The Battle Between Hope and Hopelessness
While most war novels before All Quiet on the Western Front tended to idealize war, making it seem like an honourable and glorified adventure, All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, discredits these conceptions by bringing the reader through a first-person account of what war really is like. The novel is set during World War I, amid the horrific military innovations such as chemical gas, tanks, and machine guns that made killing much easier and remote. Remarque shows how all of these horrors not only have an effect on a soldier’s physical well-being but also take a large toll on a soldier’s psychological state too. Remarque writes that “A hospital alone shows what war is” in order to show how the hospital in chapter ten serves as a microcosm of war (263). Along with the apparent suffering that “shows” what war is really like, there are much more subtle yet distinct symbols in the hospital. These symbols illustrate the dreadful feeling of hopelessness that the soldiers so often feel when fighting on the battlefront as well as the brief, yet the beautiful feeling of optimism that the soldiers so rarely feel when fighting such an emotionally devastating war. There is the self-explanatory, “dying room,” which symbolizes death and hopelessness. Then there is the cheerful Sister Libertine that symbolizes the joys of life and optimism. Instead of these symbols portraying the war as solely a physical battle, they represent the psychological battle between despair and hope.
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The curtaining sense of hopelessness and death that sweeps across all of the soldiers during a war is symbolized profoundly by the “dying room.” The “dying room,” whose function is spelled out in the name, is notorious for its hopelessness and definite fatality. Everyone in the hospital knows that if “they have put him in the dying room,” then “[they] shan’t see him again” (256). This shows how for the soldiers in the war, the chance of getting through the war seems nonexistent. Remarque proves this by exterminating every main character by the end of the novel. In the dying room, there are two beds, which represent the Allies and the Germans.
For both armies, whether it is the Germans who are fighting for the greed of one man or the allies, who are fighting to protect their countries, war holds no future for the soldiers. Peter, a young, “curly black-haired fellow” is in the hospital for a bad lung wound but when his condition worsens, the nurses come and take him to the “dying room” (254). While they are carting him out, he realizes where they are taking him and cries out, “I’m stopping here!” (258). Peter continues to protest but all the nurses do is push him back. Finally, “hoarse, agitated, he whispers: “Stopping here!”” but the nurses do not answer him and just wheel him out (258). This shows how in war, no one is able to resist the great wave of hopelessness and death no matter how hard they try. Remarque leaves the reader and the other soldiers to muse on Peter’s cries and the entire situation, with Peter and the war, seems hopeless.
Though at times, the war can seem as hopeless as the “dying room,” there is sometimes, but rarely the beautiful sense of optimism and cheerfulness that is shown by Sister Libertine. Sister Libertine, who is one of the nurses in the hospital, “spreads good cheer through the whole wing even when she can only be seen at a distance” (256). Sister Libertine symbolizes optimism and the hope that one day, the soldiers will be able to return home and restore happiness and mirth to their lives. The fact that Sister Libertine “spreads good cheer… even when she can only be seen at a distance” is a metaphor for the end of the war because even though the end of the war is not soon, the men can still see the end and are comforted by it. Sister Libertine gives the soldiers in the hospital a sense that there is still something to live for and that happiness is not that far away.
A few weeks after Peter has been carted off to the “dying room,” “the door flies open, the flat trolley rolls in, and there on the stretcher, pale thin, upright and triumphant, with his shaggy curls sits Peter” (261). That in itself shows that as hopeless as the war may seem, not all is lost. But then, to extend the metaphor further, Sister Libertine is the one who retrieves Peter from the dying room and “pushes him over to his former bed” (261). This scene creates a strong metaphor of hope and happiness “[pushing]” the soldiers out of the great abyss of hopelessness on the battlefield. This is shown when the men find all the food and liquor and for once in many years, live rather comfortably and are able to “not only stretch one’s legs, but to stretch ones soul also”(232).
The scene with the men lounging around and eating all the food they want is like an oasis in the war and because the men feel at home and this sense of being home allows them to “stretch [their] soul also” and have elated spirits. This sense of hope is also shown when Detering is reminded of the joyfulness of home when he sees a cherry tree. He is walking back from the front when “marvellous in the morning twilight, stood this cherry tree before [him]” (275). Seeing the “white mass of blossom” triggers a sense of happiness and solace in Detering, and, as if he comes out of an “overheated boiler” of hopelessness, he attempts to run home (275, 277). This experience shows that when the soldiers are so deep in hopelessness, all it takes is a little thing to remind them of happiness and they come back to their senses.
World War I was both a physically and psychologically devastating and gruesome war. The nature of trench warfare, with bullets whizzing past soldiers’ heads and bombs ripping comrades apart, is enough to make a soldier so hopeless that they question the reason for their existence. However, when the soldiers witness even small reminders that give them a sense of hope, they are resurrected from the sense of hopelessness. In essence, we all search for a sense of optimism, a feeling of comfort, which Paul only finds in death.
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