English 10 Honors
22 March 2010
A Fickle Identity with Solid Qualities
“We fly from ourselves, from our lives. We are eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces” (Remarque 88). The war altered Paul Baumer drastically from a naïve youth to an experienced man. He went from a kid in an optimistic generation to a soul in a lost generation. Boys such as Paul, the protagonist in All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, were forced to adapt to the rush of war. The suffering, loss, depression, and devastation that came about with World War I ushered the youth of the wasteland generation to find mental releases in order to survive. Few prevailed only because they detached themselves from their mental state and relied solely on instinct. This action of detachment caused Paul’s loss of identity. Remarque implies that identity is reshaped through the demanding experiences individuals have to overcome in life. Paul was capable of this necessary adaptation for survival; however he did not lose every shred of his original identity. Although Paul’s identity was irrevocably altered, his compassion for others and appreciation of beauty from his former self prevailed through the war.
Paul’s self-identity was unalterably transformed from a hopeful youth to a destroyed soldier. An example of this change occurred when Paul said, “the first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in war” (Remarque 88). Paul was altered from the first experience he had in the war. His attitude toward life became pessimistic. The devastation was all new so it took a forceful toll on him. The tone of this quote was negative and accusatory because it showed how the war forcibly ended Paul’s youth; it means Paul was reluctant and not prepared for this change. Everything that meant anything to him in the past became obsolete. The war took full precedence over his life. As a result from the war, Paul explained that “a sense of strangeness will not leave me. I cannot feel at home amongst these things. There is my mother, there is my sister, there my case of butterflies, and there the mahogany piano-but I am not myself there. There is a distance, a veil between us” (Remarque 160). Even when Paul returned home, he felt disconnected from what he related to before the war. Everything that he had once cherished, no longer had priority in his life. He opposed this change in his mental being because he wanted things to return to the way it once was for him. He craved to have his simple youth back. Then he realized that the physical surroundings he left never changed, but he changed. The veil that was between him and the objects that use to make him up was a symbol of the transition from his former identity to his new one. Paul was dramatically altered, yet some traits remained true to his character.
Compassion, a trait that defined Paul, triumphed throughout the wretched war and preserved a miniscule portion of his former self. For instance, Paul’s compassion can be seen when he stated, “I take out my cigarettes, break each one in half and give them to the Russians. They bow to me and light the cigarettes” (Remarque 194). Paul was sympathetic to the Russian prisoners because he understood what they had to go through. He put aside the fact that the prisoners were his enemies and saw them as normal people. Paul shared his cigarettes with his enemies of war, which proves his universal compassion for everyone. Furthermore, he said, “I jump up, eager to help [Kat], I take him up and start off at a run, a slow steady pace, so as not to jolt his leg too much. My throat is parched; everything dances red and black before my eyes, I stagger on doggedly and pitilessly…” (Remarque 289). Paul gave everything to save his comrade Kat. Without hesitation, Paul hauled Kat off regardless of the pain that he himself also endured. To care for others is like an instinct to Paul; instincts are natural and never diminish. This made his compassion a steady quality throughout the war. His mercifulness became mind over matter, to the point where Paul would do any ridiculous action for someone in need. Paul’s compassionate nature was seen through his actions. From these actions, he proves that he is still a part of what he used to be. The war could not take away his potent urge to help people.
Paul’s appreciation of nature came from the core of his being and never faltered. An illustration of this can be found when Paul explained how “to no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier…he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from the fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his only friend, his brother, his mother; he stifles his terror and his cries in her silence and her security; she shelters him” (Remarque 55). He personifies the earth as if it were his own mother and protector. In times of terror, the earth protected him as his mother would have sheltered him as a child. He thinks in this viewpoint because it is a comfort to him when nothing else can pacify his pain. While before he would just connect nature with everyday life, during World War I Paul was able to relate nature to war. This mental aspect of Paul’s was never lost. In addition, Paul describes the summer of 1918 as “never has life in its niggardliness seemed to us so desirable as now;-the poppies in the meadows round our billets, the smooth beetles on the blades of grass,…the stars and the flowing waters, dreams and long sleep-O Life, life, life” (Remarque 285). Paul described the prosperous nature in the middle of the war because he was in tune with nature. He related nature to life; it made him love life even though he had gone through countless hardships. His identity was preserved through this connection of love for nature and life. Moreover, Paul’s love for nature can be seen from his observation that “the most beautiful are the woods with their line of birch trees. Their color changes every minute…I often become so lost in the play of soft light…It is when one is alone that one begins to observe Nature and to love her” (Remarque 189). Even though he had to undergo preparation for war, Paul’s mind ventured off and focused on the little details of nature. The artistic side of Paul adhered to him throughout his whole journey. Because nature is omnipresent, he can always be reminded of his love for its beauty.
Compassion for others and love for nature were two traits of Paul’s character that abided to him even after all the ruinous occasions he had to endure through the war. His former identity before World War I would have been completely non-existent if it were not for these two withstanding qualities. Throughout the book these motifs of Paul’s attributes appear because they comprised the essence of who he was formerly. They were crucial factors to Paul as a person, hence why they never disappeared. Identity may be easily altered through life’s demandable struggles, as implied by Remarque, but Paul’s journey demonstrates that identity can never be entirely destroyed. The deepest core of a person remains true even in the toughest of situations. The overall identity of a person may change, but qualities from that person will remain.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Ballantine Books,