All Quiet on the Western Front: Book Review

Remarque's Modern Classic on the Horror of War

The horror of poisoned skin and flesh, mangled arms and legs, whistling shells, hopeless moans, and ubiquitous filth complemented the sterile wall between Paul Baumer and his father and mother and sister when he was on leave. The war had destroyed his youth and any hunger for sunlight, twitter and soft skin. When he turned the schoolbook pages, he realized all the texts’ fragrances sweet or pungent had fled into the misty dawn. His past had fallen away and his future withered, leaving him in a limbo of body parts, scorched earth and bomb fragments. Only when he returned to the trenches could he feel at home. But when he looked into the enemy’s eyes, he would see himself, a soldier fighting for a country that would no longer recognize him, a future that would expel him, and a new generation who could not understand him.

W.W.I. Trench

    Remarque depicted not just the horror of W.W.I but that of all wars, no matter how noble and inspiring the rhetoric. Whichever side triumphs, the soldiers on both side will lose; he will lose his youth, his innocence and his belief in human decency. All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the, if not the, greatest war novel.

Thoughts on Bram Stoker's Dracula

In Dracula, Bram Stoker, amid the rising demand for women's equality, tried to portray Mina as the new breed of woman who has "come of age." She is an assistant schoolmistress and therefore might not have to depend on a man. She could use the typewriter and therefore sought to better herself. But in the end, she subordinates herself to Harker and only seeks to support him with her skills. Her mentality confines her to be a "proper" lady in Victorian England. So, she remains the ideal for the nineteenth century man, who seeks a wife to support him in his enterprises. Furthermore, Stoker portrayed all the other female characters, Lucy and the "Brides of Dracula," as objects of sensuality. So, the spirits of the times confined Stoker's vision of women even as he sought to be more enlightened and through his novel, he reflected much of that period's cultural norms.

Vlad the Impaler

Stoker's portrayal of Dracula reflects the fear of "enlightened" Western Europe toward the "unenlightened" world. During the period just before W.W.I., Europeans were worshipping reason and science as the golden fruits of Enlightenment and they believed in the unlimited potentials of mankind. They had not experienced trench warfare, the depression, the holocaust or the atomic bomb. But the unenlightened world was mysterious and threatened to destroy European achievements. The Balkans was seething with disasters and indeed history shows it to be the spark that ignited the World War. Of course, not only the Balkans. Africa and India and China, wherever the British and the Europeans had their presence, these lands were also mysterious, their customs threatening. Western Europe must enlighten these cultures and overcome their superstitions and darkness. Dracula, the foreigner from a strange land, epitomizes the evil that lurks around enlightened Western Europe. And in killing Dracula, Dr. Van Helsing and his band was destroying the darkness that threatened centuries of Western European enlightenment.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

In reading Dracula, we begin to understand more about Bram Stoker's values and perceptions, which he might not have been aware of, and also more about the fears and anxieties in late nineteenth century Great Britain, and other Western European countries. That understanding will allow us to reflect on our fears and anxieties and access how much we have progressed a century later.

Bram Stoker

William Golding's The Lord of the Flies: Innocence Lost

Of the required readings in high school English classes, I liked The Lord of the Flies the most. Its depiction of innate evil helped me understand the nature of humanity. And though institutions can and do oppress the defenseless, the creators have designed these structures to maximize their (the creators') gains at the expense of others. So in the end, the nature of the systems reveals the nature of humanity.

William Golding in The Lord of the Flies shows how innate evil surfaces when civilization's rules and moral codes no longer suppress human impulses, a view that Freud would probably take issue. For Golding, social norms and civil laws construct rather than suppress humanity. Jack represents the beast that seeks self-gratification at the expense of others; while Piggy the reasoning that has led humankind from darkness to enlightenment. When Jack and his group destroy the conch, a symbol of law and order, and steal Piggy's glasses, a symbol of reason and science, they were asserting savagery over civilization, much like the barbarians ransacking Rome and leading Europe into the Dark Ages.

Ralph tries to maintain a semblance of civilization, but Jack lures more and more members from the group and of those who stand by him, Piggy is killed and the twins Sam and Eric are tortured until they submit. In the end, Jack has to run for his life and only when the naval office arrives, when the instruments of law and order reassert themselves, does he escape death. He could not save himself anymore than he could Piggy.

A bleak picture of humanity William Golding has painted. We would like to believe that children are innocent and that society baptizes them into evil. When children kill other children, we would like to find the parent or teacher or school or church that has corrupted them. And often enough, we do find it. But Golding reminds that there is more fundamental source of evil.

Of course, in the novel, Golding didn't consider that social norms and moral codes are also human constructs, and at times, their designers have hidden agendas. Individuals can and do exploit the legal, financial and political systems to benefit themselves. And although, unlike olden times, now the law applies to everyone, some can better protect themselves against exploits while others can sneak through loopholes. Still, The Lord of the Flies gives great insight into the human heart.

William Golding (from Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989)