All Quiet demonstrates a controlled use of symbols, which guide the reader’s thinking toward significant themes of loss and longing.
Most prominent are the soft airman’s boots, which pass from man to man after each wearer succumbs to a violent death. Worn by Kemmerich before his injury, they were undoubtedly stripped from a downed British airman before changing hands, which they do twice more as successive owners die. In all, four men possess the boots; none survives the war. In graphic scenes, Russian prisoners exchange their boots for crusts of bread; dismembered bodies lose not only boots, but the feet and legs they cover. Others, like Albert, have their limbs surgically removed, then fitted with artificial limbs, which mock the propriety of a whole body, undefiled by war.
A second symbol, butterflies, derives in part from Remarque’s childhood hobby of collecting insects and mounting them in a case. For Paul, the butterflies, mocked by the ominous observation balloons that hover overhead, exemplify the innocence and joy of nature. Even when the graceful creatures alight on a skull, their presence reminds the men and the reader that the land on which battles are fought still contains a semblance of natural order. A second purpose of butterflies is a tangible representation of fragility and vulnerability. Like the frail-winged insect, Paul’s life, and the lives of countless other young men, hovers on earth for a short while and ends all too soon.
The horses of Chapter 4 emphasize the change of warfare from earlier dependence on beasts of burden to mechanical devices, such as grenades, cannons, flamethrowers, machine guns, balloons, and aerial shells. The noble animals, which bear a column of men to the front, remind Paul of the steeds ridden by knights of old. The terrible cries of these wounded beasts are like the “mourning of the world martyred creation, wild with anguish, filled with terror and groaning.” Emblematic of the violence human warriors do to nature, the horses’ terrified cries perturb Detering, the farmer who values the animals far too much to jeopardize their lives in battle. In similar fashion, the messenger dog, also victimized and left to howl its pain, draws Berger into harm’s way, where he too dies in No Man’s Land.
Women in the novel represent peace, gentleness, and nurturing, as well as sexual release. The girl in the poster inspires a nostalgic urge for peacetime in Paul and, for two of his comrades, she rouses them to masturbation. At the same time, the vision of her fresh good looks emphasizes Paul’s scruffy clothes and infestation with lice. The brunette, who pragmatically exchanges sex for food and cigarettes, holds him close, allowing intimacy as a means of staying alive. His hometown looks so inviting that he compares it to a mother. Before reaching his front door, he rejects the offer of coffee from a smiling Red Cross sister, then gratefully accepts potato-cakes and whortleberry jam from his mother and sister, who have sacrificed to provide his favorite foods. Even at the beer garden, the spire of St. Margaret’s Church seems to raise a blessing over his furlough and assure his safety for the duration of his leave. On his way out of his mother’s room, Paul trips over his pack, a significant fall, which jerks his awareness back to the war, which stands in the way of his home duties, which urge him to comfort his mother as she battles cancer.
On the train to Cologne, Paul receives the kindness of a nurse who ennobles his sacrifices for his country with clean sheets and personal care. At the Catholic hospital, the nuns pray during Morning Devotion, despite the men’s wish for an extended sleep. A night nurse, rousted by insistent wardmates, scurries to the aid of Albert, whose wound has broken open and begun to bleed. Another nun, Sister Libertine, spreads cheer among the men, who repay her goodness with deep gratitude, especially after she returns Little Peter from almost certain death in the room beside the morgue. Marja Lewandowski, who brings along her child, shares pieces of sausage, and plumps up wilted pillows, represents motherhood and wifely regard for her husband, who craves intercourse with her after ten months in the hospital.
Paul’s fondness for potato-cakes, a direct offshoot of his attitude toward his mother, symbolizes home and sacrifice. Like the men who dig into the earth with shovels and sometimes teeth and fingernails to survive bombardment, the potato is a grubby, humble outgrowth of the same soil, as well as a welcome treat when grated and cooked in patties. During the severe rationing at home, Paul’s sister must stand in line for food, his father works late to support his household, and Paul’s mother, saintly and unselfish, cooks the cakes and puts up whortleberry jam because they are his favorite foods. The gifts are so precious to Paul that he feels compelled to share them with the starving prisoners of war and with his buddies.