Irony in All Quiet on the Western Front

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

Irony in literature can often serve to illustrate something beyond the story itself. This lesson focuses on irony in ''All Quiet on the Western Front,'' and the authors intentions for using irony as a literary device.

All Quiet on the Western Front

Even though you're not always aware of it, you probably encounter ironic situations every day. Irony is when what actually happens is the opposite of what you were expecting to happen. Take the image below, for example. The sign says 'No smoking on the premises,' so you would expect there to be no smoking. Yet the bucket below the sign is full of cigarette butts.

This picture is an illustration of irony
Irony picture by Justin Henry

Irony is also commonly used as a literary device, and in some cases is used to illustrate something beyond the novel itself. One example of this is in Erich Maria Remarque's novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. Here, irony is used to show the larger ironies of World War I, and the issues faced by the soldiers that fought in it.

The Graveyard

One place we see irony in the novel is during the narrator's time on the front line. At one point, his company is being bombarded, and the only shelter near them is a graveyard. The narrator comments on this after the shelling is over: 'The graveyard is a mass of wreckage. Coffins and corpses lie strewn about. They have been killed once again; but each of them that was flung up saved one of us.'

This situation is ironic because a graveyard is a place of death, yet the cover of the graves saves the lives of many of the soldiers. This sort of life-and-death juxtaposition (where the two are placed side by side) is not uncommon in war novels, and Remarque uses the irony of the situation to illustrate this.

Returning Home

Given the horrors that the men face out on the front lines, you would expect that they are constantly homesick and thinking about returning home. Ironically, the narrator tells us that this is not the case at all. He says, '...these memories of former times do not awaken desire so much as sorrow--a vast, inapprehensible melancholy. Once we had such desires--but they return not. They are past, they belong to another world that is gone from us.' This again shows the effect the war had on the soldiers in it.

When Paul, the narrator, eventually goes home on leave, we see even more evidence of this effect. He is home for 14 days, and you'd expect after being gone for so long that he would be happy and content just to spend time with his family. However, even though he is with his family in the house and town where he grew up, he doesn't feel comfortable there. He tells us, 'But a sense of strangeness will not leave me, I cannot feel at home amongst these things. There is my mother, there is my sister, there my case of butterflies, and there the mahogany piano--but I am not myself there. There is a distance, a veil between us.'

Remarque is once again using irony to show us the effect of war upon the soldiers. After all he has been through, the narrator doesn't know who he is anymore. He is so different from when he left that he can't feel at ease among his family in his hometown rather than on the front line.

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