Symbolism of Boots in All Quiet on the Western Front

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

Boots are as important in Erich Maria Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front as they are to a soldier in battle. Boots help to illustrate several major themes in this novel.

The Practical Importance of Boots

Have you ever tried to walk long distances barefoot? Or, worse, in uncomfortable shoes? It is easy to understand why the characters in Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front are so focused on them. As Franz Kemmerich lies dying in his hospital bed after his leg has been amputated, it might seem jarring to a reader to see the way Muller covets the dying man's boots. Shouldn't he be too worried about his friend to care about boots? It's not just the soldiers either--good boots are so important that ''the orderlies will of course grab them as soon as he is dead.''

The importance of boots is illustrated in a more amusing way later in the novel when Paul and some friends make a plan to swim across a river to meet up with some girls. Since they are swimming, they have to economize on their luggage. What do they choose to leave behind? Their clothes. All of them. They wear only their boots: ''We stow the things carefully in our boots; we have to take them to protect our feet against treading on wire and broken glass on the other bank. As we must swim for it we can take no other clothes. But it is not far and quite dark.''

Priorities Reordered

Paul, the book's narrator, tries to explain why they think so much about boots: ''We have lost all sense of other considerations, because they are artificial. Only the facts are real and important for us. And good boots are scarce.'' Similarly, Paul defends Mueller's desire to get Kemmerich's boots before he dies: ''He is really quite as sympathetic as another who could not bear to think of such a thing for grief. He merely sees things clearly.'' The extremity of war, the constant trauma they endure, this reality they now inhabit--these things have muted their higher faculties. In war, boots matter more than appropriate displays of sympathy at a deathbed.

We learn from Paul how this reordering of priorities is hammered into them during training. ''We learned that a bright button is weightier than four volumes of Schopenhauer. At first astonished, then embittered, and finally indifferent, we recognized that what matters is not the mind but the boot brush, not intelligence but the system, not freedom but drill.'' This may seem crude and hard to us, but it is survival for them.

Degenerate in Order to Survive

As these reordered priorities were hammered into the soldiers, they find themselves being reduced to a lower state of consciousness. This, like realizing the importance of boots, was essential to their survival. It is this which allows the young men to calmly will their boots away to one another. Muller does eventually get Kemmerich's boots, and when he dies Paul gets them.

Paul has already promised the boots to another friend in event of his own death. He tells us very matter-of-factly about all of this: ''Before he died he...bequeathed me his boots--the same that he once inherited from Kemmerich. I wear them, for they fit me quite well. After me Tjaden will get them, I have promised them to him.'' Life and death are boiled down together into the ownership of a pair of boots.

Boots and Identity

Boots take on so much meaning in this novel that they nearly become the identity of a soldier himself. Paul contemplates this early in the novel: ''I glance at my boots'' he tells us, and observes, ''they are big and clumsy...standing up one looks well-built and powerful in these great drainpipes. But when we go bathing and strip, suddenly we have slender legs again and slight shoulders. We are no longer soldiers but little more than boys.'' These ''men'' are all about 19 years old. The boots are a facade for their identity. Underneath, the truth is they are just skinny little boys.

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