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”All Quiet on the Western Front” and ”Slaughterhouse-Five”

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  • Category: Novel

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Today, some people misunderstand war because they easily see the ideals aspects of war, patriotism and honour in movies or some war novels. Therefore, the actual meaning of war has to be revealed. All Quiet on the Western Front1, by Enrich Maria Remarque and Slaughterhouse-Five2, by Kurt Vonnegut are very different in terms of their location in history and location on the map. However, if one looks at the important events, and character realizations and reactions, it becomes clear that the two novels share a common perception of war; war leads to the inevitable destruction of man. Both stories deal with the horror of war that has a powerful negative impact on the characters. They also reveal the resulting human breakdowns that often result from experiencing the horror in the battlefield. Furthermore, both novels present war’s another destructive aspect, which makes the characters unable to function in a normal way.

As illustrated in All Quiet on the Western Front and Slaughterhouse-Five, experiencing the horror of war has a tremendous destructive impact on the soldiers. The best place to begin in a discussion of the horrors of war and the affect of it would be to look at the incidents that exposed the characters to the shock of war. In the case of Paul Baumer, the protagonist in All Quiet on the Western Front, he acknowledges the shocking reality of war before he even goes to see the battlefield. First he is caught up in the excitement of German nationalism in World War I. Like many of his peers Paul sees the war as an adventure, but before he even sees the battlefield, the excitement is dashed. Paul and his comrades are trained by the fierce Corporal Himmelstoss. Much of what they learn from Corporal Himmelstoss is unexpected.

Amongst other things, Paul learns, “that what matters is not the mind but the boot brush, not intelligence but the system, not freedom but drill. We became soldiers with eagerness and enthusiasm, but they have done everything to knock that out of us.”3 Using a contrast with words like “boot brush”, “system” and “drill” to the words like “mind”, “intelligence” and “freedom”, Remarque effectively shows that the romantic illusions that Paul and his fellow soldiers once had about the war. It is clear that confronting with the shocking reality of the war, their innocence of having such romantic ideals about the war is completely stripped away. In other words, the sobering experience has given them a shock that their perspective of war is changed. Similarly, in Slaughterhouse-Five, the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim is exposed to the shock of war when he experiences the catastrophic firebombing of the German town of Dresden during World War II. The entire city was annihilated while 135,000 people were killed. The number of casualties is greater than those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.4 Billy especially is shocked when he and other prisoners are forced to excavate corpses from the rubble:

There were hundreds of corpse mines operating by and by. They did not smell bad at first, were wax museums. But then the bodies rotted and liquefied, and the stink was like roses and mustard gas…Billy had worked with died of the dry heaves, after having been ordered to go down in that stink and work. He tore himself to pieces, throwing up and throwing up.

The prisoners discover hundreds of “corpse mines.” The bodies rot faster than they can be removed. One prisoner dies of dry heaves. Billy is very shocked as he witnesses these unbelievable realities of war. One can imagine how dreadful and negatively influential it may have been for Billy to have a direct contact with death.

To fully understand the horror of war and the devastating effect of it, it would be useful to look at graphic and gory sights described in the novels. Throughout the novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, Remarque wrote numerous paragraphs describing what is seen in the battlefield. They often contain a graphical and descriptive language that almost makes the reader feel that they are actually sighting the battlefield as a part of it. For instance, Remarque created a graphical and gory detail when Paul and his fellow soldiers pass through a destroyed place and witness a terrible death of a soldier:

A naked soldier is squatting in the fork of a tree…There is only half of him sitting up there, the top half, the legs are missing…somewhere else is plastered a bloody mess that was once a human limb.

By the sight of limbs blown off and blood flown everywhere, the innocence and the mental state of Paul and his fellow soldiers have been deeply affected. However, throughout the novel, they become senseless about the brutality as they witness more horrific scenes. Finally, their perception of life and death is blurred and they become emotionless about death, which is one of the most devastating impacts of the horrors of war on human. On the same note, though Vonnegut in his novel did not create many graphic and gory descriptions of the horror of war in subtle ways, one cannot ignore the destructive properties of war that the novel has. In chapter five, a good graphical description of what the battlefield is like is said by Derby, a survivor prisoner from the firebombing in Dresden:

Shells were bursting in the treetops with terrific bangs, he said, showering down knives and needles and razorblades. Little lumps of head in copper jackets were crisscrossing the woods under the shellbursts, zipping along much faster than sound. A lot of people were being wounded or killed.

As seen in this example, during the war a lot of soldiers are wounded or killed. However, even if one is not wounded or killed, what makes him become faint and collapse is the brutality of war that is illustrated by Vonnegut, using words like “knives”, “shellbursts” and “lumps of head”.

Most importantly, while the horror of battle, the guns, the blood and the severed limb, all around the characters have a shocking and devastating effect on them, there is perhaps a horror that is worse. Both main characters undergo personal experience that is the most devastating in terms of its the horrendous effects on their innocence. In Paul’s case, it is the close violent contact that he has with an enemy soldier that fell into his shell-hole. It is in fact an instinctive reaction of Paul’s to survive that causes him to stab and kill a French soldier who tumbles upon him. Paul describes the situation by relating that he is, “about to turn around a little [when] something heavy stumbles, and with a crash a body falls over me…”

Shortly after Paul stabs the soldier and relates how, “the body suddenly convulses, then becomes limp, and collapses…the man gurgles. It sounds to me as though he bellows, every gasping breath is like a cry…” The instinctive stabbing of the French soldier is a part of war for every soldier and Paul, being immersed in battle did what most soldiers would do. However, this is in fact his first time to kill a man in hand-to-hand combat, therefore is shocking and crucial, for in the hours of killing, he becomes extremely instable emotionally and feels one side of his humanity is stripped away; his innocence of not having killed anyone face to face is now destroyed. Also, he deeply understands the horror of taking another man’s life and the dehumanizing effect of it. In the other novel, on the night Dresden was destroyed, Billy shifts in and out of the meat locker, surviving asphyxiation and incineration:

There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked…Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn…was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighbourhood was dead.

The firebombing in Dresden is devastating and so destructive that Vonnegut describes the bombing sounds as “giant footsteps” and refers the destroyed city as “the moon.” Although the book does not describe what Billy has felt after the firebombing in subtle ways, one can only imagine the intense emotional scarring that one would suffer after exiting an underground shelter with a dozen other men to find a city destroyed and its people dead, corpses laying all around.11 In brief, the novels, All Quiet on the Western Front and Slaughterhouse-Five, both characters, Paul and Billy are subjected to incidents, which exposed them to the shock of war. Also, as they witness many gory sights, their perception of life and death is blurred, therefore become senseless and emotionless about the concept of death. Yet most importantly, both characters feel their innocence stripped away when they have a direct contact with death and witness a city that is terribly destroyed. Therefore, one should realize that a man, suffering the horror of war is led to destruction by the nature of war.

What often happens to humans, following experiences of horror on the battlefield, is some kind of personal breakdown that can deteriorate a man in several ways.

In a discussion of breakdown, it would be useful to begin with physical breakdown or death that the characters undergo. In the case of Paul in All Quiet on the Western Front, he and one of his closest friends, Kropp during the war, are wounded by a falling shell while they evacuate a village. Kropp has been wounded very close to his knee and resolves to commit suicide if his leg has to be amputated. Paul’s leg is broken and his arm is wounded:

I take a look at myself. My trousers are bloody and my arm, too. Albert binds up my wound with his field dressing…The pain increases. The bandages burn like fire. We drink and drink, one glass of water after another.

This is in fact Paul’s first time being wounded, so he is very shocked that he first cannot feel the pain until it has increased. Paul and Kropp are transferred to a hospital where they see so many people suffering from various injuries: poison gas injuries, blindness, amputations, and so on. After all, Paul realizes that what war costs to soldiers is physical their breakdowns or death. On the same note, in Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy also suffers from a physical breakdown. Though Billy does not suffer from an external physical injury, one of his internal organs is ruined by the war, “Billy usually did not drink much, because the war had ruined his stomach.”13 Knowing that the war had ruined Billy’s stomach, it is easily seen what the food supply in the war would have been like. In the war, the chances to receive real food and relax are so few that one can easily be lack of nutrition and eventually deteriorate physically. Also, soldiers are so starved and hungry for proper food that they can actually risk their lives to acquire it.

While the war destroys the characters physically, it also causes them to have emotional breakdowns. In the beginning of All Quiet on the Western Front, Kemmerich, one of Paul’s classmate and comrades in the war, is near death. Paul tries to comfort him, saying that he will get better and return home. However, Kemmerich cries silently and refuses to respond to Paul. Paul goes to find the doctor, but the doctor denies to come because he has amputated five legs already that day. When Paul returns to Kemmerich’s bed, Kemmerich suffering a wound, is dead. Paul describes his emotions, “I become faint, all at once I cannot do any more.

I won’t revile any more, it is senseless, I could drop down and never rise up again.”14 This clearly shows the emotional breakdown Paul is going through. He is too upset and shocked about the death of his friend that he feels that he can never rise up again. He experiences more emotional breakdowns, as his classmates die one after another. Similarly, while Paul undergoes an emotional breakdown after the death of his friend, Billy experiences an emotional collapse soon after he is drafted in the war. After his military service in Germany, he, “suffered a mild nervous collapse…He was treated in a veteran’s hospital near Lake Placid, and was given shock treatments and released. ” 15 Though this is a short part showing Billy’s nervous collapse, it can be seen that his war experience has had a very serious detrimental effect on his emotion, for he is given shock treatments in a veteran’s hospital.

The most effective examples of the traumatic affect of war are the psychological breakdowns that the characters go through. To give an example in All Quiet on the Western Front, the scene where Paul kills a French soldier should be reminded. What follows Paul’s killing of a French soldier is a long drawn out description of how the enemy soldier lies dying and moaning in pain, as Paul is unable to escape. Paul tries to make him comfortable as he dies. However, he is too frightened and creates the illusions within himself, which bother him psychologically, “…every gasp lays my heart bare. This dying man has time with him, he has an invisible dagger with which he stabs me: Time and my thoughts.”

The horrible experience of watching the French man die offers a more intense anguish to Paul than anything he had experienced up to that point. Although the instinctive stabbing is what most soldiers would have done, he feels guilty about his actions and keeps blaming himself. Another example on Paul’s upset psychological state is shown when he finds out more about the soldier, “What would his wife look like?…Does she belong to me now?…I have killed the printer, Gerard Duval. I must be a printer, I think confusedly, be a printer, printer – ” 17 Paul finds that the soldier has a wife and a child and realizes that not only Gerard Duval but also Gerard’s wife and child are the ones he ruined. Thus, he feels like he has to take care of them as well. The impact is truly dehumanizing. Similarly in Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy undergoes a psychological breakdown when the barbershop quartet sings a sentimental song at Billy’s eighteenth wedding anniversary party. As he listens to the song about old friendship, he suddenly reacts to it and breaks down:

Unexpectedly, Billy Pilgrim found himself upset by the song and the occasion…

He looked so peculiar…They thought he might have been having a heart attack…

His mouth filled with the taste of lemonade, and his face became grotesque, as though he really were being stretched on the torture engine called the rack…

The quartet reminds him of the four German guards that he saw standing together in anguish after the firebombing of Dresden. The effect of the quartet on Billy’s psychology is important because it has been already more than eighteen years since the end of World War II. This shows the tremendous lasting affect of war, which can make someone psychologically unstable even after eighteen years. In brief, it has been shown that in both novels, All Quiet on the Western Front and Slaughterhouse-Five, war cost soldiers’ physical injuries or even their death. Also, war causes them to undergo emotional breakdowns as well as psychological breakdowns. Given these facts, war creates destructive effects on human causing all kinds of breakdowns.

Experiencing the horror of the war and the resulting human breakdowns, the characters become unable to function normally in society. For instance, as a result of the trauma of war experience, Paul and Billy face an inability to deal with reality in their later lives. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Paul and his friends go for a swim and meet French girls. Despite the fact that they speak a different language, they chatter with some broken French for a long time. Paul hopes to recapture his youth with a woman, however he feels awkward and afraid of doing so:

I am lost in remoteness, in weakness, and in a passion to which I yield myself trustingly. My desires are strangely compounded of yearning and misery. I feel giddy…nothing remains to recall for me the assurance and self-confidence of the soldier…I let myself drop into the unknown, come what may – yet, in spite of all, I feel somewhat afraid.

It is as though the war has taken away Paul’s youth and with it, his desires of love and perhaps lust. It is also as though he was an old man, too far removed from prospects of contact with young women. Therefore, unable to recapture the youthful innocence, he cannot deal with the reality. On the same note, in Slaughterhouse-Five, since the initial plane crash, in which Billy suffers brain damage, he starts to randomly travel through the moments of his life without control over destination. One time, he is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, the aliens from a planet called Trafamadore and has a conversation with them. After returning from the time tripping, Billy goes on a radio show in New York City to talk about his abduction by aliens in 1967, which is far later. His daughter, Barbara, discovers his proselytizing and brings him home, concerned for his sanity:

‘Father, Father, Father -‘ said Barbara, ‘what are we going to do with you?’…’There is no such planet as Tralfamadore.’… ‘Where did you get a crazy name like Tralfamadore?’

Barbara’s mention of the instability in his mental state suggests Billy’s absence from the reality in his life. The important thing about Billy being unstuck in time is that he, “…first came unstuck while World War Two was in progress.”21 With this evidence, it is clear that the war has something to do with his time tripping and his non-sense talk about the aliens that he met.

Unable to deal with the reality in their lives, both characters develop their own survival strategies to get away from the harsh reality of the war, which leads them to be isolated in the society. In All Quiet on the Western Front, given a fourteen days of leave, Paul returns from the front. However, he feels awkward in his hometown and even with his family:

But a sense of strangeness will not leave me, I cannot feel at home amongst these things. There is my mother, there is my sister…but I am not myself there. There is a distance, a veil between us.

A sense of strangeness that Paul feels is very significant, for it is the result of disconnecting himself from emotions, which has become his survival strategy in the battlefield to overcome the harshness and stay strong. Though disassociating himself with human emotions, such as grief and guilt helps him to survive in the front23, when he returns from war, it seems almost impossible for him to get back into the normal life that he used to live. Similarly, in Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy develops his own, but a different kind of survival strategy from Paul’s:

Pilgrim can not find a way to cope with the death and destruction, so he creates the “Tralfamadorians”. The Tralfamadorians are an alien species that Billy claims abduct him… With this new knowledge of time, the Tralfamadorians gave Billy the ability to become “unstuck” in time. This means that Billy is free to travel to any point in his life at any time without control.

According to the quote, it seems that Billy may be hallucinating about his experiences with the Tralfamadorians as a way to escape a world destroyed by war. He seems to know that the effects of the war would immobilize him. This highlights how deeply the war has affected Billy’s life. As the more often he tries to escape from the reality of the war, the more he feels unable to deal with it and becomes dysfunctional in the society. In brief, experiencing the horror of the war and the resulting human breakdowns, the characters become unable to function normally in society. Unable to deal with the reality in their lives, therefore developing their own survival strategies to get away from the harsh reality of the war, they become dysfunctional in the society. War leads man to the absolute destruction.

To sum up briefly, war influence absolutely ruins man. It has been found that both characters, Paul and Billy, are exposed to the horror on the battlefield, which lead them to have a shock and the destroyed innocence, as well as the changed perception of war.

Then, they undergo the human breakdowns that often result from experiencing the horror of war. Furthermore, both characters become unable to function in a normal way.


Henningfield, Diane. “An Overview of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front'”. Exploring

Novels. 1998. Literature Resource Center. Oakville Public Library, Oakville, ON. 4 May 2004 <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/LitRC?vrsn=3&OP=contains&loc


Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York, NY: The Random

House Ballantine Publishing Group, 1996.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York, NY: Dell Publishing, 1991.

Lewis, Quinn, “A critical analysis of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five'”, (publication unknown)


1 Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (New York, NY: The Random House Ballantine

Publishing Group). All further references to the text will follow this format: (Remarque,

page number).

2 Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five (New York, NY: Dell Publishing). All further references to the

book will follow this format: (Vonnegut, page number).

3 Remarque, 22

4 Quinn Lewis, “A critical analysis of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five'”, (publication unknown)


5 Vonnegut, 214

6 Remarque, 208

7 Vonnegut, 106

8 Remarque, 216

9 Remarque, 216

10 Vonnegut, 177-178

11 Quinn Lewis, “A critical analysis of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five'”, (publication unknown)


12 Remarque, 241-242

13 Vonnegut, 46

14 Remarque, 32

15 Vonnegut, 24

16 Remarque, 221

17 Remarque, 222-225

18 Vonnegut, 177-178

19 Remarque, 149

20 Vonnegut, 30

21 Vonnegut, 30

22 Remarque, 160

23 Diane Henningfield. “An Overview of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front'”. Exploring

Novels. 1998. Literature Resource Center. Oakville Public Library, Oakville, ON. 13 May 2004 <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/LitRC?vrsn=3&OP=contains&loc


24 Quinn Lewis, “A critical analysis of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five'”, (publication unknown)


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