequently that they have lost their value. Paul succumbs to this effect after the climax of the novel in the shell-hole and as the book progresses; Paul's slide into inhumanity becomes more and more evident. After the Frenchman dies, Paul begins his slow inevitable demise to numbness the loss of his compassion and feeling.
After this incident, Paul thoughts are very confused in his head. He knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he knows that if he stops his own superiors will kill him. He has to keep on doing what he has always done in the war in order to stay alive. Paul has been transformed into an animal, and the survival of the fittest is now the law he lives by.
He needs to just push on mindlessly and never look back. He knows that he is broken by the horrors and mindless cruelty of war, and if he reflects, he can never live with himself again. He must just keep going, and therefore somehow survive this atrocity. He recognizes his own change by saying, Let the months and years come, they can take nothing from me, they can take nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fear.
The life that has borne me through these years is still in my hands and my eyes. Whether I have subdued it, I know not. But so long as it is there it will seek its own way out, heedless of the will that is within me (295). He recognizes the fact that he is changed and not for the better. But he still sees some remnants of the life he had before the war. This life and soul is still with him, and he must hold on to this, or lose his humanity forever.
They have taken everything from him, as he has said, and because they have taken everything, they can take no more. He has had everything taken from him, his life because of the war, his friends, because of the war, and now his humanity, because of the war. The war has taken everything, and he is now broken. This is the d'enouement of the novel.
His acceptance of the changes within him is the end. The only thing left for Paul to do is to die, and he dies on a day where the report on the army was summarized in once sentence, "All Quiet on the Western Front". He died in anonymity because he had nothing left. His death was insignificant because at the end of the book, Paul accepted the fact that he was broken and only an animal.
Paul's acceptance is the proof of his own change. The reader doesn't have to infer his change, Paul states for the reader, and he is right. Throughout All Quiet on the Western Front, Paul Baumer undergoes drastic changes as he realizes the full extent in which the war has changed his life. Paul starts out the book as a veteran, yet he is never the less changed by the war that shook the world. Paul realizes the full extent of his transformation when he is forced to kill a Frenchman just because the Frenchman tried to find shelter.
Paul Baumer changed by a subject too messy to be discussed in proper decorum. T.S. Matthews says, "This is a book about something that nobody likes to talk of too much. It is about what happens to men in war. It has nothing whatever to do with the politeness, the no bilities, or any of the sometimes pretty and sometimes ridiculous notions to which the world has once again settled down (130)". Paul is changed by a war directed by people who had no idea of the horrors that would change the men of their country. Paul lived in brotherhood and died in anonymity.
His life wasted by a political war, and uncaring generals. Only by accepting his transformation can Paul be at peace with his life and live in peace in death..