History, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the Photo Essay “The Shrine Down the Hall”

November 6, 2011 — Leave a comment

Next week, English II students will begin reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque in tandem with the World War I unit on taught in social studies classes. This collaboration is a great opportunity to have the context of a WWI novel explained from another point of view. The social studies classes cover the causes of WWI, many of the battles, and the results of WWI on Europe and American foreign policy while the English classes follow the lives of a few soldiers engaged in the conflict. Social studies can cover the macrocosm setting, the geography of WWI, while we can cover the microcosms of the novel-the intimate settings   of Paul and Kat feasting on a goose they caught or Paul visiting the bedside of Franz Kemmerich, his mortally wounded companion.

The older edition cover; copies are always found in the YA section of a book sale

Our copies of the book are fairly old, so I am always looking for additional books to replace those who have become too worn for use in class. The e-book (through Questia) is only available as a free trial. There are always copies of the novel in used book sales including the more recent edition, and the book is almost always located in the young adult section rather than on a table or section dedicated to military history or adult fiction. This placement could be attributed  to the popularity of this novel in curriculum around the country; obviously, the person placing the book on the YA table read the book in high school.  The popularity of the book in schools defies many conventions. First, the novel is a translation from German, which distinguishes it from the multitude of British and American titles that crowd middle school and high school reading lists. Second, the point of view is from an enemy combatant; the French, English and American troops are the enemy. Including this novel acknowledges Remarque’s universal message that the consequence of war is devastation, a message that may be even more important for a nation that has been at war for over 10 years.

The new edition cover

Many technological advances made WWI a brutal war: aerial combat, machine guns, mustard gas. Last year, we were reading one of the passages that described a mustard gas attack,  looking for language that described how lethal this weapon was for the foot soldiers.  Suddenly a startled look came across the face of a  student. His hand shot up as he blurted,  “Ms. P told us that the more technology that’s used in war, the further a soldier gets away from the enemy in combat.”  There was a pause-other students had heard the same in class, and the consequence of increasingly sophisticated weaponry used against Paul and his companions was suddenly very real. His point hung there until another student chimed in, “And now we use drones.”  Suddenly, the WWI novel was not dated. The students understood that military drones currently used in combat would certainly have targeted Paul and his companions if they had been available to Allied forces in 1917.

There are several activities that we pair with reading the text, but the most powerful for students is the NY Times Magazine photo essay (Ashley Gilbertson)  of soldier’s bedrooms titled “The Shrine Down the Hall” (there is a video clip as well) In the novel, Paul returns for a visit home. Instead of being a sanctuary, however, the bedroom is a painful reminder of the innocence he has lost after months of combat of the Western Front. Our assignment is to compare the elements of Paul’s bedroom (items, his feelings, his memories) to the elements in the photos of the bedrooms of American soldiers who had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. This photo essay brings the impact of war’s devastation to an intense personal level. Many of the students have bedrooms with the same posters, layouts, or furniture, and they note these similarities in their responses.

A photo from Ashley Gilbertson's "The Shrine Down the Hall" photo essay in the NY Times Magazine section

Students are instructed to choose one of the soldier’s bedrooms from the photo essay, and make a connection with text from Chapter 7 (Paul’s visit home) by answering the following questions:

  • How are the text of the novel and the photo alike?
  • How do the text and the photo differ?
  • What is the photographer’s message? What is Remarque’s message? How are they the same? How do they differ?

The students’ responses included:

I chose picture 15, of Matthew J. Emerson’s bedroom. His room is just waiting for him to come home but it never happens. The room also has pictures cut out on the wall, from what appears high school sports, as well as trophies on the shelf. Paul gets to return home one last time, unlike the soldier who was killed in Iraq who returned in a casket with an American Flag on it. Paul feels like a stranger in his own room. War changes people; you can’t go blasting heads off for 2 years and come home and live the normal everyday life again.They come home, changed, forever.

I choose photo 17. The man who died was Sergeant Gilbert who was killed in 2006.  The photographers message is saying that an ordinary young person, even a teenager, can go to war and be killed. The photographer expresses the loneliness, silence, and emptiness that the room has. Remarque’s message is saying that the average soldier has a very hard time coming back because he or she has to make decisions that don’t involve killing, that don’t involve defusing a bomb. These two messages are the same because they both describe the difficulty of coming back home, but they are different because these two messages are set in different times with different technology of warfare.

When I see picture #3 I think of Paul the most. Here are a bunch of pictures everywhere on the walls of all different kinds of things, like “Then below are periodicals, papers, and letters all jammed together with drawings and rough sketches.” When I read this it makes me think of a cluster of a bunch of different things, also when I look at room #3 I see a cutter of a bunch of posters, hats, books, and many other things. I think the picture and Remarque’s  are both saying that life is not the same when you get home and many of the soldiers cannot come home and have everything be the same as when they left.

I chose photo 14 because it is surprisingly similar to the book. The text talks about Paul’s book shelf and his school books all thumbed through. the room has a book shelf and other references to school. What looks like a degree is hanging on his desk. This room however has a poster of the marines in the background which shows that this boy was obviously thinking of joining the military before hand. Paul has no mention to wanting to join the army before Kantorek takes them down to the recruiting office. I think the photographer’s message is to show how innocent the soldier was before.

He was on a sports team and appeared to be quite good, he won a trophy. Remarque’s message is very similar. The soldier is changed after war, he cannot go home and just drink some beers and pretend everything is all right. It’s not.

I chose picture 14. This room was occupied by Nathanial D. Windsor who died on March 11, 2007. He was only 20 years old (about the same age as Paul). T. The photographer said was trying to portray a lonely room that is not occupied anymore. Remarque’s trying to portray that Paul’s room is lonely too. They are both alike because they are lonely.

Christopher Scherer’s room reminded me of when Paul went home. Paul had a nice life before the war he felt at home, when he returned from the war he felt like he was looking through a veil. He tried on his clothes, his civilian clothes, that made him feel like he had nothing. After the two years of war he cannot have that connection to his home, he relates everything back to the war. The war has given him the thought of death and destruction, Paul is no longer himself, he cannot connect to his home, where he is supposed to be.

In the picture a bookshelf was not full which could mean that the soldier was as Paul was did, collecting them gradually.  The solider also has a clear view of the outside that he can sit and watch, just as Paul has in the story. Remarque and the photographer have different views. Remarque tries to display that after the soldiers return home they are never the same people and their rooms do not represent them. While the photographer’s message is that all the pieces of  soldiers’ lives are preserved in their rooms and are now gone forever because they have died.

Remarque’s novel transcends time perhaps because of the intensity the reader feels for one soldier caught up in a conflict beyond his control.  While the social studies classes are required to cover the history of World War I, the English classes are free to cover Paul and “his”-story.

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