Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
If you're looking for a task that will take you, oh, all week to complete, count how many times the word "quiet" appears in this novel. We didn't have that much time on our hands, but we'll just say that this wonderful word appears a lot. We think this adjective is a pretty big deal because there is so little quiet in this novel. To be plain, Paul's world is a noisy world. And not just the noise of people yelling or airplanes zooming by, but the noise of people dying, of bombs exploding, of shells descending. The soldiers must develop excellent listening skills if they want to survive. They learn to interpret sounds as though they were words of another language.
Paul, our narrator, dies on a quiet day, when not much is going on in terms of war stuff. He endures the noise, and falls on a day when it would be easy to survive. One could say that the quiet kills him, or one could say that he chooses to die surrounded by quiet. The adjective "quiet" is used to describe lots of different things in this novel, but it is almost always associated with peace and calm and with all things that the war is not. Take a look at a few examples of "quiet":
- We see "quiet" is used to describe the enemy. Paul says of the French soldiers across the battleground, "But who can draw such a distinction when he looks at these quiet men with their childlike faces and apostles' beards" (8.22). In Paul's mind, even the enemy wants a similar kind of quiet.
- "Quiet" is used to describe that which Paul longs for: "I feel excited; but I do not want to be, for that is not right. I want that quiet rapture again. I want to feel the same powerful, nameless urge that I used to feel when I turned to my books" (7.183). Reading involves being in one's head and filling it with thoughts. Paul perhaps cannot poke around too much in his mind for fear of what he might find there, especially in light of all he has witnessed. Quiet in this moment seems associated with innocence.
- "Quiet" is also used to describe Paul's definition of the meaning of life: "I often sit with one of them in the little beer-garden and try to explain to him that this is really the only thing: just to sit quietly, like this" (7.175). Even with only twenty years under his belt, Paul doesn't have any fancy dreams, hopes, or wishes. He learns that life is about being quiet and about appreciating its simplicity.
"Quiet" is often used in this novel to juxtapose the sounds of peacetime and war. Paul describes the quiet of his memories:
They are quiet in this way, because quietness is so unattainable for us now. At the front there is no quietness and the curse of the front reaches so far that we never pass beyond it. Even in the remote depots and rest-areas the droning and the muffled noise of shelling is always in our ears. We are never so far off that it is no more to be heard. (7.99)
Once he joins the war, Paul's life becomes an endless stream of sound.