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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Joe's body stands as the center of the text, symbolic of the inhumanity of modern warfare. Furthermore, Joe seeks to turn his body into a symbol as part of the storyline of the novel. He would like his body to be brought around as an exhibition. The body would stand for the concrete, brutal realities of war and it would counteract the attractiveness of abstract ideals such as "democracy" or "liberty."
Joe dreams that a rat eats from the open wound in his side. The rat is part of a memory that Joe has from the war, when he and other soldiers found a dead Prussian soldier with a rat eating his face. The men chase the rat and beat it to death and feel silly afterward, but Joe recognizes the rat is the true enemy of all the soldiers. The rat represents the warmongers who stand to profit from war, just as a rat feeds itself off of the decay and injury of wounded or dead soldiers.
Joe's father's garden is one of the novel's primary symbols of an older, subsistence way of life. Joe's father does not make money off of his garden—and is therefore unsuccessful by the standards of capitalism—but he produces enough in the garden to feed his family well. The symbol of the natural garden also alludes to the state of the Garden of Eden before the fall of man. In Joe's father's way of life, the outside world did not encroach, as the war has done. This symbol relates to the theme of nostalgia for pastoralism.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Johnny Got His Gun!