He turns away. After a pause he says slowly: "I wanted to become a head-forester once." (2.31)
On the edge of death, having had his leg amputated, Franz Kemmerich divulges one of his greatest wishes. The fact that he tags the word "once" onto the end of the sentence makes us think that he's either given up on life or he's tossed aside his dream. The idea of forestry, of taking care of nature, forms a startling contrast to the destruction and violence of the surrounding war.
"Then you can look out from the window across the fields to the two trees on the horizon. It is the loveliest time of the year now, when the corn ripens; at evening the fields in the sunlight look like mother-of-pearl. And the lane of poplars by the Klosterbach, where we used to catch sticklebacks! You can build an aquarium again and keep fish in it, and you can go out without asking anyone, you can even play the piano if you want to." (2.41)
Paul tries to lure Kemmerich with visions of life beyond the war, all of which have something to do with nature. To us, there's something startling about the idea of an aquarium with fish in it, especially in the context of WWI. Perhaps it is simply that aquariums are so peaceful and contained, or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, with the exception of a river or two, there are no bodies of water in the world of this novel.
"In the army in peace time you've nothing to trouble about," he goes on, "your food's found everyday, or else you kick up a row; you've a bed, every week clean underwear like a perfect gent, you do your non-com.'s duty, you have a good suit of clothes; in the evening you're a free man and go off to the pub." (5.38)
What is Haie's life like at home? What alternative lifestyles does he have in peacetime? Do you think he really knows what it is like to be a non-commissioned officer in peacetime?
"By Jove yes," says Haie, his face melting, "then I'd grab some good buxom dame, some real kitchen wench with plenty to get hold of, you know, and jump straight into bed. Just you think, boys, a real feather-bed with a spring mattress; I wouldn't put trousers on again for a week." (5.26)
These men haven't been around women for months and months. Most are so young that they don't even have girlfriends or wives. Haie is, um, feeling frisky.
Detering is paring with his words. But on this subject he speaks. He looks at the sky and says only the one sentence: "I would go straight on with the harvesting." (5.50)
Can you imagine being at a place in your life where all you want to do is to go back to work? Detering's in great danger of losing his farm and home. How can a soldier endure the war with no home to dream about?
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)
The soldiers are losing their dreams and hopes, and their memories only make them sadder. But why? What are the "desires" that Paul refers to in this passage?
I think of the picture of the girl on the poster and, for a moment, believe that my life depends on winning her. And if I press ever deeper into the arms that embrace me, perhaps a miracle may happen. (7.66)
Why does that poster stir Paul so deeply? Is there any moment in the book in which Paul wants something as much as he wants to win over the woman in the poster? What does she represent to him?
Yes, the club chairs with red plush. In the evening, we used to sit in them like lords, and intended later on to let them out by the hour. One cigarette per hour. It might have turned into a regular business, a real good living. (10.66)
The paradise that Paul and his fellow soldiers create in the abandoned town fills us with both happiness and unease. It's almost too good to be true, you know? This moment in the novel feels almost like a dream, as though the men were hallucinating, and yet we can't help but breathe a sigh of relief for the soldiers who've endured much.
I am very quiet. Let the months and years come, they can bring me nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fear. The life that has born me through these years is still in my hands and eyes. Whether I have subdued it, I know not. But so long as it is there it will seek its own way out, heedless of the will that is within me. (12.10)
At this point, Paul seems to no longer have any dreams, hopes, or plans. His enemy is his own life, which, though he tries to protect it, "will seek its own way out."