All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is a novel that I found very poignant and tactful, but what struck me the most about it were the descriptions of death throughout the book, which felt very realistic about how the soldiers may have felt.
One of the first depictions of death, which I found the most moving, was the death of Paul’s friend Kemmerich, due to the inclusion of Paul’s thoughts and emotions. Paul, sitting by Kemmerich’s hospital bed, attempts to ease Kemmerich’s suffering by describing what he could do after he healed, despite being aware that Kemmerich would not survive, and ends up worsening the situation. Paul’s thoughts are shown in this example: “…he is crying. What a mess I have made with my foolish talk (p. 30)!” For me this is a very heartbreaking scene as it brings me into Paul’s perspective as he berates himself about his behaviour during Kemmerich’s last moments. It doesn’t show Paul as someone who always knows what to say, and instead depicts him as someone who sometimes makes mistakes. This scene felt very genuine, and also let me relate to Paul and imagine what it would be like to have to comfort someone in such a situation.
Something else which struck me as very lifelike were the changes in the ways that the deaths of Paul’s friends were portrayed. At the beginning of the book, where Paul is present at Kemmerich’s death, he has many strong feelings as he describes the moment: “[Kemmerich] says nothing; all that lies behind him; he is entirely alone now with his little life of nineteen years, and cries because it leaves him. This is the most disturbing and hardest parting that I have ever seen (p. 31)…” Paul is deeply affected, and we as the reader also have the opportunity to connect him to Kemmerich, as they are both the same age. This scene is very emotional, and differs greatly from the descriptions seen later in the book. When Müller – another of Paul’s old classmates – dies, he gets a much shorter description: “Müller is dead. Someone shot him point-blank in the stomach with a Verey light. He lived for half an hour, quite conscious, and in terrible pain (p. 279).” Little more is said about Müller. When I first read this, the significant change in tone and description surprised me. In the first example, Remarque illustrates Paul’s feelings, but at Müller’s death the description is very factual and none of Paul’s thoughts are shown. While Kemmerich’s death occurs first in the story, it still seemed strange that Kemmerich, someone who wasn’t described as being a particularly close friend of Paul’s, was given such a long description but Müller was not. Upon further reflection, I saw it to represent how Paul’s mindset changes throughout the book and I found this distinction very realistic. Before he has seen as much death on the battlefield, his friend dying is a substantial blow. However, by the end, Paul has seen many of his friends die and is desensitized to death as a whole. The addition of another death is not significant, and it is mentioned only as a passing fact.
I found All Quiet on the Western Front quite profound and emotional, but what I admire most about the book is the author’s ability to realistically portray the war in so many of its facets. Even when writing in a less expressive manner, Remarque manages to convey very meaningful parts of a soldier’s life.