The Effect of the First Person Narrative in the "All Quiet on the Western Front" Novel
Authors make many deliberate decisions when approaching a literary work, including narrative point of view. In a novel format, the author can choose either a first-person, third-person limited, or third-person omniscient narration. In his classic anti-war novel “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Erich Maria Remarque chooses a first-person narrative approach that accomplishes very specific effects.
By choosing a first person-narrative, Remarque puts the reader closer to the story. It "feels" as though the protagonist, Paul Baumer, is speaking directly to the reader. Except for the few instances when Baumer refers to his squad as "we," the reader is specifically reading Baumer’s thoughts, fears, dreams and disillusionment with his involvement in the war. This feeling of closeness is intensified when Baumer tells of his past, making the reader aware of his sensitivity and innate goodness.
At the same time the novel maintains a sense of narrative closeness, first-person narration also illustrates Baumer’s alienation from the settings and events. The reader receives information through his viewpoint and so is removed from specific thoughts and feelings of other characters. The reader can empathize with Baumer’s feelings of alienation and isolation, particularly when he returns home on leave and can no longer relate to family or community because of his war experiences.
Plot Pace and Mobility
The first-person narration also contributes to the pace and mobility of the story. By focusing on Paul Baumer, Remarque can easily slow or quicken the story’s pace without having to jump to other characters for their thoughts or feelings, which could risk extending the reader’s narrative distance. This single character focus adds to the mobility of the story, allowing the setting to easily change without the logistical complications that including other characters could entail.
First-person narrators rarely die in a story that doesn’t involve the supernatural. It’s awkward for writers to reconcile that type of ending with the narration. Although readers may not consciously realize this implicit understanding, most are at least instinctively aware of it.
Baumer’s narration ends with his reflecting on “… the months and years to come” giving the reader hope that he will somehow survive the horrors of World War I. However, on the last page the reader encounters a sudden switch to a third-person narration of two short paragraphs explaining that Paul Baumer has been killed. Although some may disagree, many feel the ending is stronger and has more emotional impact because of the sudden narrative shift.
William Martin has earned degrees in English/language arts and education. His background includes teaching reading and writing, literature analysis, arts and culture, outdoor recreation, home repair and improvement. His first short story was published as a junior in high school; more years ago than he'd probably care to admit.