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Class Distinctions In Ww2 Literature Essay, Research Paper
In nearly every culture, certain distinctions exist which elevate particular members of society above others. These distinctions may be based upon age, wisdom, ancestry, gender or profession, but more often than not, class lines seem to be drawn on the basis of wealth. While the existence of these status groups may be harmless, when prejudice prevents the movement of individuals or social groups between and within classes, valuable human resources are being put to waste. This issue was of concern during the First World War. While the class system in place in Western Europe did allow for a certain amount of social mobility, distinctions among classes were nonetheless evident and well defined. Both Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Evadne Price’s Not So Quiet… call attention to the idea that social position should be of little or no significance in the face of wartime’s human pain, suffering and death.
In All Quiet, the main character, a young German named Paul Baumer, enlists in the army. Initially, in his company, two distinct classes of individuals exist. Paul and his four schoolmates are well educated and of a higher station in life. They are still teenagers, fresh from school, and have volunteered for the war. The other group consists of peasants and common laborers. In the beginning of the novel the reader is made keenly aware of the differences between the two groups as Paul introduces the characters. Paul mentions his fellow classmates first. This ordering lends the idea that Paul thinks more highly of his classmates than he does of the other less-educated soldiers. The differentiation is further heightened by the syntax used. The common soldiers are described in an entirely different paragraph from the educated boys. Standing in the mess line, Paul says that “close behind us were our friends” (Remarque 3). Not only are these men physically “behind” in the line, they are also “behind” in social status. Also interesting to note is the fact that as “our friends,” these common men are only important or memorable in so much as they relate to Paul and his classmates. The pronoun “our” gives a sense of possession and thus a certain amount of inferiority in comparison to the educated boys.
As the novel progresses, so do Paul’s relationships and respect for his fellow soldiers. Paul quickly learns that experience and wisdom are perhaps more valuable than academics. While reminiscing with his classmates about old school days, Paul comes to the conclusion that in war, intellectual knowledge is almost useless. As students, Paul and his classmates were put through a rigorous and demanding curriculum by their schoolmaster Kantorek. However, the information that they learned now has no practical application. During combat, knowing the purpose of the Poetic League of Gottingen or the number of inhabitants of Melbourne seems worthless to a soldier in comparison to knowing “that it is best to stick a bayonet in the belly because there it doesn’t get jammed, as it does in the ribs” (Remarque 85). Paul “[remembers] mighty little of all that rubbish. Anyway, it has never been the slightest use to us” (Remarque 85).
In contrast to the useless information memorized in school, life-experiences are of great wartime value. Remarque uses the character of Stanislaus Katczinsky to express this point. Kat is forty years of age at the beginning of the novel and has a wife and children at home. He is a resourceful, inventive man, and always seems able to find food, clothing, and blankets whenever he and his friends need them and thus becomes the group’s unofficial leader. Paul describes him as having “a remarkable nose for dirty weather, good food, and soft jobs” (Remarque 4). Kat’s skills are direct results of his age and experience. They are gained through living not school-learning. Despite being relatively uneducated, Kat is presented as the cleverest of all the characters.
As the war continues, the lines between the two groups within Paul’s company begin to fade. During the course of his experience with war, Paul disaffiliates himself from those societal icons, such as parents, elders, school, and religion, which had been the foundation of his pre-enlistment days. His new society becomes the company, his fellow trench soldiers. They are a group who understand the truth as Baumer has experienced it. Enduring the same horrific conditions and having only one another on which to rely, the men become connected in a way that does not occur in civilian life. While Kat and Paul roast a stolen goose, Paul remarks that even without speaking, the two men have “a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have” (Remarque 94). Paul’s impetus to remain in the war is to stay alongside his comrades. He no longer has any illusions about fighting for the glory of his country. They truly care for one another and have been bonded by their common understanding of what war really is. When Paul is stranded in a shell hole after going out on a patrol, Kat and one of Paul’s classmates risk their own lives to come look for him with a stretcher. The soldiers will do anything and go to any lengths for their friends.
Evadne Price’s Not So Quiet… was written as a response to All Quiet from a woman’s perspective. In contrast to All Quiet, the class lines that exist between the characters are not erased through the necessity of war. While some of the stupidity and wastefulness associated with war is addressed in the novel, the social distinctions still remain, even in the mind of the main character.
For the protagonist in Not So Quiet…, class is the determining factor in her position in the war. In order to be ambulance drivers, young women are required to be of a certain social level. Smith is “the nondescript daughter of a nondescript father who made money, sold his business, retired, and is spending the rest of his life in a big house on Wimbledon Common” (Price 23). The women volunteer to pay for the privilege of driving the wounded soldiers to hospitals. Due to the monetary requirements necessary to work the job, only girls of upper class families are able to afford to do this job. On top of this, a girl’s familial background and morals are considered and affect her eligibility. The work is difficult, the hours are long, and the food nearly inedible, yet all the girls must be the “gently-bred, educated women they insist on so rigidly for this work that apparently cannot be done by women incapable of speaking English with a public-school accent” (Price 60).
Throughout the novel, Smith questions the validity of these requirements to be in the volunteer aid detachment. Smith seems to disagree with rules that limit the opportunity for an individual to do a job when that person has the ability. In light of Skinny and Frost’s discharge for lesbianism, Smith remarks that morals do not “[matter] two hoots when it comes to convoying wounded men” (Price 126). She states that “personally, if I were choosing women to drive heavy ambulances, their moral characters wouldn’t worry me. It would be ‘Are you a first-class driver?’ not ‘Are you a first-class virgin?” (Price 126). Breeding and principles do not affect a woman’s capacity to do the job.
While Smith overtly criticizes the wasted human resources caused by the class distinctions, she does still retain many of the ideas and ideals held by the upper class. This concept is exemplified through the character of Georgina Toshington. Tosh, as she is often called, is the niece of an earl. Price initially seems to use Tosh to break the stereotypes associated with the upper-crust of society. She has “a mind like a sewer (her own definition), the courage of a giant, the vocabulary of a Smithfield butcher, and the round, wind-reddened face of a dairymaid” (Price 11). These characteristics are not generally thought of as those of a lady, but of all the ambulance drivers, Tosh has the most breeding and is of the best lineage. This portrayal lends the idea that Price would like to break the image generally associated with the British gentry; however, in contrast, Tosh is also one of the most likeable characters in the novel. She is a heroine. She is courageous, knows her job, does it well, and is the idol of the entire convoy. Smith has “adored her since the first night I arrived” (Price 11). As a member of the upper class, Tosh’s faults are readily overlooked. On the contrary, when Skinny uses vulgar language, Smith does not excuse it. Instead, she refers to Skinny as using “vile language, not like Tosh’s good-natured swear words that always sound characteristic of Tosh and therefore exactly ‘right,’ but low shameful, foul somehow” (Price 113). Why is this behavior forgivable in Tosh and not in Skinny? Perhaps Price intends to show that Smith has a bias of which she is unaware or perhaps Price has inadvertently incorporated her own prejudice.
Smith’s final pointed jab towards the class system imposed on the war volunteers occurs when she offers to return to France in order to get the hundred pounds Trix needs for an abortion. Smith tells her aunt she will rejoin the war effort but does not specify in what capacity. She decides to be a domestic worker. In this way, she is taking a stand against her mother, her aunt and others who endorse class segregation. She is of a high enough social level to be an ambulance driver, but chooses a position in which she will be working with “dreadful people out of the slums” (Price 211). Smith does this to spite her mother and aunt. These women would like to believe that they want Smith to be a part of the war effort to support her country, but in truth, they simply want to use her to improve their own social status. They want to be able to say that one of their relations is an ambulance driver because ambulance drivers are “a most exclusive class of girl, most exclusive, all ladies – they stipulate that, you know” (Price 211). These women are willing to put Smith’s life on the line for bragging rights. Price exposes the less benevolent nature of their motives and the problems inherent in dividing groups on the basis of class.
In the end, nearly every character in both books reaches a common fate. They all die. While the disappearance of class differences in Remarque’s work seems much more idealistic and unrealistic than Price’s work, it is clear that Price’s criticism is fraught with its own problems. While denouncing the class system, both the author and the main character are still a product of it and thus unable to completely free their minds of it.
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