All Quiet on the Western Front: War Vs. Nature
World War I was the first big war after the Industrial Revolution. This first World War brought suffering to everyone, soldiers and citizens alike. Young boys from the ages of 17 to 19 years volunteered to fight in this war. Many died by the end of the war but the few soldiers who survived wouldn’t have survived mentally. These boys would have become men who have experienced things such as starvation, sleep deprivation, illness, disease, and have also seen things such as murder and death. Life is quite fragile, it’s as fragile as the nature around us. Experiences of suffering like this can shatter out fragile lives and sometimes the fragility will be replaced with rock-solid heart. Nature is a major symbol incorporated into All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque. In the novel, nature represents the physical and emotional state of the soldiers and serves as a reminder of peace before the war and a motivator of peace after the war.
In the novel, nature symbolizes the lives of the soldiers. Sometimes it is also the reason of their immense suffering. For instance, when the soldiers have to spend their nights and days in the battle trenches, nature throws storms and heat at men. They also come across the ugly part of nature: rats and the diseases they carry. Although nature is a contribution to the men’s suffering, sometimes it also saves them in tough times. More specifically, during a battle, they take cover in the trenches and in the shell holes. Remarque, in the perspective of Paul, the main character and narrator, writes “To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier.… he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from the fear of death… then she is his only friend, his brother, his mother… he cries in her silence and security…” (Remarque 55). When a soldier leaves his family to fight, his new family during battle is Mother Earth. The earth shelters him and gives him comfort until he is confident to get back up again. And even after he leaves, he still comes back to “her” and takes shelter once again. Nature also represents the physical and mental state of the soldiers. For example, on page 123, Remarque writes “My hands grow cold and my flesh creeps; and yet the night is warm. Only the mist is cold, this mysterious mist that trails over the dead and sucks from them their last, creeping life.”. Although the night is cold outside, Paul feels warmth. This is because he and his comrades just recalled some happy memories from the time of peace and innocence before the war. Recalling joyous memories with our loved ones usually ticks off our happiness even in the toughest of times. Paul and his friends are going through a similar feeling of happiness where they don’t even mind the intense chilly weather outside.
In addition to being a representation of the soldiers’ state, nature also serves as a reminder of peace before the war and as a motivator of peace after the war. When in the military, it’s hard to connect to a time of peace because one is surrounded with low spirits and disheartening events. Sometimes, the soldiers sit down and travel back to a time of such peace and yearns for the peace they found back at home. An instance of this in the novel occurs when Paul is issued a leave and when he is in the train back home. “In the distance, the soft, blue, silhouette of the mountain ranges begins to appear. I recognize the characteristic outline of the Dolbenberg, a jagged comb, springing up precipitously from the limits of the forests. Behind it should lie the town” (Remarque 154-5). In this quote, Paul is recalling the natural beauty that surrounded his hometown. Remarque uses words such as “soft” and “characteristic” to emphasize the nature’s beauty and that this beauty was a familiar site for Paul, that is until he went away for war. On top of a natural surrounding, one other important natural element are butterflies. The butterflies are a very minor symbol in the novel but they have a strong purpose.