“Words, Words, Words—they do not reach me.”

Paul says this about the books on his shelf at home (173), buttttt I am really excited to track it as a major theme throughout the book. The inadequacy of language is something we continuously see Paul struggle with, on the front and at home. At the front: “Attack, counter-attack, charge, repulse — these are words, but what things they signify!” (129). And “Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand grenades — words words, but they hold the horror of the world” (132).

At home, though, this struggle is emphasized. We can see clearly that Paul is split between these two worlds—the western front and the home (or lack thereof) front. I know we talked at length about this in class, but I wanted to bring it to the blog. To me, It was one of the most compelling sections in this week’s reading. When Paul’s mother is saying goodnight to him, there is a clear division between what Paul wishes he could say and what he actually says. All of it is terrible and heartbreaking and so sad I am once again nauseous reading it, but to just pull one example, take this exchange: “‘And be very careful at the front, Paul.’ Ah, Mother! Mother! Why do I not take you in my arms and die with you. What poor wretches we are! ‘Yes Mother, I will’” (183).

UGHHHHHHHHH

In the 12:30 class, we used this passage to start to generate a list of ways Paul is split, or broken in two. We have: parent (specifically mother) Paul vs. child Paul, maternal vs. violent Paul, and broken vs. performative Paul. Maternal in the sense of pretty consistently thinking of others and caring for them before himself. And performative meaning that Paul performs this calmness as a way to protect himself and those he loves from the broken madness he really feels.

I’m wondering (hoping, PLEASE) if anyone wants to add to/expand on this list of Broken (to use Bonnie’s word) Paul. How else is he broken? What are other ways we can map this conflict in Paul? and bonus: how does language complicate these divisions?

12 thoughts on ““Words, Words, Words—they do not reach me.”

  1. As ever, Carleigh, we are on the same exact wavelength – “Words, Words, Words –– they do not reach me,” jumped out at me instantly in last week’s reading, and has been following me around for the rest of time. I think the inadequacy of language is such a visible theme in the literary history that follows World War One that it’s a very obvious temptation (for me) to look for it here, but nonetheless a fruitful one. I found myself thinking of the scene with the books in a sort of literary-historical way – these are the books that have shaped Paul, but there’s a disconnect now between the world their words described, and the world and words he has right now. Language fails Paul, of course, on the doorstep of his house. But I also want to draw attention to just how often Paul finds himself capable of articulatory storytelling… most often when he is lying, or at least creating some kind of misdirection. And there’s a lot of lying the war teaches Paul to do – lying to Frantz about his chances of recovery, to Frantz’s mother (while swearing on his life) about his death, the targeted half-truths you tell to authority figures, the few carefully selected stories he tells to his father when his parents visit him in the camp.

    Is language adequate when it adequately expresses a lie? Even a useful one? And even more visibly – Paul lies to a variety of people, withholds the truth from others, but he doesn’t withhold it from us, the audience. I don’t mean to assign false optimism to an undeniably bleak book, but I do wonder if there’s a sort of storytelling power in that, if the implicit trust between Paul and the audience created by the “we” pronoun extends to the fact that just so much of the war is articulated to us through his words? To perhaps excessively (and perhaps not) question a very basic convention of the novel, whom is Paul telling the story to? When? How? And regardless of the answers to these questions, given the contents of the book, isn’t it sort of miraculous that he’s managing to tell it?

  2. This is a great post to tie in with the most recent section we read, Carliegh! There are quite a few instances when Paul bounces between being his more maternal self, and the soldier he’s supposed to be. The biggest one that comes to mind is when Paul is hiding out from the shells in Chapter Nine. Once it appears the attack has stopped, and Paul is left lying with a dying man. At first he moves away from him, acting as the soldier he’s meant to be, but once he realizes that the man might be dying, he wants to do everything he can to help him, and even calls him “Comrade” a few times “to make him understand,” (220). And once the man dies, Paul feels intense remorse, and promises to write to the man’s wife and child. What makes this most interesting to me was that the man was French. Paul had no obligation to help him, and if he was just going to be a soldier, he may not have, but the maternal side of him very clearly took precedence here, and he did his best to comfort the man until the end. The line that stands out to me the most in all of this, however, is “I would give much if he would but stay alive” on page 221. It’s such a heartbreaking line, and to know that Paul feels it toward someone on the opposite side shows his two different sides, the broken parts of Paul.

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