Robert isn't the only character whose innocence is lost. Juliet is forced to grow up quickly after seeing Robert and Barbara having sex. This incident also evokes the theme of change that appears in the novel. Rodwell, too, loses his innocence and takes his life as a result. He is driven to suicide after watching his fellow soldiers kill a cat just to taunt him. The destruction of the natural world and animals is also an example of the destruction of innocence.
Violence as Order and Chaos
Violence alternately takes on the role of chaos and order in the novel. The chaos of the war is fairly obvious. Soldiers die and towns and nations are torn apart by the battles. Robert tries at first to suppress his own violent feelings and impulses. He relies on his pistol to give him a sense of protection and uses it to restore order during the gas attack when his men panic. The element of fire, we come to see, can be either a tool or a terrible oppressor. Robert also uses this violence in defiance of the chaos of the war. Juliet witnesses him unloading his pistol on a tree in frustration. He uses violence to exact his own moral justice on Captain Leather and the war itself.
Throughout the novel it is clear that Robert has a connection to the natural world and animals, most notably horses. He shares this with his sister Rowena, Harris, and Rodwell. All these characters foster a deep respect and reverence for the natural world and it is among animals that Robert feels the greatest peace and belonging. He runs with coyotes and horses almost as one of them. There is a freedom and authenticity in the natural world that Robert does not find in human society. The destruction of these animals is what ultimately pushes him to act out violently against the human construct of war.
Isolated from other human beings, Robert finds himself more at home with animals. They do not judge him. He feels no need to impress them or to hide from them. He can simply be himself. When it comes to other human beings, Robert is deeply caring of others, but there is an otherness about him. Rodwell captures this in his sketch of Robert. He is both human and non-human at the same time.
The Four Elements
The four classic elements: fire, water, earth, and air are all represented in the novel and also come to be the inscription on Robert Ross's tombstone. Fire is very clearly represented in the artillery and the flamethrowers encountered in combat. The earth nearly engulfs Robert, literally, when he falls into the mud. The image of the earth moved to create trenches and the dugouts also invokes this element. Air comes to symbolize both life and death at various times. When the chlorine gas is unleashed on Robert and his men, it is a metaphor for death. However, in the last lines of the novel, when the breath of Robert, Rowena, and the pony Meg can be seen in the photograph, it is a clear sign of life. Rain is an element that Robert encounters at various times in the novel: after Rowena's funeral,…