Illustration of Paul Baumer in a German army uniform with a red background

All Quiet on the Western Front

by Erich Maria Remarque

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In All Quiet on the Western Front, what symbolism does the earth hold for the soldier?

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The men in All Quiet on the Western Front are in the middle of a deadly and destructive war. War during this time period was quite literally in the earth itself, and therefore, the earth was highly symbolic and meaningful to them. The trenches were dug by the soldiers to...

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offer shelter and protection, which made the ground around them both a protective barrier and a home of sorts.

In this situation, the earth—while dirty and mucky (often times described with pools of water, causing the men to contract gangrene and other illnesses)—was a place of comfort and shelter for them. They would hide behind the ramparts they had built up out of dirt in the event of a bomb blast and would use the trenches as a place to hide and sleep at all times. For them, the earth was safety and security.

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The earth takes on a maternal aspect for the young soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front. They take shelter in trenches dug from the earth, for instance. Paul even makes a chant to the earth, showing his affinity for it as he experiences the war. Some might say the earth becomes a stand-in for the mothers these boys have left behind when they signed up.

But just as the earth is linked with protection and life, it is also linked with death. Early in the novel, graveyards are blown up, with corpses thrown from their coffins. The boys take refuge in the empty coffins and graves, using these symbols of death as protection as well. These grim images show how the earth is linked with death, as well as life and survival.

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The novel All Quiet On The Western Front is filled with imagery and metaphors relating to the men’s time in the war. Many things are very symbolic in the novel, including the concept of earth or the ground. The men live essentially in the ground, having dug trenches and fought in a ground war.

The earth was safety and life for these men. It provided them shelter and acted as a shield when the men were under attack. There are frequent references to them hunkering down behind a wall of dirt when they are attacked, and they literally make their homes in it. The earth around them is very symbolic of safety, stability, and security, providing shelter and a sense of home and comfort to the men.

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In World War I, the earth is extremely significant for soldiers; for, they live in the trenches, they fight from the trenches, they crawl on the earth when they must move out of the trenches. The earth is both protection and danger as they seek refuge in it down within the trenches as the shells explode on the surface of it. 

In a passage from Chapter Four, Remarque gives Paul poetic voice as he invokes the earth in a prayer:

Earth!--Earth!--Earth!Earth with thy folds, and hollow, and holes, into which a man may fling himself and crouch down. In the spasm of terror under the hailing of annihilation, in the bellowing death of the explosions, O Earth, thou grantest us the great resisting surge of the new-won life. Our being, almost utterly carried away by the fury of the storm streams back through our hands from thee....

Further, he reflects that the soldier instinctively,atavistically,moves one part of his being at the first sound of the droning of the shells. It is not consciously that he throws himself upon the ground before a "storm of fragments" sweep harmlessly over him becaise when the "storm" is over, he cannot remember having thrown himself upon the earth. To Paul, this reaction is a "second sight." Perhaps, then, it is a reaction much like that of the child who instinctively clings to mother because Paul concludes his reflections by observing that they reach the zone where the battle front begins "and become on the instant human animals" touching Mother Earth.

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