90 pages • 3 hours read
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All Quiet on the Western Front is a 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque which details the experiences of German soldiers at the frontlines of World War I. At the heart of the novel are graphic portrayals of trench warfare and the psychological trauma inflicted on the soldiers as a result. The novel presents a realistic portrait of a horrific war and provides unflattering accounts of the elite classes responsible for such mass destruction. The novel is more aligned with an anti-war sentiment than a romanticized or glorified pro-war view. The novel was therefore banned by the Nazi regime of Germany in the 1930s.
The novel follows a disjointed narrative structure, and it jumps around in time from present to past. There are two narrative points of view as well. For almost the entire duration of the novel, Paul Baumer is the narrator. All that happens at the front, all the dialogue, and all of the visual imagery of the scenes are witnessed through Paul’s eyes. As the novel concludes, there is an abrupt narrative shift. The final paragraph is narrated by an unknown, third-person narrator. The effect is that the previous 11 and half chapters were something of a memoir, written in real-time by Paul.
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The novel has been twice adapted into a film in 1930 and 1979. The edition used for this study guide is the Kindle edition published by Random House in 2013.
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The novel does not begin at the front. Instead, Paul Baumer focuses the reader’s attention on his comrades after they have eaten and are feeling mildly content. They have just returned from the front lines and endured heavy fighting, but the mood of the men is more relaxed than anxious. Baumer discusses how the men came to find themselves in the midst of the war, and where the blame for it lies. He discusses the schoolteacher Kantorek, and the ways in which people of his ilk manipulated the young men like Baumer and his mates. There are much broader ramifications to what Paul says about the deceit carried out on innocent, young men, and he is the social conscience of the novel.
The action sequences begin after three full chapters. After Paul lulls the reader into a similarly calm mood as the men, the brutality of the action begins abruptly. The men arrive at the front amid heavy bombardment. The tumult is extreme, and as the chapter proceeds, the images are gruesome and horrific. The sense of elapsed time is disorienting for the reader, as Paul’s narrative pace speeds up to a fever pitch. Just like the men suddenly being “in it,” the reader likewise is shockingly immersed in witnessing the carnage taking place all around. Chapter 4 concludes, and when the men are relieved temporarily, the narrative pace again slows back down.
The brotherhood Paul feels with his comrades is a common thread in the novel, and his narrative focus tends to paint the men in a positive light. In many ways, the book is a testament to these men and the many like them. The loyalty amongst the men is far greater than any loyalty to a more general and abstract cause, such as patriotism or nationalism. In between the chapters where the fierce action of war is narrated, Paul spends a great deal discussing his comrades, and he recounts the many discussions they have, some of which include the men’s views on the nature of the war and its causes. Importantly, the men all share more disdain and contempt for their own countrymen of the elite classes—who they feel bear the responsibility for this war—than toward the actual enemy. Paul also details the psychological trauma he and others experience. This trauma is most explicitly detailed when Paul goes on leave and when he is wounded and visits the Red Cross hospital. In each of these scenes, Paul chronicles how difficult it is and will be for the soldier to ever return to peacetime after having witnessed the horrors of this war.
As the novel moves toward its conclusion, things become increasingly clear that the German side is losing the war. The condition of the men deteriorates just as their enemy gains more resources and weaponry. The mood of the men becomes dispirited as they sense a looming defeat. Lastly, the novel has a sharp narrative shift at the end of the final chapter. Once again, the effect is disorienting. The unnamed third-person narrator appears and wraps up the novel, revealing that Paul was killed in battle.