Symbols - Kemmerich's Boots
Kemmerich's boots are his prized possession. They are English airman's boots of soft yellow leather that reach to the knee and lace up all the way. The boots become a symbol of the spirit of comradeship that enables the men of Second Company to endure the horrors of trench warfare. Before he dies, Kemmerich bequeaths them to M´┐Żller. When M´┐Żller is fatally wounded, he passes them on to Paul. Paul promises the boots to Tjaden should he be killed. The boots thus acquire a pedigree, the way swords do in heroic societies described in epics such as The Iliad and Beowulf. Because the boots have a known history, they are more than mere objects. They symbolize the solidarity of the men.
Imagery of Nature and Culture
The novel is dominated by images of war. But occasionally, as a marked contrast, there are images of nature that express the innocence of life in the midst of the carnage. A notable example comes in the middle of chapter 6, the chapter which describes a ferocious back-and-forth battle from trench to trench. One morning Paul sees two butterflies playing in front of his trench. Because of their life cycle, butterflies are often used as symbols of metamorphosis, or rebirth. In Christian art they often represent eternal life. Interestingly, the butterflies in this incident "settle on the teeth of a skull." But this image of death and rebirth can only be meant ironically. As far as the human scene is concerned, there is here only death and more death. There is no resurrection.
In addition to the butterflies, Paul watches the larks ascending every morning from No Man's Land (No Man's Land was the area between the rival trenches.) This is another image of nature's beauty. The lark is a positive image of life reawakening in the morning. As Shakespeare puts it in one of his sonnets, the lark "sings hymns at heaven's gate." Used here, the image of the lark brings out the contrast between the ever-renewing energies of nature and the destructive energy of man.
Another image of the peace and beauty of nature comes when Paul observes a line of birch trees at the training camp he is sent to after his leave is over. He becomes so lost in the play of light and shadow in the trees that he almost fails to hear the commands given him during military drills.
The blossoming cherry tree that Detering sees near where the troops are billeted toward the end of the war, is another image that represents spring and returning life. It an overwhelmingly powerful image for Detering since it reminds him of his orchard at home. But as with the other positive images of nature, this image does not lead to rebirth, or to anything positive at all. It merely causes Detering to lose his judgment and go AWOL, so desperate is he to return home.
Another powerful image is of the violin played by the Russian prisoner. The violin represents the remnants of Western culture, which has been virtually annihilated during the four years of war. Not surprisingly, the image possesses a poignant quality: "In the night it is so thin it sounds frozen. . . it makes a man grow sad."