All Quiet on the Western Front
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Horror of War
The overriding theme of All Quiet on the Western Front is the terrible brutality of war, which informs every scene in the novel. Whereas war novels before All Quiet on the Western Front tended to romanticize what war was like, emphasizing ideas such as glory, honor, patriotic duty, and adventure, All Quiet on the Western Front sets out to portray war as it was actually experienced, replacing the romantic picture of glory and heroism with a decidedly unromantic vision of fear, meaninglessness, and butchery. In many ways, World War I demanded this depiction more than any war before it—it completely altered mankind’s conception of military conflict with its catastrophic levels of carnage and violence, its battles that lasted for months, and its gruesome new technological advancements (e.g., machine guns, poison gas, trenches) that made killing easier and more impersonal than ever before. Remarque’s novel dramatizes these aspects of World War I and portrays the mind-numbing terror and savagery of war with a relentless focus on the physical and psychological damage that it occasions. At the end of the novel, almost every major character is dead, epitomizing the war’s devastating effect on the generation of young men who were forced to fight it.
The Effect of War on the Soldier
Because All Quiet on the Western Front is set among soldiers fighting on the front, one of its main focuses is the ruinous effect that war has on the soldiers who fight it. These men are subject to constant physical danger, as they could literally be blown to pieces at any moment. This intense physical threat also serves as an unceasing attack on the nerves, forcing soldiers to cope with primal, instinctive fear during every waking moment. Additionally, the soldiers are forced to live in appalling conditions—in filthy, waterlogged ditches full of rats and decaying corpses and infested with lice. They frequently go without food and sleep, adequate clothing, or sufficient medical care. They are forced, moreover, to deal with the frequent, sudden deaths of their close friends and comrades, often in close proximity and in extremely violent fashion. Remarque portrays the overall effect of these conditions as a crippling overload of panic and despair. The only way for soldiers to survive is to disconnect themselves from their feelings, suppressing their emotions and accepting the conditions of their lives.
In Remarque’s view, this emotional disconnection has a hugely destructive impact on a soldier’s humanity; Paul, for instance, becomes unable to imagine a future without the war and unable to remember how he felt in the past. He also loses his ability to speak to his family. Soldiers no longer pause to mourn fallen friends and comrades; when Kemmerich is on his deathbed, at the beginning of the novel, the most pressing question among his friends is who will inherit his boots. Among the living soldiers, however, Remarque portrays intense bonds of loyalty and friendship that spring up as a result of the shared experience of war. These feelings are the only romanticized element of the novel and are virtually the only emotions that preserve the soldiers’ fundamental humanity.
Nationalism and Political Power
In many ways, the precipitating cause of World War I was the ethic of nationalism, the idea that competing nation-states were a fundamental part of existence, that one owed one’s first loyalty to one’s nation, and that one’s national identity was the primary component of one’s overall identity. The ethic of nationalism was not new, but it had reached new heights of intensity in the nineteenth century, and this fervor generally carried over into the start of World War I.
In its depiction of the horror of war, All Quiet on the Western Front presents a scathing critique of the idea of nationalism, showing it to be a hollow, hypocritical ideology, a tool used by those in power to control a nation’s populace. Paul and his friends are seduced into joining the army by nationalist ideas, but the experience of fighting quickly schools them in nationalism’s irrelevance in the face of the war’s horrors. The relative worthlessness on the battlefield of the patriots Kantorek and Himmelstoss accentuates the inappropriateness of outmoded ideals in modern warfare. Remarque illustrates that soldiers on the front fight not for the glory of their nation but rather for their own survival; they kill to keep from being killed. Additionally, Paul and his friends do not consider the opposing armies to be their real enemies; in their view, their real enemies are the men in power in their own nation, who they believe have sacrificed them to the war simply to increase their own power and glory.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Pressure of Patriotic Idealism
Many of the novel’s harshest critiques of nationalism are reserved for the character of Kantorek, the teacher whose impassioned speeches convinced Paul and his friends to join the army at the onset of the war. Kantorek uses an idealistic, patriotic, and poetic rhetoric to convey the concepts of national loyalty and glory. In his letter to the young men, for instance, he calls them “Iron Youth,” implying that they are hard, strong, and resilient, a description that fails to consider the horror of the war, which traps the men in a constant state of panic and despair. As Kantorek and his speeches are recalled throughout the novel, Paul and his friends become increasingly disgusted by them; their experience of war has made them increasingly cynical about patriotism and nationalism. Even at the start of the novel, they blame Kantorek for Joseph Behm’s untimely death, claiming that the teacher failed to understand that no lofty ideal can possibly offer physical or emotional protection or comfort in the heat of battle.
Carnage and Gore
The novel’s main weapon against patriotic idealism is simply its unrelenting portrayal of the carnage and gore that the war occasions. Every battle scene (roughly every other chapter) features brutal violence and bloody descriptions of death and injury. Hospital scenes portray men with grisly wounds that go untreated because of insufficient medical supplies. Paul carries the wounded Kat on his back to safety, only to discover that Kat’s head was hit by a piece of shrapnel while Paul was carrying him. As part of the overall exploration of disconnection from one’s feelings, death is treated with impersonal efficiency: the cook wonders whether regulations permit him to give the surviving soldiers the dead men’s rations; when Kemmerich dies, he is hauled away with the tears still wet on his face so that another soldier can have his bed. Amid this horrific violence and numbness, the overblown phrases of nationalistic rhetoric quickly lose their persuasive power and take on a loathsome quality of hypocrisy and ignorance.
Remarque indicates throughout the novel that the only way for a soldier to survive battle is to turn off his mind and operate solely on instinct, becoming less like a human being and more like an animal. Paul thinks of himself as a “human animal,” and the other soldiers who survive multiple battles operate in the same way. The experience of battle is quite animalistic in this way, as the soldiers trust their senses over their thoughts and sniff out safety wherever they can find it. This motif of animal instinct contributes to the larger theme that war destroys the humanity of the soldier, stripping away his ability to feel and, in this case, making him act like a beast rather than a man.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t employ a great deal of symbolism, but one important symbol in the novel is Kemmerich’s boots. Kemmerich’s high, supple boots are passed from soldier to soldier as each owner dies in sequence. Kemmerich himself took them from the corpse of a dead airman, and as Kemmerich lies on his own deathbed, Müller immediately begins maneuvering to receive the boots. Paul brings them to Müller after Kemmerich dies and inherits them himself when Müller is shot to death later in the novel. In this way, the boots represent the cheapness of human life in the war. A good pair of boots is more valuable—and more durable—than a human life. The question of who will inherit them continually overshadows their owners’ deaths. The boots also symbolize the necessary pragmatism that a soldier must have. One cannot yield to one’s emotions amid the devastation of the war; rather, one must block out grief and despair like a machine.
by OverlyDramatic, August 14, 2012
Early in the book, before Kemmerich's death, Paul pictures the man's nails and growing after his death, into long spirals and corkscrews. While this is a powerful visual, it is not true. A corpse's skin shrinks away from its nails and hair after death, giving the appearance of increased length. Sorry if I grossed you out, but that was on my test and I thought you should know just in case.
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by UltimateJBFan98, March 31, 2013
Okay. Here is my advice to you. Read all through SparkNotes as you read through the book. I was soo confused til I looked on SparkNotes. But of course I looked over Spring Break right before the final test! It is a good book when you understand it TRUST ME! Yah -Sydney
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