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Remarque uses the men’s lorry ride to bring the reader to the front. The description of the bombardment is one of the most poetic and dramatic parts of the novel, and it requires a certain preparation. During the lorry ride, Remarque builds suspense with terse, opaque sentences: “We have to go on wiring fatigue. The motor lorries roll up. We climb in.” The necessity implied by “have to” resonates in the narrator’s refusal to embellish these mute facts. In a style similar to that of his contemporary and fellow war novelist Ernest Hemingway, Remarque excises adjectives and adverbs and leaves only nouns and verbs that exist and move of their accord, above human intervention. The reportage style of phrases such as “The engines drone, the lorries bump and rattle” makes Paul’s powerlessness and resignation evident. Events hit and pass through him to the reader like bullets on a predetermined course.
Paul’s description of the soldier’s relationship with the earth is full of sexual metaphors and imagery and alludes to the relationship between mother and child. The sexual imagery of “folds, and hollows, and holes” and men thrusting iron rods into the earth combined with the idea of the earth as mother suggest an Oedipal relationship between the soldier and earth. (The Oedipal Complex, which involves sexual desire for one’s parent of the opposite sex, is a psychoanalytical concept posited by Sigmund Freud. The title refers to Oedipus, who, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother.)
Although this Freudian interpretation is complicated by the fact that the earth is almost everything to the soldier—brother, friend, and mother—the sexual and maternal systems of imagery predominate, and the assessment of Oedipal desire proves consistent with other kinds of regression and reversal described in the chapter. Paul declares that soldiers must become like animals in order to survive; the fact that Detering attributes to animals some degree of human dignity in war completes this reversal. A veteran accustomed to human suffering, Detering cannot bear to hear horses cry in agony. He feels that they are more blameless for the war than a private in the trenches, who, by being human, somehow shares responsibility for the war. “I’d like to know what harm they’ve done,” he asks. The graveyard scene blurs the boundaries between the living and the dead: Paul wonders for a moment, half-seriously, whether a dead man has awakened and grabbed him. He survives the shelling by burrowing under a coffin; indeed, the war has left him, in a sense, more dead than the corpse disinterred by the bombardment.
Paul’s reaction to the front strips the romanticism out of the war experience. He does not speak of the honor and glory of fighting for one’s country; rather, he comments that the soldier fights for his life. He relies on instinct to save himself from bullets and bombs and concentrates on acquiring food, clothing, and shelter rather than on an abstract ideal of patriotic duty to the fatherland. He must learn to cope with constant fear, uncertainty, bombardment, and violence by regressing from his human sensitivities into a state of animalistic and instinctive self-preservation.