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How does Remarque demonstrate the dehumanization of man through the use of his characters? Does his novel imply that it is possible to revert back to a state of humanity?
“We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.” (Remarque, 67) War ruins soldier’s futures and no matter if they make it out alive or not they will never truly live again. In the novel, All Quiet on The Western Front a historical fiction by Erich Maria Remarque, Paul Baumer, and his fellow company are fighting their way through WWI. Throughout the novel, Remarque demonstrates the irreversible dehumanization of men in WWI, through point of view and literary devices.
The majority of the novel is shown through the point of view of Paul Baumer, this perspective of the war gives the reader a first-hand account of how the war affected the soldiers’ mental and physical states. Education is one conventional human characteristic that seems to have lost importance among the soldiers. When Paul and his comrades begin a conversation about their hopes for after the war, they reminisce about the Kantorek’s teachings that are longer relevant to their daily lives at war. Paul argues that the lessons they were taught not too long ago are “rubbish”. Paul gives little value to his education from Kantorek’s hand. This shows that even though education is considered a pillar of humanity, Paul has rejected education, effectively desensitizing himself. Paul has done this because he feels that education is not necessary for war. This is further compounded when his fellow comrade, Müller, dies from an agonizing stomach wound. Müller values education, evidenced by the fact that he was always studying, physics in particular. His death seems to demonstrate to Paul that education does not matter on the front lines. As a result, he decides to trust his instinct instead of education or strategy in battle. Remarque compares the soldiers’ lack of emotion during the war to animals, as they follow a single instinct, to kill. Albert Kropp is another less obvious example of desensitization. His emotional perspective after the amputation of his leg reflects his deteriorating mental health. He says that “he will shoot himself the first time he gets ahold of his revolver again” (Remarque, 192). As shown by the quote, his time in the army has caused him to devalue his life, the most important value of humanity. Without his leg, Kropp can no longer see the worth in his life. He believes that he can no longer be useful, in the manner the army has taught him. Kropp may survive the war but the loss of his leg will forever be a reminder that he will never truly return to the man he was before the war. The points of view of Albert and Paul are used by Remarque to show the dehumanization and animalizing effect the war has on the soldiers.
Throughout the novel, Remarque uses a variety of literary devices to demonstrate the soldiers’ deteriorating human qualities. Symbolism is one literary device Remarque uses to show the dehumanization of soldiers. When Kemmerich’s leg is amputated, Muller desperately hopes for the boots to replace his own worn and clunky ones. At first, Paul does not want Muller to take the boots, he thinks Kemmerich should die with them since they are his most prized possession. But Paul then realizes that good boots hold great value, and changes his mind about Muller taking them instead of some hospital orderly. “We have lost all sense of other considerations, because they are artificial. Only the facts are real and important for us. And good boots are scarce.”(Remarque, 18). The author uses this symbol of boots to show that war has desensitized these men to a point where they think more of the value of good boots than of the fact their comrade is dying. Imagery is another literary device Remarque uses. He uses this to convey how the soldiers have been brutalized to the point where they can be compared to animals. When Paul is on leave from the front lines he serves quite a bit of time as a prison guard for the Russian soldiers in the neighboring camp. He notes that “they seem nervous and fearful, though most of them are big fellows with beards– they look like meek, scolded, St. Bernard dogs. They slink about our camp and pick over the garbage tins.” (Remarque, 139). Remarque’s word choice is interesting here because St. Bernards are normally considered a strong breed of rescue dogs. The author is implying that because of the harsh conditions where they are forced to forage, like wild animals, they are a lesser version of their pre- St. Bernard selves. The war is dehumanizing these Russian soldiers to the point where they do not care how they get the food; they only care that they get it. These two instances show how the men on both sides of the war only care about their survival and nothing else, allowing themselves to be dehumanized.
By incorporating point of view and literary devices Remarque shows that the war has dehumanized the soldiers, as well as animalized them. Throughout the course of the novel, he is able to implicitly show just how dehumanizing the war can be for anyone involved. He shows the readers time and time again that the war will destroy every ounce of humanity in its path. He argues that once this humanity is lost it can never be regained, hence the fall of the Iron Youth. The soldiers can never truly live again even if they survived the war.
- Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. Translated by A. W. Wheen, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1929.
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