Chapter 7 Summary:
Second Company is taken to a field depot for reinforcements, and the men are given some time off. Himmelstoss wants to make amends with the boys, and Paul is willing to forgive him, since Himmelstoss helped Haie when he was hit in the back. Even Tjaden comes around when Himmelstoss becomes the new sergeant-cook and treats the men to delicacies. Paul reflects on habit and how it seems to obliterate memory; with food and rest, the days at the front hardly exist in their minds. At rest, the men turn into "loafers" out of necessity. Otherwise, they would have to confront the huge numbers of dead and wounded among them. The same goes for their sense of humor--without it, they would "go to pieces." Paul also knows that the things they try to forget now will haunt them after the war.
Paul and Kropp stare at an attractive girl on an old poster for an army theater performance. They rip out the picture of the man next to her. Comparing her clean appearance with their dirty clothes, they go off to get deloused. Leer and Tjaden look at the picture in far more "smutty" ways. Across the canal from the men's lodging are women. One night while swimming nude, they see three French women across the bank. The men flirt with them and tempt them with a loaf of bread, but it is forbidden to cross to the other side. The men swim down the bank as the women walk, and eventually they point out their house. They make plans to meet there at night when there are no guards, and promise to bring bread.
At night, the men get drunk and tell tall sexual tales. Since there are only three women for the four of them, they get Tjaden drunk enough so he passes out. With a loaf of bread, cigarettes, and some sausage stowed in their boots, they swim across the canal and run to the women's house. The women give them dry clothes and the men give them their gifts. The men do not understand most of their rapid French chatter. One of the women, a little brunette, takes a liking to Paul. He loses himself in her passion, hoping she will deliver him from "war and terror and grossness, in order to awaken young and happy." After a while, the men reassemble; Paul is unhappy, unlike the jovial Leer. On their way back, they spot Tjaden, naked, running off with a package to find the women. The men laugh and arrive home.
Paul receives seventeen days' leave, after which he is to report to a training camp away from the front for four more weeks. As Paul buys the men drinks at the canteen, he wonders if he will see them all again--Haie has died by now, too. At night, they return to the women's house. Paul tells her he will never see her again, but she is nonchalant; it occurs to him that his going on leave does not excite her in any way.
The next morning, Paul's friends see him off on his train. He rides through the countryside and cities, absorbing the landscape and the street life. He is deeply affected by all he sees. He arrives in his hometown, passes familiar terrain and landmarks, and goes to his home. His eldest sister, Erna, happily greets him, but when she calls out for their mother, Paul feels weak and almost paralyzed. He recuperates and goes to his mother's room, where she lies in bed, ill. She is more affectionate with him than normal. He downplays the brutality of war to her. Paul learns from Erna that the doctors think their mother probably has cancer again.
Paul reports to the district commandant. A major reprimands him for not saluting properly. In a bad mood, Paul later puts on his civilian clothes, which no longer fit.
His mother likes seeing him in them, but his father prefers he kept his uniform on. His father also barrages him with questions about the front; Paul gives him only a few anecdotes and refuses to talk about violence. Paul finds that others he meets have unrealistic expectations and ideas about war; at any rate, he feels he does not belong in this "foreign world." He spends much time alone; even if others understand him, it is "only with words," only with "half of themselves." He examines the books in his old room and attempts to think back on his youth, but nothing comes--he is only a soldier.
Mittelstaedt, a former classmate of Paul's in nearby barracks, tells him that Kantorek has been called into the war in a low rank. Mittlestaedt tells Paul how he lords his authority over their former teacher. He takes him to the parade ground. Paul almost laughs when he sees Kantorek decked out in ill-fitting military uniform. Mittlestaedt torments Kantorek in the exercises, even quoting patriotic words Kantorek himself used to preach.
Paul's mother sorrowfully counts down the days of his leave. Paul sees Kemmerich's mother and lies that Kemmerich died immediately, and swears to it when she doubts his story. She kisses him when he leaves and gives him a picture of her son.
On Paul's last night, his mother gives him advice about how to handle the war that he finds both absurd and moving. She gives him two pairs of wool underpants that he knows cost her dearly. In bed, Paul regrets having come home; before this, he was indifferent and hopeless, but now both he and his mother are in agony.
The sexual liaison across the canal at first appears to be a picaresque adventure of the kind frequently found in war stories; lusty young soldiers skirt authority while meeting up with exotic local women. But from the start, it seems doomed for failure. First, sex to the men cannot be a regular experience; war has made sure of that. Instead of getting new clothes to "compete" for the woman in the poster, they have to settle for a delousing.
Moreover, the women are French and, technically, their enemies. This immediate confusion (which does not seem to bother any of them at all) bleeds into an even greater ambiguity: the fusion of love and war. Love and war are frequently starkly contrasted in literature: love produces birth and other emotions of re-birth, while war produces death and its attendant mortal emotions. Paul hopes to separate love and war--he wants the brunette to deliver him from "war and terror and grossness, in order to awaken young and happy." However, the brunette is interested in Paul only if death is around the corner for him. When she learns he is going off on leave, he is no longer a "'pauvre garçon'" ("poor boy"), but simply another man. She is sold on the romantic notion of war, and love for her is possible only if Paul is an idealized, heroic soldier.
Paul doesn't want to put his war experiences into words, afraid they will become "gigantic" and out of his control. In Chapter Six he posited that words could never match the horrors of war, and here he repeats the idea, feeling that civilians half-understand him "only with words." But he also seems to imply that his own words might, in fact, do some justice to the experience and make war too "clear." He also says, of his painful meeting with Kemmerich's mother, that he "cannot write that down" (although he does relate their conversation). Paul is afraid of understanding his experiences too deeply; he would rather they drift just below the surface of his consciousness, never popping up in fully realized language.
But the terror will pop up, in some form. Paul says that the men's laziness and habits while on rest are ways to ignore and forget the death around them. However, "We forget nothing really." No matter how hard they suppress it, death will always have a foothold in the men's minds--and Paul fears, especially, the post-war shell shock, the uprising of the death that they have buried in the ground and in their minds.
Indeed, we see this shell shock emerge far more quickly for Paul, but in a different form. Though the war does not haunt Paul when he is at home, he feels distanced from home life, emphasized by the civilian clothes he has out grown. He cannot relate to any civilians, most of all his family. His dealing with Kemmerich's mother is a more pronounced version of how he relates to his own mother; he protects her from the painful truth. Paul's mother, however, sees through him more clearly. She understands she may never see her son again. The irony, though, is that it may be from her death from cancer, not his from war.
Remarque, one must assume, also felt he could not relate to civilians or put his experiences into words. Nevertheless, at some point he decided that the war was either too important to ignore in writing, and that civilians might understand more than "half" of what soldiers feel. Perhaps, too, he felt that writing was the only way for him to confront and, possibly, master the terrible experiences.
Finally, it may come as a shock to most readers to learn that Haie has died. Paul mentions it in rather off-handed fashion; unlike Kemmerich's drawn-out deathbed scene, Haie's death does not even take place during the narrative. Remarque reflects the cold reality that, in war, the death of a close friend is not always accompanied by the melodrama we are used to seeing in movies. Death is such a common occurrence that Paul barely thinks about Haie's death; as we have seen before, thinking too deeply about it would be too painful to bear.
Chapter 8 Summary:
Paul has previously been to the camp on the moors for training, but he hardly knows anyone there now. He settles into a routine: he plays piano at night, spends little time socializing, and absorbs himself in nature. A Russian prison camp is adjacent to theirs. Paul observes the enemy prisoners' "honest peasant" faces as they feebly search and grovel for food. Most of the Germans ignore them, though sometimes the prisoners' groveling angers them and they kick them. The prisoners also trade their superior boots for food, although now most have few possessions left to barter.
Paul frequently guards the Russians, watching them mass around the fence in near-silence. They are less lively than they used to be. Paul feels that if he knew them better, his emotions might turn into sympathy for them. He understands that powerful men in politics have decided that the Russians are their enemy, yet he feels that one can find greater enemies even within Germany. Paul is frightened of these thoughts, yet he knows within them lies the "only possibility of existence after this annihilation of all human feeling." He gives the Russians some cigarettes. One morning Paul stands guard as the Russians sing and bury yet another of their own. A prisoner who speaks some German plays a melancholy violin for Paul and the other prisoners.
Before Paul leaves for the front, his father and eldest sister visit him. He learns his mother is in the hospital, and she will soon undergo an operation for cancer. The family has little money for the operation, and his father will work overtime. They give Paul some jam and potato-cakes before they leave. Not liking the cakes, he decides to give them to the Russians, then realizes his mother went to great pains to cook them, and gives them only a couple.
Again, what looks like cruelty in the war (the Germans kicking the Russian prisoners) is simply a reaction to their anguish. The Germans cannot bear seeing such pathetic displays of humanity.
Similarly, Paul cannot muster true sympathy for the Russians because he sees in them only "the suffering of the creature, the awful melancholy of life and the pitilessness of men." He does not know the Russians beyond these generalities; as he says, "How little we understand each other." Such an understanding seems impossible under these conditions of scarcity, when each side wants to take advantage of the other for such bare necessities as boots and bread.
But Paul also recognizes that politics alone make the Russians his enemy: "A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends." Paul's anti-nationalist thoughts are as explicit as they have been: he is not angry, necessarily, but logical and rational in his conclusion that powerful men have made these simple peasants enemies. Perhaps it is his calmness of thought that frightens him, since it is hard, nearly irrefutable proof that his country has betrayed him. He knows that he cannot afford to dwell on these thoughts now, but will think about them after the war; it is all that "will make life afterward worthy of these hideous years."
It is a great irony of the novel that such nationalism has transformed Paul into a humanist who can overlook boundaries of state and culture. Whereas the other soldiers exploit the Russians with trade, Paul's transactions are not material or greedy. He gives them the potato-cakes generously and, more importantly, he shares in their culture, watching their burial service and listening to the violinist. These scenes demonstrate a shared humanity that the war cannot divide, and are among the few times that Paul allows himself to feel.
The subplot of Paul's mother continues to weigh on his mind. He understands that while his family has not seen the brutality he has endured, they are going through a similar torture and making sacrifices, as well. Though he is still wary of allowing his emotions to take over, his gift of the potato-cakes to the prisoners is his way of paying tribute to his mother. If he cannot connect directly with her, at least he can be a conduit of sorts, uniting his sickly mother with the sickly Russians.
Chapter 9 Summary:
Paul returns to his company and gives his potato-cakes and jam to Tjaden, Müller, Kat, and Kropp. The men go through rigorous inspections and receive new equipment to prepare the arrival of the Kaiser. When he arrives, they line up for his approval. He is a less intimidating figure than Paul had imagined. After, the men discuss the emperor and nationalism; Kropp wonders if both sides can possibly be "in the right," and Tjaden is curious as to how a war gets started and what its purpose is. They soon end their debate. The soldiers have to return their new equipment from the inspections, as well.
The company returns to the front. Trench mortars have blasted huge craters. Dead men hang from trees, and body parts are strewn everywhere. They report it to the next stretcher-bearers' post.
Paul volunteers to go on a patrol to find out how strong the enemy is. The volunteers crawl under a wire and separate; Paul crawls into a shell-hole. Paul worries more than usual when he thinks a bomb has fallen nearby; images of his mother, the Russians, and other scenes whirl in his head as he sweats out of fear. He battles between the conflicting desires to move away and to stay in the hollow. He crawls halfway out and hears German voices behind him. He is reassured and feels less lonely; they are his "comrades" and are "nearer than lovers."
Paul crawls back, but he gets lost. A bombardment begins and he crawls into a water-filled hole. He pretends to be dead under the muddy water, and holds his knife in case someone comes. The Germans fire back and soon repel the enemy. As Paul hears footsteps around his hole, a body falls in. Paul strikes at the body, and the man convulses and becomes limp. When he gurgles, Paul viciously wants to quiet him by stabbing him and stuffing his mouth with earth, but he soon regains control. Paul wants to leave, but the machine-gunfire makes that impossible. He waits with the gurgling body.
By morning, Paul looks at the man in the hole with him. Paul tries to convince himself the man is dead, but the body moves slightly and opens its eyes at Paul in fear. Paul strokes the man's forehead and scoops up some muddy water for him to drink. Paul cuts the man's shirt with his knife and bandages him. By noon the man is still dying, and Paul is starving. This is the first time Paul has killed a man in hand-to-hand combat, and he suffers along with the dying man. Finally, he dies in the afternoon. Paul props him up and wonders about the man's wife. He thinks about fate; if Paul had crawled back to his trench correctly, the man would still be alive.
Paul speaks to the dead man, apologizing for and justifying his actions, asking for forgiveness. He promises to write his wife, and he finds his wallet in the man's tunic. Inside are small photos of a woman and a little girl and letters in French. Paul knows he will not send them a letter, but he vows to live for the sake of the man and his family. He locates the man's name (Gérard Duval), profession (compositor, or printer), and address, and writes them down.
As night draws near, Paul stops thinking about the dead man. He crawls toward his trench and is welcomed back by his friends. He tells the story, but omits the man he killed. The next morning, he tells them, and they reassure him that it was his only choice. They watch a sniper shoot enemies and celebrate his accuracy.
The men exercise simple logic in their debate about the war: what is this war for, and who benefits from it? World War I was one of the murkier large-scale wars, instigated by land disputes and a number of complicated treaties. Accordingly, it is much harder, even in hindsight, to discern which side was "in the right"; unlike World War II, with its relatively clear moral divisions, the Great War defied obvious comprehension and analysis. In the face of this confusing battle, the soldiers use common sense; there is no primary reason for the war, and no one particularly benefits.
Paul's leave has softened him in this chapter. He is no longer a soldier who unthinkingly prepares to die, but is torn between giving his life up for his fellow soldiers and protecting himself. However, the bond between soldiers is too great, and Paul feels more of an attachment to them than he does to anyone else.
This attachment again transcends national boundaries, as one might expect in an episode that largely takes place in no-man's-land, that unoccupied space between each enemy trench. His compassion for the dying Frenchman is greater than that for the Russian prisoners, and approaches an almost pathological level. Paul believes his life is intertwined with the Frenchman's, and he even vows, at one point, to become a printer as well. Ironically, Paul reacts more strongly here than he did with his mother as she lay dying at home. Perhaps it is because Paul has directly killed this man, but maybe this situation awakens dormant feelings he held toward his mother that he could not express.
Paul also thinks about fate and chance again, considering the possibilities that might have allowed the Frenchman to live. But just as the origins of the war are impossible to untangle, he recognizes it is useless to retrace steps in battle; war makes the choices, not men.