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Paul is the guy. This is his book, his story, and his journey. He's the protagonist and, until the last paragraph, the narrator.
Paul isn't a famous war hero. He's not a high-ranking, superstar officer. Instead, he's just a regular Joe with a family at home and an unfinished play sitting on his bedside table. He likes to drink beer and think about girls—he's been to school and he likes to read , but he's too young to have had any major life experiences before enlisting in the war. He's your typical teenage boy—excited for his future, but still naïve to certain things in life.
That is, until the war changes everything and makes him an expert in death.
Paul is both a complex character of depth and sensitivity and a regular guy who's able to kick back with the boys, chug some brews, and dream about peacetime. Paul is set apart from the others in simply wanting to tell his story. His observations are told from a private, gentle, life-loving place in his heart, a place assaulted by almost everything in his surroundings. The reader follows Paul's transition from new soldier, just trying to live another day, to an empowered judge of character and a force for kindness in a world engulfed by brutality.
Ironically, in order survive such a gruesome war, Paul has to disconnect his artistic and poetic inner self from his outer, gun-toting, animalistic self. We detect his need to suppress emotion in his storytelling—for example, instead of writing diary entry after diary entry about how sad he is to lose Albert Kropp, he simply tells us that he had to leave his friend, and that's that:
Parting from my friend Albert Kropp was very hard. But a man gets used to that sort of thing in the army. (10.236)
Paul fights battles, plays pranks, gets injured, goes home, makes friends, loses loved ones, leads men, and eventually dies a death that is painted as relief. This counter-punch is all the more poignant when Paul is presented as such a kind, sweet Everyman—the kind of person this war should've sought to preserve. The fact that Paul appears relieved to be done with life is a deep criticism of the war as a whole: because of Paul's need to kill the soft, kind, inner self in order to continue to survive, Paul is spiritually dead before he has physically died.
This is underscored in the epigraph to the book:
This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.
(Check out "What's Up with the Epigraph?" for more details on how this relates to Paul's story at large.)
Paul in many ways is his buddies; he is a reflection of them. They are all examples of "good young men" who are just trying to follow their morals and ideals and do what is right with the talents they've been given. There is essentially never any conflict among the friends; they behave as almost one unified body.
We could argue that Paul's friends are his reason for living. When he goes on leave, his home life is alienating. He feels detached from his hometown and wants to be back with the members of Troop 9, where he belongs:
I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and to-day. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had only been in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here any more, it is a foreign world. (7.173)
And, by the end of the novel, Paul is the only one among his circle of friends still living—he has watched nearly all of them (Kemmerich, Müller, Kropp, Kat, Bertinck) disappear. Each death affects him in a different way, tearing something of his humanity away from him. By the time all of his friends have died, Paul doesn't have much left to live for.
Paul appears early on as a kind of mama's boy—he's completely devoted to her, and when he's near her, he crumbles emotionally. He is reminded of how much she's sacrificed just so that he might live a full and healthy life. But his mom's sick with cancer, so Paul can't seem to escape the reach of death, even when on leave at home. Home, to him, brings just as much heartbreak as the front lines do. Paul prays to his mother in some form along the way, almost crying out for her help as he feels himself emotionally changed from naïve boy into hardened soldier. Her sickness indicates to him that there's no peace for him on earth.
And Daddy Dearest isn't a whole lot of help. Paul's dad is painted as being kind of a dud: insensitive, clueless, and uncaring. His core focus is showing off Paul to his friends so that Paul can tell glamorous battlefield stories for their entertainment. In Paul's mind, the retelling of such horrible tales lessens the honor of the men who died, making them objects, so Paul recoils from this task. He appears to simply tolerate his father.
Luckily, Kat steps in as a kind of adoptive father for Paul. He's his Yoda, his coach, his Hagrid. Kat demonstrates all of the things Paul's father doesn't; Kat's not concerned with his image, he's capable, and he's caring. And Kat is a leader, helping Paul learn how to cope with the war. Paul learns small lessons from Kat throughout the novel (like how to catch and cook a goose or a suckling pig), and in many ways he learns to maintain a sense of humor thanks to his father-figure friend.
Paul would walk through fire for Kat, and, perhaps, the greatest tragedy of the novel arrives when he does just that: when Kat is wounded one summer day, Paul binds his wound and then carries him though the storm of gunfire to the nearest makeshift hospital. Paul puts his own life on the line so that he might save the life of his closest friend. When he realizes that a shrapnel splinter has hit the back of Kat's head and that Kat has died, Paul is devastated. Not long after this incident Paul dies. Kat is among the last of Paul's friends to be killed, and so, without him, Paul shuffles off his mortal coil.
Paul has a demurring, un-vengeful way of thinking about clueless authority figures who make his life miserable: Kantorek, Himmelstoss, and the major he runs into in his village who makes him salute and march.
Paul treats all of them with a passive-aggressive respect, just enough respect to get past them and move on. Paul doesn't aspire to being authority; he is painted as a passive human being, with few goals other than "animalistically" surviving another day.
Paul learns early on that he is part of a ruined generation, a lost generation. As a young man in his late teens, he begins the war with lots to live for. All he knows are his schoolbooks, his family, his hometown, and his love of writing. He still has a lot to learn and see of the world. War scares that desire and hunger for knowledge away.
As a soldier Paul learns how to kill and, more importantly, how not to be killed. While he might have once wanted to grow up to be a writer, to date lots of girls, or to travel the world, these dreams have been essentially buried:
Their stillness is the reason why these memories of former times do not awaken desire so much as the sorrow – a strange, inapprehensible melancholy. Once we had such desires – but they return not. They are past, they belong to another world that is gone from us. (6.100)
Paul doesn't tells us about his hopes and plans – though the fact that he writes this account of his experiences might indicate that he hopes to be a writer or to uncover the realities of the war, realities of which were downplayed by German politicians and newspapers.
Still, Paul is a visionary. Not only is he able to understand how unjust the circumstances of this war are, but he's able to do something about those injustices: he's able to communicate them to an audience. One thing is for certain, however, by the time the novel ends, Paul has learned that the war has robbed him of his future. He dies soon after this realization hits.