The harsh realities of war force soldiers to undergo drastic personality transformations making them feel disconnected from their previous way of life. The war separates them from their past both physically and psychologically. In his novel All Quiet on the Western Front, Remarque uses books, poplar trees, and butterflies to illustrate the life altering effects that the horrors of war impose on the soldiers, their perception toward these elements changes as they become transformed by its reality.
One of the important elements in the story that underscores the changes that the war imposes on the soldiers is books. Paul and his schoolmates lose their strong affinity for books due to their exposure to the reality of the atrocities of war. At the beginning of the book, Paul introduces his classmates, M??ller, who still carries his school textbooks with him, [and] dreams of examination (Remarque 4). At this point of the story, M??ller still maintains a strong affinity to books that have educated him into becoming an intellectual. By visualizing about examinations, M??ller maintains his civilian identity, and has not faced the reality of the war.
Later in the story, Paul returns to his home and as he encounters his collection of books in his room, he wants that quiet recapture again and the same powerful, nameless urge that [he] used to feel when [he] turned to his books (Remarque 83). Paul realizing his transformation, longs for the old days when he found comfort in the content of the books had to offer for him. The realization that he no longer connects to his books, illustrates that Paul has lost his civilian’s identity which has transformed into that of a soldier. The vivid realities of the war the soldiers are experiencing deeply sever their strong connection with books.
In their fight for survival, another important element of their past, the poplar trees, take on a different purpose. When dreaming about his past, Paul vividly recalls a line of old poplars by a stream [he] loved them dearly, and the image of those days still makes [his] heart pause in its beating (Remarque 60). Paul reminisces about his childhood, creating a clear image of his strong feelings towards the poplar trees which held his fantasies.
His pleasant memories of the poplar, allow him to maintain a fragile connection to his previous life. As the realities of the war set in, the poplars take on a different purpose, Paul describes, there are four more batteries of nine-inch guns to the right of the farm, and behind the poplars they have put in trench-mortars (Remarque 51). In contrast to his dream of the poplars, the trees have now become part of the war. The trees are no longer held Paul’s fantasies, as they have become associated with the weaponry of war. Poplar trees are now another way to illustrate how the harsh realities of war are beginning to take hold of the soldiers’ consciousness.
Paul’s perception of butterflies that once brought him joy also become altered into the symbols of death. While Paul is describing the war setting and circumstances as being more appealing than he had imagined, he focuses his attention on the white butterflies and how the white butterflies flutter around and float on the soft warm wind of the late summer (Remarque 7). His description of his surroundings, which include the butterflies are an attempt to make the war seem like a positive situation. Before going up to the frontline, Paul sees the butterflies as a sign of hope. However now that the soldiers are in the frontline, the description of the butterflies take on a different tone, There is not a plant nor a flower in miles. [The butterflies] settle on the teeth of a skull. (Remarque 63). As a juxtaposition to the previous description of the butterflies, they become part of the war. The symbol of the butterflies has transitioned from hope to death. As with the other symbols in the book, the butterflies take on a much darker meaning and become devoid of hope.
One of the strongest influences in the lives of Paul and his comrades, their love of books, becomes meaningless as a result of the war. Another important connection to their past, the poplar trees change from pleasant memory of Paul’s childhood into another weaponry of war. The butterflies also undergo a transformation as they change from invoking hope to an image of death. War has devastating effects on the people who are called on to fight for their country; even if they manage to survive, they are no longer the same individuals as they started out.