Where It All Goes Down
The Western Front during World War I
It would be hard to conceive of a more bleak and miserable existence than that of a soldier on the front lines of a brutal early 20th-century-style war, fighting for the losing team. The setting in All Quiet on the Western Front is almost entirely in and around the battlefield of the war. For our hero and narrator, Paul, almost nothing else exists.
Paul and his compatriots move back and forth from camps to the front lines. The camps often involve a good deal more of comfort and ease, though the sounds of war are always prevalent. In these camps the soldiers form rituals, such as placing their wooden toilet-boxes in a circle out in the open air so that they might chat away while taking care of other business. For Paul and his friends, time spent in the camps usually means finding and stealing some geese to roast or playing cards or chatting about the meaninglessness of this war.
Trench life is abysmal. The constant pounding of bombs can last for days, thundering in the soldiers' ears. Crusty, moldy bread forms the only source of nutrition, and water is scarce. It is not uncommon for soldiers to go mad, confined to these tiny dugouts while all hell breaks loose above them. And then there are the rats. Oh the rats. Brazen, starving rats who will crawl on your face at night in the hopes of gnawing on a piece of molding bread that you are hiding in your pillow for breakfast. Sometimes, the rats get so hungry that they attack the trenches by the hundreds. The soldiers have to kill them, just as they have to kill the enemy soldiers. Trench life is blood and mud and noise, assaulting all five senses.
Paul's home is heaven compared to trench life. He visits home on leave and is sent home to convalesce. His old bedroom is quiet, soft, warm, personal, and comforting. There, he finds a comfortable bed with real bedding, books the likes of which he hasn't seen in months, food (rationed though it may be), and quiet. However, Paul now feels out of place at home and grows to miss his "family" of soldiers, even in spite of the amenities and comforts and beer of his hometown.
We also get to explore a number of hospital settings in this novel. Each time we are excited for our protagonist to finally reach a safe place, and each time we are disappointed by what he finds in these hospitals. They are not safe, welcoming, or warm operations. Whether it's a make-shift hospital near the front lines, a spotless train-hospital staffed by Red Cross nurses, or a fancy Catholic hospital, Paul finds similar things in each: incompetent nurses, unfeeling orderlies, greedy attendants, and surgeons with odd fetishes. Even the process of recovery becomes a dangerous game one has to play, and everyone must look out for himself.
The most peaceful and vibrant setting is a makeshift home that Paul and his friends fashion out of a basement in an abandoned town. They are sent to guard a supply dump, and they are able to live off of the supplies they find. They pull luxurious bedding and furniture from the empty houses in town and create a tiny but opulent paradise in their basement. They cook a feast of suckling pig, carrots, peas, cauliflower, and potato cakes; they drink cognac, rum, and coffee; and they smokes cigars and cigarettes. They tease one another and live in great comfort for a little while. This basement is the closest thing to a paradise or to a dream realized that the soldiers find. Here, they are far from enemy lines, and they have the one thing that they love the most (food) in abundance. Do you think this "paradise" is really a paradise, or is there something a little strange about it? Would you consider this particular setting to be peaceful?