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The plural "Wars" in the title implies that there are multiple conflicts within the novel. Robert's time in the army and his personal conflicts are among them. Guy Vanderhaeghe, in his introduction to The Wars in Penguin's Modern Classics 2005 edition, states that "Like the frieze of horse and dog, or the occasional glimpse of Harris's blue scarf, the wars (emphasis in original) hovers in the reader's consciousness, heard as the faintest of dire whispers. It is as impossible to boil simple meaning from these two words as it is to impute clear and unambiguous motives' for Ross's actions, or to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin."
- The birds represent the danger that Robert was going to experience in the novel. They are a sort of warning; each time Robert notices they have stopped singing, an attack soon follows. It also represents life and the freedom which must be fought for on personal levels.
- The coyote represents the relationship between man and beast. It can mean friendship, companionship, and loyalty towards Robert. The coyote willingly ran with Robert.
- Rabbits come up in the novel on several occasions: it brings back memories to Robert about how he did not want to kill the rabbits, since they belonged to Rowena. The rabbits along with Rowena are a symbol of innocence and purity.
- The horse is what brought Robert to Eugene Taffler. Robert was corralling mustangs when he came across Taffler, who had returned and reenlisted in the war. The horse was often used in the novel as a means of transportation and companionship. When Robert finds a mare while attempting to free a group of doomed military horses, this horse is notably described as black. This refers to the Book of Revelation, in which St. John the Divine describes a vision of a black horse whose rider is holding balances.
The four classical elements (earth, air, fire, and water) are all featured in the novel. They each represent a trial that Robert Ross must overcome on his journey.
- Earth represents the mud that almost claims Robert's life in Ypres.
- Air is a symbol of the chlorine gas used against the Allies, which Robert neutralizes with urine.
- Fire is shown as the artillery fire, flamethrowers, and as the barn that ends up claiming the lives of Robert's horses and dog. (Part Five).
- Water is represented as the rain and mud.
Air Representing Life
Harris' struggle with pneumonia eventually leads to his death
Fire Representing the Act of Death
Fire in the prologue.
Water Representing Change
Robert takes a bath after Rowena's death
It snows at Rowena's funeral
Robert stands in the rain at the train station
The snow is melted when Mrs Ross comes out of the church. Thus, she could not make a snowball.
Robert's pistol is shown as a powerful symbol of authority and security.
- Plot overview
- Influences and style
- Introduction by Guy Vanderhaeghe
- Plot summary
- In other media