On the right side of the meadow a large cannon latrine has been built, a well-planned and durable construction. But that is for the recruits who as yet have not learned how to make the most of whatever comes their way. We look for something better. Scattered about everywhere there are separate, individual boxes for the same purpose. They are square, neat boxes with wooden sides all round, and have unimpeachably satisfactory seats […] we move three together in a ring and sit down comfortably. For two hours we have been here without getting up. (1.38)
So the soldiers hang out on their mobile toilets together, out in the open. That's pretty awesome.
There were many other staff corporals, the majority of whom were more decent. But above all each of them wanted to keep his good job there at home as long as possible, and that he could do only by being strict with the recruits. (2.15)
No wonder all of the military leaders seem so unlikeable – all of the good ones, the uncorrupt ones, do everything they can to stay as far away from the Front and as close to their families as possible. The result is that the soldiers are exposed to lots of power-trippy authority figures.
It is strange to think that at home in the drawer of my writing table there lies the beginning of a play called "Saul" and a bundle of poems […] Our early life is cut off from the moment we came here, and that without our lifting a hand. We often try to look back on it and to find an explanation, but never quite succeed. (2.1)
Does Paul ever try to find an explanation for the way in which he has been cut off from his family, his home, and his youth?
O dark, musty platoon huts, with the iron bedsteads, the chequered bedding, the lockers and the stools! Even you can become the object of desire; out here you have a faint resemblance to home; your rooms, full of the smell of stale food, sleep, smoke, and clothes! (3.46)
Paul practically sings a song to the platoon huts. In the context of war, when most soldiers sleep in muddy trenches or out in the open, the prospect of a shelter with real beds is a little slice o' heaven. It's hard not to feel Paul's enthusiasm here, and he isn't the kind of guy to show emotion.
You can see what he is thinking. There is the mean little hut on the moors, the hard work on the heath from morning till night in the heat, the miserable pay, the dirty labourer's clothes. (5.37)
Haie daydreams about life as a non-commissioned officer during peacetime. The life of a peat-digger is nothing to be excited about (peat is like partially decayed vegetation). When we think about these soldiers, we imagine that they have warm and cozy lives waiting for them at home. However, this moment makes us realize that that may not be the case. Haie has to find other dreams to keep him going.
The parachute-lights shoot upwards – and I see a picture, a summer evening, I am in the cathedral cloister and look at the tall rose trees that bloom in the middle of the little cloister garden where the monks lie buried. Around the walls are the stone carvings of the Stations of the Cross. No one is there. A great quietness rules in this blossoming quadrangle, the sun lies warm on the heavy grey stones, I place my hand upon them and feel the warmth. At the right-hand corner the green cathedral spire ascends into the pale blue sky of the evening. Between the glowing columns of the cloister is the cool darkness that only churches have, and I stand there and wonder whether, when I am twenty, I shall have experienced the bewildering emotions of love (6.93)
The presence of this ancient cathedral in Paul's memory makes us think about the idea of religion in this novel. What examples of religion do we see? Are you surprised that there isn't more discussion of religion? Do the soldiers believe in a higher power? There's something very mysterious in this memory in which Paul's youth, his curiosity, and his hunger for his future all converge in a holy place in which people are respectfully buried. This memory forms such a contrast to his current context.
I breathe deeply and say over to myself: "You are at home; you are at home." But a sense of strangeness will not leave me, I can find nothing of myself in all these things. There is my mother, there is my sister, there is my case of butterflies, and there is the mahogany piano – but I am not myself there. There is a distance, a veil between us. (7.127)
Where does this veil come from? If Paul were able to spend more time at home, do you think this strangeness would ever leave him? Or do you think he will forever be lost?
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 today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had been only 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)
How would Paul define "home?" What aspects of his home are the most difficult for him to face?
Here my thoughts stop and will not go any farther. All that meets me, all that floods over me are but feelings – greed of life, love of home, yearning of the blood, intoxication of deliverance. But no aims. (12.4)
Why doesn't Paul have any aims at this point? Paul seems to continually try to suppress his feelings at witnessing the deaths of his friends and other horrors of the war, but in this moment, he tells us that "feelings" flood over him. Are these feelings that he's previously tried to suppress? How has he changed?
And men will not understand us – for the generation that grew up before us, though it has passed these years with us here, already had a home and a calling; now it will return to its old occupations, and the war will be forgotten – and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves, we will grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most will be bewildered; – the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin. (12.6)
Why will the next generation "push" Paul's generation aside? Is he referring to the way in which his generation pushed aside those older? These young men who came of age fighting in such a horrible war have no lives to return to. The war was their first real life experience – they know nothing else.