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The Significance of Alienation in All Quiet on the Western Front up to the End of Chapter Seven

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“War alienates the soldier from his last hold on civilian life”

-Explore the significance of alienation in AQWF up to the end of chapter seven

The epigraph of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ states that the intention of the book is to be “neither an accusation nor a confession”, but an account of a generation, including the survivors who are "destroyed by the war." Rather than a warning, this epigraph is one of simplicity and clarity and is a one-sentence declaration, however, what follows is a story of destruction. This is never more so seen than with Remarque’s realistic tone which embodies the theme of alienation throughout the novel. This theme of alienation may have stemmed from Remarque’s own experiences in Germany. ‘AQWF’ provoked Nazi opposition, leading Remarque to flee to Switzerland with his wife in 1932. In 1933, the Nazis banned Remarque’s novels and held a bonfire to burn copies of the books. This experience would have likely led Remarque to feel alienated from his own country and the people within it including his own family. Interestingly, this perfectly underscores the type of alienation that Paul and the other soldiers feel, it is one of being separated from their own personality, family, youth and civilian life. Soldiers are ripped from a tribe-like community where they eat, sleep, and fight together, and then are suddenly dropped back into a disconnected. Alienation is one of the main reasons even modern-day veterans sometimes miss being at war; a phenomenon that is difficult for civilians to grasp. Remarque displays the changes in Paul and his friends by showing how the soldiers were once school boys who had an education and a future, but war extinguished all innocence and hope for a further life while at the same time causing them to become mostly alienated from the past lives.

The first chapter of ‘AQWF’ is littered with examples of different types and feelings of alienation from different points of view, however most come from Paul’s perspective. This chapter is used in order to introduce characters and the environment. Paul introduces the other characters and in doing so portrays just how alienated they are from their past lives. For example, Müller feels as though he is still connected to his old school life so still “lugs his textbooks around with him” because he “dreams about taking his school leaving diploma”. However, Paul does not seem to share Müller’s dream, perhaps showing his more realistic belief that it is more important to simply try to survive. This shows his alienation from his school life as Paul does not seem to be interested in returning, he may believe he will not even live long enough to go back. For something as simple and mundane as using the “latrines”, Paul recalls that they all used to be “embarrassed”. However, due to the war, they have learned “how to cope with a bit of embarrassment”. The feeling of embarrassment is one that is used in a modern society in order to stop people becoming savages, so to feel that they have stopped being embarrassed shows how the soldiers are slowly becoming alienated from their past lives as normal civilians. Near to the end of the first chapter, the reader is exposed to the first example Paul’s of alienation from his emotional side which becomes a running motif throughout the novel, such as in chapter three when he has no response to an allied plane being shot down. This emotional incapacity is shown by the way that Paul appears to react with very factual language to the fact that Behm was the “first to be killed”. He simply recalls the event similarly to a news reporter: “didn’t take cover, so he was shot down”. This may be an indication that Paul has decided to try to supress his emotional side which is also what the war doctors do when dealing with Kemmerich in chapter two. Paul seems to have become alienated from the status quo of society to the reaction of the death of a friend. His subsequent internal monologue may hint to the fact that he believes that this is due to the adults who were supposed to help the “eighteen-year-olds to make the transition” to adult life. However, after their first experience of “heavy artillery fire” led them to “suddenly” find themselves “horribly alone”. This exemplifies alienation from past life but also alludes to a hidden sense of anger at the fact that they also “had to come to terms with it alone as well”. Paul feels in this moment as though he has absolutely nobody to support him, which is a very bitter and moving sentiment. The chapter ends with the very significant and touching line of “Young men? That was a long time ago”. This illustrates the alienation from both innocence as well as their youth. It is an expressive idea which is directly juxtaposed with the ‘ideal’ of the “young men of iron” who are supposed to be strong and not affected by emotions.

As a whole, chapter two and three include more explicit and significant examples of alienation. Remarque starts the chapter by using the technique of inclusive language “When we came out here we were cut off, whether we like it or not, from everything we had done up to that point”. Paul does discern that the young men did not really have much to anchor them to their old life as the only things they did have were essentially a few “hobbies” and “school”. Even out of those few things, due to the war, “nothing is left of it all”, rendering Paul and his school friends completely alienated from any fragment of life they had built. Müller wants Kemmerich’s boots and Paul spells out for the reader that he knows they have “lost all our ability to see things in other ways” because it “is only the facts that count”, epitomising their alienation from their previous emotional side that the war has eroded. This is the chapter where Kemmerich meets his end and the reader finally sees that it is not exclusively the soldiers who are the ones to become alienated from their emotional feelings. The doctors and orderlies have been forced by the war to stop feeling in order to stay objective, focused and ultimately survive. This is demonstrated by the doctor who says that the reason he has no idea who is who is because he has “done five leg amputation that day”. Furthermore, the orderly says that he “needs the bed” so pushes Paul to quickly take Kemmerich’s belongings so they can remove his body. This behaviour is chilling to modern readers, but it must be considered that the doctors must behave in this way in order to save the most amount of people possible, although it still shows a large extent of alienation from their civilian life before the war. Paul interestingly seems to be very much in touch with his emotions as after Kemmerich dies he feels as though he “can’t go on”. This differs drastically with chapter seven when he talks “impatiently” with Kemmerich’s mother, not understanding why she cannot “just accept” her son’s death. In chapter three the men are seen to be playing a game of “Change at Löhne” when a “German plane” is “shot down”. Even though the plane is on their side, the soldiers completely lack any emotional response and Paul merely use the simile of “smoke behind it like a comet”. They actually bet on the plane being shot down as “Kropp has lost a bottle of beer on it”, showing a total disconnect to their emotional side which is telling of how alienated the men are without even realising it. In this chapter the soldiers also physically breach the superiority division between them and Himmelstoss by beating him up. These men have clearly lost inhibitions or have been driven to breaking point, so far as to use the simile “Revenge is as good as a feast” after Haie “aimed a wallop with his left hand”. This could be seen as being alienated from their self-control, however, there has been a general motif so far of them slowly speaking out against Himmelstoss which eventually culminates with them physically assaulting him.

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