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“All quiet on the Western front” and “Slaughterhouse 5”

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When writing literary works most, authors will agree that it is difficult to write a story without any inspiration. The writers will often have some motive, either from past experiences or something that can inspire an idea for a novel. Although the novel can be fictitious it can still change how society feels about a certain issue. The two novels All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut romanticizes what war is like, emphasizing ideas such as glory, horror, honor, patriotic duty, and adventure. The similarities include both authors have their impression that the absurdity of war is morally wrong, how soldiers act as toys in the sandbox being played with higher authorities. Both novels feature the society of young men to be controlled and sent to their demise with little hope. The differences between the two novels is that both novels feature a different approach on how the novel flows. Vonnegut moves the story in humorous manner whereas Remarque tells it in a serious manner.

The obvious comparison when exploring the two novels is the aspect that they are antiwar novels. In Slaughterhouse 5, Vonnegut is trying to express his point of view, or sway the readers to understand the negative properties of war since the firebombing of the German town Dresden during World War II. The protagonist Billy Pilgrim is the antiwar hero because he does not fit the description of the usual war hero. “He didn’t look like a soldier at all. He looked like a filthy flamingo” (Vonnegut, 33) Billy’s character is a customary figure of fun in the American Army. Billy is no exception. He is powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends. He wears no medals, his physical appearance and build is a mockery and his faith in loving Jesus troubles most soldiers. (Lichtenstein) Vonnegut realizes that war is inevitable, it’s like death.

Even if Billy were to train hard, wear the proper uniform, and be a good soldier he might still die like the rest of the others in Dresden. Billy lives in a life with indignity and is not afraid of death, and in accordance to the Traflamadorian philosophy of accepting death. By uttering the phrase “so it goes” the narrator points out the meaningless slaughter after every death, no matter how ironic, sarcastic or random. “On the eighth day, the hobo died. So it goes. His last words were, “You think this is bad? This ain’t bad.”” (Vonnegut 79) “But the candles and soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communist and other enemies of the state. So it goes” (Vonnegut, 96) Billy always sees death coming, but nothing he can do about it. In chapter 10, at the end of novel Vonnegut shows the reader how there is nothing intelligent to say after the massacre of Dresden,

“Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street. The trees were leafing out. There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped.

Birds were talking.

One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, “Poo-tee-weet?”

(Vonnegut, 215)

It is obvious when everyone is dead it is suppose to be quiet, but the bird who says “Poot-tee-weet?” symbolizes the lack of anything intelligent to say about war. It is the only appropriate thing to say, since no words can describe the horror on the firebombing of Dresden.

Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front presents its reader with the harsh reality of war. The novel sets out to portray war and the actual experiences, replacing the romantic picture of glory and heroism with a decidedly unromantic vision of terror, vanity, and slaughter. The novel takes place during World War I and in the perspective of a German soldier, Paul Baumer the protagonist. Stylistically the novel consists of short chapters that symbolize the quick pace of death in the novel. For example in chapter one Remarque already introduces the pain and agony of loss in friendship. (Ward) For example in chapter one, Kimmerich being one of the four friends of Paul dies while being brought back from the trenches. (Remarque) Remarque smashes any positive thoughts the reader may have about warfare in his descriptions,

“It is impossible to grasp the fact that there are human faces above these torn bodies, faces in which life goes on from day to day and on top of it all, this is just one single military hospital, just one – there are hundreds of thousands of them in Germany, France, and Russia. How pointless all human thoughts, words and deeds must be, if things like this are possible! Everything must have been fraudulent and pointless if thousands of years of civilization weren’t even able to prevent the river of blood. Only a military hospital can show you what war really is”

(Remarque, 186)

It seems that the impression of war is not honor or glory yet it is suffering of those who are participating. Because All Quiet on the Western Front is set among soldiers fighting on the front, one of its main focuses is the damaging effect that war has on the soldiers who fight it. How one’s thoughts on the war can ruin the past experiences with a harsh focus on the physical and mental damage done. The men in the novel are constantly subjective to physical danger. Literally the soldiers can be blown to pieces at any time. This threat causes damage done to the brain and triggering a mental picture, forcing soldiers to experience fear during every moment of their time on the front. “We became tough, suspicious, hard-hearted, vengeful and rough, if they had sent us out into the trenches without this kind of training he probably most of us would have gone mad”

(Remarque, 19) Likewise in Slaughterhouse 5 Billy Pilgrim didn’t receive the proper training that driven him into the peak of insanity. And the only way to survive for both Billy and Paul is to disconnect themselves from their feelings, and accept the conditions of their life. “We want to live at any price; so we cannot burden ourselves with feelings which, though they may be ornamental enough in peacetime, would be out of place here.” (Remarque, 123) In Billy’s case he uses the illusion of time travel to escape his thoughts in the Slaughterhouse 5.

Additionally to the similarities of both novels being antiwar novels, there is an idea that the authors highlight the generation of young men being drafted to the war.

Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front gives emphasis on the particular affect war has on the young men who have not been given the chance to experience life. Paul’s character represents the young generation of men who went straight from childhood into World War I. Paul describes his fellow soldiers: he, Leer, Muller, and Kropp are all 19 years old. They are from the same school, same classes, and each enlisted into the army voluntary. (Remarque) “They are from one of the newly raise regiments, almost exclusively young men from the latest age group to be drafted. They’ve had hardly any training, nothing more than a bit of theory.” (Remarque, 93) The war changes Paul’s attitude about the world and about humanity. He believes the war becomes not merely a traumatic experience or a hardship to be endured but something that actually transforms the essence of human existence into endless suffering. (Ward)

The longer that Paul survives the war, the more that he hates it, the less certain that life will be better for him after it ends. (Ward) The war teaches the generation of young men the effects of nationalism and political power. Tools used to control the nations population. Forcing them to believe in what is “right”. Throughout Paul’s experience he realizes that the soldiers that fight on the front are not fighting for the nation but fighting for their own survival, to kill or be killed. Additionally, Paul and his friends do not consider the opposing fraction to be their real enemies,

“I didn’t want to kill you, mate. If you were to jump in here again, I wouldn’t do it… But earlier on you were just an idea to me, a concept in my mind that called up an automatic response – it was that concept that I stabbed. It is only now that I can see that you are a human being like me. I just thought about your hand-grenades, your bayonet and your weapons – now I can see you wife, and your face, and what we have in common. Forgive me comrade, how can you be my enemy? If we threw these uniforms and weapons away you could be just as much my brother as Kat and Albert.”

(Remarque, 158)

In his view, the real enemies are the men in power in their own nation, who they believe have sacrifice them to the war simply to increase their own power and glory. At the end of the novel, almost every major character is dead, epitomizing the war’s devastating effect on the generation of young men who is force to fight in it.

Slaughterhouse 5 also portrays an excellent example of young men going to war leaving back a life behind to glorify the nation’s well being. Billy Pilgrim is only 20 years old when he enters the war. During his post war life he attended night sessions at the Ilium School of Optometry. (Vonnegut) As he progresses throughout the events he encounters other soldiers who are similar in age. “Roland Weary was only eighteen, was at the end of an unhappy childhood” (Vonnegut, 35) “Two of the Germans were boys in their early teens” (Vonnegut, 52)

The differences seen in the two novels is that Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front moves in a very serious and descriptive way. Unlike Vonneguts Slaughterhouse 5 Remarque illustrates every death with use of carnage and gore. Every battle scene features brutal violence and bloody descriptions of death, “We see men go on living with the top of their skulls missing; we see soldiers go on running when both their feet have been shot away–they stumble on their splintering a full half-mile on his hands, dragging his legs behind him, with both knees shattered. We see soldiers with their mouths missing, their lower jaws missing, with their faces missing; we find someone who has gripped the main artery in his arm between his teeth for two hours so that he doesn’t bleed to death. The sun goes down, night falls, the shells whistle, life comes to an end” (Remarque, 97)

Hospital scenes portray men with serious wounds that go untreated because of insufficient medical supplies. Paul carries the wounded Kat on his back to safety, only to discover that Kat’s head was hit by a piece of shrapnel while Paul was carrying him. The descriptions of rat-infestation, starvation, weather conditions, and trench warfare, and how it forces the soldiers to live in these upset conditions. (Remarque) Remarque’s novel dramatizes aspects of World War I and how the evolution of technology (trenches, artillery, chlorine gas) was a major influence that made killing easier. “Continuous fire, defensive fire, curtain fire, trench mortars, gas, tanks, machine guns, hand-grenades – words, words, but they embrace all the horrors of the world.” (Remarque, 68)

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 moves the story in a science fiction process filled with humour and irony. First of all the idea of Billy being “unstuck in time”, Billy travels randomly through the moments of his life without control over his chronological destination. (Lichtenstein) Time travel leads to instability in the novel, as Billy is trying to make sense in his life giving an experience that no one can understand how Billy really feels. He time travels in order to cope with his life and all he has been through. In chapter two, Vonnegut immediately tells the beginning, middle, and ending of the story right away. Vonnegut enchants the theme of novel by adding Tralfamadorians (Vonnegut’s humor of toilet-plunger shaped Aliens) and how they abducted Billy into their spaceship and teaching Billy the philosophy of time and death and discussing whether free will exist. (Vonnegut) Witty humour and irony is a factor in the course of the novel, for instance,

“Weary socked Billy a good one on the side of his jaw, knocked Billy away from the bank and onto the snow covered ice of the creek.

“You shouldn’t even be in the Army,” said Weary.

Billy was making involuntarily making convulsive sounds that were a lot like laughter. “You think it’s funny, huh?”

But then Weary saw that he had an audience. Five German soldiers and a police dog on a lash were looking down into the bed of the creek. The soldiers’ blue eyes filled with a bleary civilian curiosity as to why one American would try to murder another American, and why the victim should laugh” (Vonnegut, 51)

Ironically, of the four original soldiers, Billy is the only one who remains alive, yet he is the most unlikely one to do so.

In conclusion, in spite of the differences between Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 both novels convey the same message Whether the readers view Slaughterhouse-Five as a science-fiction novel or a autobiographical statement, and All Quiet on the Western Front the reader cannot ignore the destructive properties of war, since the catastrophic firebombing of the German town of Dresden during World War II or the horrendous acts of World War I including trench warfare. Both novels suggest the same conclusion about war and how it ends “quiet”. By emphasizing the bird that whispered “Poot-tee-weet” towards Billy. Or the death of Paul Baumer’s “Nothing new to report on the western front” (Remarque, 207)


Lichtenstein, Jesse and Douthat, Ross. SparkNote on Slaughterhouse-Five. 1 May. 2005

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