All Quiet on the Western Front is a graphic depiction of the horrors of war. In the short note before Chapter One, Remarque lets the reader know exactly what themes he intends. War is a savage and gratuitous evil, war is unnatural, and war is responsible for the destruction of an entire generation. Remarque is very clear on the strength of his themes, and uses graphic imagery to convey to the reader the physical and psychological impact that war has on humanity. But Remarque uses more than graphic description to support his themes.
Remarque also utilizes a very defined nature motif, with the forces of nature constantly rebelling against the conflict it plays battleground to. With the Earth itself, the source of all things, supporting his themes, Remarque has a seemingly unbiased witness bearing testament to his observations. Remarque can use nature as the judge to condemn war, along with shocking imagery, so that his literature remains without a trace of nationalism, political ill will, or even personal feelings. It should be noted that the nature motif is carried consistently throughout the novel, and that it supports many of the author’s lesser themes. For the purpose of portraying war as something terrible, though, the nature motif is expressed most dramatically in the following passages.
These passages mark the three distinct stages of nature’s condemnation of war: rebellion, perseverance, and erasure. The first passage occurs in Chapter Four when the troops are trucked out to the front to install stakes and wire. However, the narrator’s squad is attacked unexpectedly by an English bombardment. With no visible enemy to fight, the soldiers are forced to take cover and live out the bombardment. In the process, the earth is shredded and blown asunder. It is during this melee that many of the companies’ horses are wounded, and begin to bellow terribly. “It is unendurable. It is the moaning of the world, it is the martyred creation, wild with anguish, filled with terror, and groaning.” The bombing subdues, but the bellowing continues. “The screaming of the beasts becomes louder. One can no longer distinguish whence in this now quiet silvery landscape it comes; ghostly, invisible, it is everywhere, between heaven and earth it rolls on immeasurably.” Remarque is none too subtle in using the dying horses as a metaphor for the Earth’s own anguish. As the men face a new horror, nature is revolting against the damage being done to it. Remarque will return to this usage of the nature motif, with war being anomalous and unnatural in the “natural” world. At the first sign of war, a disturbance in the Earth’s eternal peace, nature rebels. “…it is the earth itself raging.”
The next passage is found in Chapter Six, where the protagonists have experienced constant battle for many days. “The brown earth, torn, blasted earth, with a greasy shine under the sun’s rays; the earth is the background of this restless, gloomy world of automatons…” The seemingly hapless and helpless nature can now only persevere. Earth plays the role of the victim, impotent to the forces that mutilate it. Whereas in the first passage, nature accuses man for his aberrance, and reacts violently, but ineffectually, against that this torments it. Now, however, nature is silent. It endures, waiting for the unnatural phenomena to pass. The final passage is more subtle than the two prior. It is found in Chapter Six, during the calm after a massive struggle. The dead are present everywhere and the earth is marred with innumerable craters. It is in this quiet that the narrator makes the following observation: “My hands grow cold and my flesh creeps; and yet the night is warm. Only the mist is cold, this mysterious mist that trails over the dead and sucks from them their last, creeping life. By morning they will be pale and green and their blood congealed and black.”
Once again, Remarque uses metaphors with notable success. The mist, which behaves abnormally, is the manifestation of nature. Nature is slowly and quietly erasing the traces of its former anguish. In this instance, nature is at work decaying the dead; beginning the relentless process of repairing itself. This final stage in nature’s condemnation of war can be seen consistently throughout Chapter Eleven, where the war toils on, but the seasons pass indifferently as the dead pile up. Nature’s victory can be seen as the simple ability to outlast its tormentors. The novel ends with the war’s conclusion, and at the same time, the rejuvenation of the Earth in those tortured regions. What then does Remarque accomplish by demonstrating these three stages? Staying consistent with his themes, Remarque is emphasizing the horrors and pointlessness of war. But where Remarque uses vivid and horrific imagery to make clear the former, the latter is clearly supported in his nature motifs. By observing the three stages above, the reader realizes the insignificance of war. Nature is above it, and greater than any war. Despite the immeasurable impact the war had on those involved, it was but a minor disturbance to the forces of nature. The dead decay and the earth mends itself. All traces of the carnage are erased, and although the war is history for humanity, for nature, the source of life, it has passed. Remarque has then accomplished his goal in writing the novel.
His theme of condemning war as a gratuitous act of savagery is fully supported with accurate and shockingly graphic imagery. War being both unnatural and unnecessary (and ultimately, insignificant) is expressed clearly with the consistent nature motifs. And while the reader is in the state of suspended disbelief, these themes will be conveyed to him with alarming clarity. It is at this moment that Remarque has truly succeeded. The successful utilization of the nature motifs have given All Quiet on The Western Front a voice and emotion all of its own. This voice compels and influences the reader; for those immersed in Remarque’s haunting novel, war has lost its glory, its grandeur, and its meaning.
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