First Person, Singular: Fiction as a Vehicle for a Deeper Truth
The map is not the territory, the sculpture is not the subject, and the sequential arrangement of black marks on a white page or screen (or red ochre on a cave wall) is not the reality it attempts to depict. Every recorded human experience has been changed by transmission through the human medium, simply because with every passing letter the author must select—and permanently record—one symbol and not another. Meanings of some words have changed over time, acquiring and losing symbolic and allegorical meanings until the literal interpretation of a poem or story differs substantially from the symbolic one. (1) Yet, when an author finds le mot juste and strings enough of them together, he or she can do three very important things. First, the author can take a snapshot of a specific character’s perspective and context in an authentic “realistic” environment. This, while doctored somewhat with the literary equivalent of PhotoShop, is still the best technique for capturing a generic person’s experience, because it allows an author to agglomerate the experiences of many people so as to create a more complete depiction of reality. Second, the author can depict themes and images that illustrate deep and permanent truths that transcend individual situations. Finally, the author can express feelings, ideas, and emotional responses that are simply not possible to convey using conventional historical analysis. It is impossible to know what a long-dead person truly thought or felt without speculating or extrapolating ideas based on primary sources. This essay will show how Erich Maria Remarque achieved all three of these objectives in All Quiet on the Western Front.
Remarque, by allowing one of the characters in the story to narrate the story complete with his own feelings and thoughts, has access to more than just his personal experience of the war. Remarque (born Erich Paul Remarque) did in fact serve in WWI, having been conscripted in 1916 and having reached the front on June 26, 1917. He was wounded about a month later and finished out the war working in the hospital. (2) His main character in the novel, Paul Bäumer, carries the author’s discarded middle name, lost his mother at about the same time Remarque’s mother died, and is also a writer of sorts. However whereas Remarque was conscripted, Paul and his classmates volunteered. With only one month in the trenches, Remarque could not possibly have personally experienced a winter there or personally lived through all of Paul’s experiences. So, athough Remarque is known for drawing on personal experience in his character and setting descriptions, Paul is not Remarque’s literary alter ego. (3) Yet it is entirely plausible that Paul’s adventures may have been based on the recollections or fantasies of other soldiers in the hospital where he served.
The rules of the first person singular necessarily limit the narrator’s awareness to what the character personally experiences. This might have presented a big problem had Remarque not condensed the experiences of many real people into the story of one. By condensing reality this way, a more complete picture of the front is presented without sacrificing emotional realism. Is the book a truthful description of one real person’s experience? Absolutely not. Is it an accurate portrayal of what was actually going on? Well, according to other readers who lived through the same trench war, and to the critic Walter von Molo, it was convincing and universal enough to be “unser Weltkriegsdenkmal”, (5) or “our monument of the World War”.
Remarque uses episodic structure to capture the fleeting, disconnected emotional state of Paul and the other soldiers, and he uses symbolic language to encourage the reader to look for deeper and more allegorical meanings. Consider this example, which depicts the earth as mostly (but not entirely) a feminine entity. This passage anthropomorphizes the earth both as a poetic device and because of the structure of the German language, which requires a feminine pronoun for the word Erde, or earth:
To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier. When he presses himself down upon her long and powerfully, when 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 and releases him for ten seconds to live, to run, ten seconds of life; receives him again and often for ever. (4)
Had Remarque been limited solely by the constraints of journalism, the type of editorializing seen in the above passage would have been extremely inappropriate. As part of a memoir, Remarque might have described his own thoughts or feelings, but he could not have generalized this way without entering into the realm of speculation. But, as a general conclusion drawn by a fictional character, the Earth characterization is not only acceptable but poignant.
Because of the intimate nature of “Paul’s” narrative, the reader has access to all the character’s emotions, thoughts, and opinions. Some of the conclusions Paul and Kat draw, such as the reasons behind the arbitrary, capricious orders given by officers during training or away from the front line, are solely the product of the characters’ reasoning. They might be accurate, or not. Paul definitely matures over time: he even forgives Himmelstoß. But the emotional immediacy, and the contrast between Paul’s worries about his cold hands in Chapter 2 versus his apathy in the final chapter, bring the characters to life and provide ways for the readers to identify emotionally with them. Although most people have never survived an artillery bombardment or starvation, everyone has experienced fear and loss of control.
Compared to relying solely on objective facts about what people have provably said and written, having access to Paul’s inner world creates a far more accurate illustration as to what a human being in his situation might experience. Even Paul does not always say or express what’s on his mind, and neither do real human beings. So capturing the total experience, from the inside as well as the outside, is only possible through fiction. Remarque, in All Quiet on the Western Front, delivers a whole-person experience instead of conjecture about what an infantryman “might have” felt. He makes liberal use of metaphor and poetic language to encourage deeper, universal interpretations of the work, and he condenses the experiences of multiple human beings into a more universal Everyman. These factors, together, allow him to create a more accurate and universal depiction of life in the trenches than would have been possible if he’d been limited to his own memoirs. Thus, although the voice of Erich Maria Remarque has been quieted by the grave, Paul Bäumer will live forever.
(1) “There is no concept which is not embroiled in an open-ended play of signification, shot through with the traces and fragments of other ideas.” Terry Eagleton, expounding on ideas attributed to Jacques Derrida. Eggleton, Terry. Literary Theory, an Introduction. Copyright 1983 by Terry Eagleton. University of Minnesota Press, Page 131.
(2) Remarque, Erich Maria. Im Westen Nichts Neues. Brian Murdoch, editor. Methuen Educational Ltd., reprinted 1996 by Routledge. Page 2.
(3) Remarque, Erich Maria. Im Westen Nichts Neues. Brian Murdoch, editor. Methuen Educational Ltd., reprinted 1996 by Routledge. Page 4.
(4) Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front by A. W. Wheen, Fawcett Press. Online version (no page numbers, chapters only.) Chapter 4, third scene.
(5) Ullstein, quoting von Molo, in the pamphlet Urteile über das Kriegsbuch von Remarque, Ger. Pamph. F. 8, Taylor institute, Oxford.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory, an Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1983. Print.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. A.W. Wheen, translator. London: Fawcett Press, 1929. Online.
Remarque, Erich Maria. Im Westen Nichts Neues. Murdoch, ed. Oxon: Routedge. 1996 (reprint). Print.
Ullstein, Urteile über das Kriegsbuch von Remarque, Ger. Pamph. F. 8, Taylor institute, Oxford.
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