Paul Bäumer, the narrator and protagonist in All Quiet on the Western Front, is a character who develops extensively within the course of the novel. As a young man, he is persuaded to join the German Army during World War I. This three year ordeal is marked by Paul’s short, but tragic trek into adulthood as he learns to cope with the trials and tribulations of war. In the wake of a struggle which claims millions, Paul loses his precious innocence as he is further isolated from society and engulfed by bloodshed. Paul’s evolution throughout the novel is a result of his having to adapt in order to survive.
Paul’s experiences in combat shatter his former misconceptions of war; consequently, he gains the ability to reflect on events with his own accord. His naive ideas are severely challenged when he first witnesses the ugly truth of war. “The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces”(13). Paul’s first engagement in combat reveals that everything he was taught as a young recruit are lies; consequently, he can now form his own conclusions. Through the ongoing course of the war, Paul comes to grips with the reality of the situation. “They are strong and our desire is strong-but they are unattainable, and we know it”(121). Paul realizes that the soldiers former lives are all but distant memories. His maturing personality gives him the insight to see past the facade of war and expose it for what it truly is.
Paul loses his innocence and childhood during the war; as a result, he becomes a man. When Paul and his companions encounter some French women, they exchange food for sexual intercourse. “We unwrap our parcels and hand them over to the women. Their eyes shine, it is obvious they are hungry”(148). Through this transaction, Paul uses the women as an outlet for his sexual urges. Shortly after this rendezvous, Paul receives a leave of absence; however, he finds it difficult to leave the war behind. “Speak to me – take me up – take me, Life of my Youth – you who are care-free, beautiful – receive me again – “(172). Paul can no longer conjure up the feelings of happiness which accompanied his youth, in essence his childhood is lost. The war has stripped Paul of his innocence and taken away everything that he treasured.
The war has immersed Paul completely and he can no longer survive without it as it becomes the focus of his entire life. When Paul is still on leave, he feels alienated from society. “I find I do not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world”(168). Paul’s further involvement in war separates him from the life which he cherished so greatly. When Paul returns to the trenches from leave, he finds great tranquillity among his companions. “They are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness and more than fear: they are the strongest, most comforting thing there is anywhere: they are the voices of my comrades”(212). Paul’s friends give a new meaning to his life and the role of his family shifts to that of his friends. War has claimed Paul Bäumer’s soul and he can no longer function without it.
Paul Bäumer’s experiences in war cause him to develop and change throughout the novel, his stance on many issues change as a result. He is torn away from a sheltered childhood and placed in a devastating war which causes him to see through the illusion of a society created by his superiors. This revelation is evidence that Paul has become a man; however, with this new maturity comes a loss of his purity of heart. Paul can no longer distinguish himself with society; instead, he is perverted by war and becomes its victim as he slowly subsides to its rule. Paul Bäumer’s enduring spirit causes him to adapt in order to survive an abyss of death.