Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun Analysis

By Dalton Trumbo

  • Tone


    Alanis Morisette may not have a very good grasp of irony, but Dalton Trumbo sure does. Irony is a huge part of this novel; it's probably the main way it gets its anti-war message across. After all, what better way to show the contradictory nature of something than to, you know, point out how it's contradictory?

    Take this example, from when the aviator Lincoln Beachey comes to town:

    Mr. Hargraves who was superintendent of schools made a speech before the flight. He told about how the invention of the airplane was the greatest step forward man had made in a hundred years. The airplane said Mr. Hargraves would cut down the distance between nations and peoples. The airplane would be a great instrument in making people understand one another in making people love one another. The airplane said Mr. Hargraves was ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity and mutual understanding. Everyone would be friends said Mr. Hargraves when the airplane knitted the world together so that the people of the world understood each other. (2.11)

    Well, that's irony if we ever saw it. We know that the use (and the development) of airplanes during World War I made the number of war casualties to skyrocket (tasteless pun intended); that era of peace and prosperity never came. And as if this passage weren't ironic enough already, we're next told: "A couple months later his airplane fell into San Francisco Bay and Lincoln Beachey was drowned" (2.12).

    Not only did this amazing and apparently wonder-working technology lead to more and more death during the war, it also led to the death of Lincoln Beachey himself. Maybe technology isn't the innocent cure-all Mr. Hargraves seems to think it is.

    In another moment of irony, the incident with the Limey subaltern, Trumbo's irony is even more direct:

    That was a funny thing. The young Limey had legs and arms and he could talk and see and hear. Only he didn't know it he couldn't get any fun out of it there was no meaning to it for him. And lying in another English hospital was a guy who wasn't a bit crazy but who wished he was. He and the young Limey should swap minds. Then they'd both be happy. (12.30)

    Yes, wouldn't that just solve everyone's problems? Too bad it's impossible.

    But why does Trumbo give us irony at this particular moment? Well, if war were simply a clean business where occasionally people were killed, then we might not get so riled up about it. Truth is, death isn't the only thing that happens in a war: some people come out of it with permanent physical and mental scars that cannot be easily remedied—if they can be remedied at all. Trumbo is using irony here to make us appreciate this fact.

    Here are some more ironic moments in the novel:

    • It's ironic that Corporal Timlon is shot and sent away from the front a few weeks before almost the entire regiment is wiped out.
    • It's ironic that Joe is decorated with a medal when no one even knows his identity.
    • It's ironic that Joe's survival is a medical triumph.
    • It's ironic that Joe is the one who is made to give up everything in a war, and yet he doesn't really understand what the fighting is all about.

    There's a lot more irony in the novel, but you see what we're getting at.


    It makes sense that an anti-war novel would have a lot of anger at its heart. As the novel progresses, Joe gets angrier and angrier about the horrible absurdity of his conditions, and this anger starts to be directed at a specific target: the people who orchestrate war and send others to fight it.

    At this point, Joe starts to issue ultimatums like this: "If you make a war if there are guns to be aimed if there are bullets to be fired if there are men to be killed they will not be us" (20.31). And that's just the beginning; Joe's ultimatums start to become outright threats, like this: "No sir anybody who went out and got into the front line trenches to fight for liberty was a goddamn fool and the guy who got him there was a liar" (10.4). And this: "you lying thieving sons-of-b****es we won't fight we won't be dead" (20.30).

    The angrier Joe gets, the stronger his language gets. What's disturbing, though, is that this language only happens in Joe's head. He can't really convey this kind of rage via Morse code—and even if he could, we're not sure if anyone would really care. So what is the purpose of these lines? Who are they for? Are we meant to mirror Joe's anger? Are we supposed to get angry on Joe's behalf?


    Nostalgia is a desire for the good old days, when things were simpler, and a stick of gum was 5 cents, and you had to walk ten miles to school in the snow uphill both ways, and... wait, how is that last one better, again?

    Joe's nostalgia is for the good old days when he had legs and arms and a face, but in larger terms, it's also for the prewar days before, before the everyday lives of everyday people were totally shattered.

    Nostalgia is often associated with memories of childhood and the innocence that tends to go with it, and this is definitely the case for Joe when, for instance, he's remembering the smells of his mother's cooking or the way she read "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" to the family. You might even call this sentimentality.

    One of the reasons people are nostalgic, though, is that they think their present kind of sucks. That's certainly the case for Joe. From his current vantage point, it might seem to him like maybe he took simple things like his mother's cooking for granted in the past. Now, his memories are all he has left, and that heightens the feeling of nostalgia pervading the book.

    If nostalgia is the feeling of wanting to go back to the past, imagine how strong this feeling must be for someone like Joe, stuck in a waking nightmare forever. Joe's longing allows us to extrapolate from his memories the life he could have led, and thus Joe becomes a fully fleshed-out (ahem) person for us instead of just a wartime statistic.

  • Genre

    War Drama

    This one should be pretty self-evident. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that this book definitely isn't a glorification of war. War dramas don't necessarily need to be pro-war (by which we mean supportive of a particular war, not just gung-ho about war in general), and definitely some of the more famous war dramas are not: consider books like All Quiet on the Western Front and The Things They Carried. A book's attitude or stance toward war is perhaps the most important thing to consider in determining what kind of war drama it is.


    You may not think it at first, but Johnny Got His Gun is also a coming-of-age story. You might say, though, that it's a coming-of-age story that gets disrupted before it gets to adulthood.

    What makes this novel a coming-of-age story is that we get different stages in Joe's development and adolescence, and they are things that most teenagers go through in some form or another: girlfriend drama, friend drama, family drama, all kinds of drama. Oh, yeah: there's also war drama. What, did you think this was The Catcher in the Rye?

    War is what shakes up this story as a regular coming-of-age tale. Joe tells us that he went to war without really understanding "what the fight was all about" (2.22). Now, in a regular coming-of-age story, this kind of naivety might be mildly punished—you know, just enough for Joe to learn his lesson and grow up a little. In this novel, however, our hero's naivety gets the crap beaten out of it.

    We might consider something Joe thinks on the day that he leaves for the war:

    Oh Kareen why do they have a war right now just when we find each other? Kareen we've got more important things than war. Us Kareen you and me in a house. (3.40)

    Joe's first real experience of romantic love is rudely interrupted, and as we know, it's not going to get the chance to recover. Joe doesn't get to learn and grow from his experiences; instead, his movement toward adulthood is halted, and Joe gets suspended in this strange limbo where there is no real future for him. So maybe instead of coming-of-age, we might call it coming-of-the-worst-reality-you-could-possibly-imagine.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Wait, wasn't this guy's name was Joe? Who's this Johnny dude?

    Fear not, Shmoopers, for you have not misread an entire novel. The title Johnny Got His Gun comes from a popular ballad from 1917 called "Over There." The song was recorded by 1917-style American idols like Billy Murray (sorry, not the one from Ghostbusters, though that would have been awesome) and Nora Bayes.

    The song was basically like: "Hey, Europeans, here comes America to kick some butt." It's pure, grade-A cheese. Have a sample:

    Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.
    Take it on the run, on the run, on the run.
    Hear them calling you and me,
    Every son of liberty.
    Hurry right away, no delay, go today.
    Make your Daddy glad to have had such a lad.
    Tell your sweetheart not to pine,
    To be proud her boy's in line.

    Over there, over there,
    Send the word, send the word over there
    That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming…

    There's an optimistic call to arms if we've ever seen one. (We've got to admit it's kind of catchy, too.) Here's the message: make your country proud, make your family proud, make the girl you like proud, save the whole freakin' world because you're awesome.

    By changing the first line to the past tense, Trumbo is suggesting that we think about the aftermath to a song like this. There are a few ways of reading the title grammatically: What exactly is the gun that Johnny/Joe got? Or is it that Johnny/Joe went and got his gun when he was called, and the events in the book are the result? Also, why is the main character named Joe and not Johnny?

    So don't be tempted to accidently call the book "Johnny Get Your Gun." It's in the past tense on purpose. This is book is totally about consequences; everything that happens in this book in real time happens after Joe left the war.

  • Setting

    An English Hospital after World War I

    Well, that's the literal setting, at least. It's also Colorado at the very beginning of the twentieth century, Los Angeles circa 1914, and the trenches somewhere in northern France circa 1918. Joe's literally lying in a bed somewhere in a hospital, but a lot of what we read about happens in his head, when he remembers his past.

    What makes this hospital setting unusual, though, is that Joe actually isn't completely sure where it is. He's probably taken for an Englishman, but whether the hospital is in English, or France, or really anywhere else is a mystery to Joe, who can only make guesses.

    It's ironic that after participating in a multinational war primarily fought over issues like national boundaries, national influence, and national alliances, Joe can't even figure out which nation he's in—and his body has been so mutilated that no one can identify which nation he belongs to, either.

    We move around a lot, but at least one thing is certain about the book's setting: Joe is cut off from his home.

    What is Joe's home? Is it his country? Or is it something more specific? Joe thinks mostly of Shale City. This is the place he gets sentimental about, and this is the place he gets homesick for. At the same time, Joe condemns the kind of blind patriotism that got him in the war in the first place. For Joe, it seems like there is a difference between your actual home and the idea of a "native land" (10.9) that you travel long distances to fight for. The first is a real place; the second may just be an illusion.

    On that note, the title Johnny Got His Gun is derived from the lyrics of an overly optimistic World War I ditty called "Over There," which implies—obviously—a place that isn't "here." Be sure to check out Shmoop's World War I analysis for a summary of the U.S.'s experience in the war, but our point right now is that U.S. soldiers were going overseas to fight for something that didn't seem to have any bearing on their lives at home.

    Why did they go? To fight for their native land. What did their native land have to do with this particular war? Pretty much nothing. We suspect that even the European soldiers fighting this war had similar feelings. If ever there was a war with a confusing, abstract purpose, it was World War I.

    What Joe learns is that for him, home is a specific, local place you feel intimately connected to. It's not necessarily a big, abstract, political idea like a nation, and Joe finds that buying into big, abstract, political ideas like that can really get you into trouble.

  • Writing Style

    Straightforward, Stream-of-Consciousness

    No, Dalton Trumbo isn't missing the punctuation keys on his typewriter. While he might not use any words that will send you running to a dictionary, his insistence on mimicking the language of an average Joe (especially when that average Joe can't speak and is confined to thought alone) means that Joe often thinks in sentences that run together or that are only punctuated by exclamations of "O Jesus Christ."

    Stream-of-consciousness was a technique associated with the Modernist movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Here's how it works: a writer tries to mimic on the page the way a person thinks and the ways that words and thoughts are associated when a person thinks.

    Now, we don't always think in complete sentences, right? Sometimes, we just think in words or sound or images, all pretty loosely connected. Guess what? That's just the way Joe thinks—especially, when he's anxious, which is pretty often. Take a look at this doozy, for example: "He's still got air and he's not struggling and he's got willow trees and he can think and he's not in pain" (5.10).

    The thoughts and images all just kind run together (willow trees, anyone?), but we can figure out what's going on, because we've been anxious and had run-on thoughts like that, too.

    Sometimes, when Joe is panicky, he'll repeat things over and over again in order to get hold of himself:

    He had to stop this. He had to stop things from fading away and then rushing back at him. He had to stop the smotherings and the sinkings and the risings. He had to stop the fear that made him want to yell and holler and laugh and claw himself to death with a pair of hands that were rotting in some hospital dump. (7.1)

    "He had to stop" gets repeated over and over, and this shows us that Joe is trying to take control of a situation he has very little control over (and in case you were curious, this kind of repetition at the beginning of a sentence is totally called anaphora).

    It's important for Trumbo to make Joe someone we can relate to, and that's one of the reasons he has Joe think in everyday, colloquial language that is believable. Joe's not a scholar, but he's not illiterate, either: he's average, remember? So the language he uses is neither easy nor difficult. Even though the stream-of-consciousness can be hard to follow, the actual language Trumbo uses is fairly easy to follow. We can usually understand Joe even when he's going off into panic land.

  • Technology

    We all love technology, right? It lets you do things like go on Shmoop. What's not to love?

    Well, okay: there totally are things not to love about technology, and maybe that's why a lot of us have a love-hate relationship with it. Technology's kind of a double-edged sword. Take nuclear energy, for instance: you can use it as a source a power, but you can also use it as a source of destruction. It all depends on what you want to do with it—and how well you understand the consequences of using it.

    We're gonna go ahead and call technology a motif in Johnny Got His Gun. It's not really a symbol for anything; it's more of a presence that serves different purposes in different ways. The issue of technology is a tough one to crack in this novel, as things that initially seem positive get harnessed for nefarious purposes. Let's take a look at a few examples:

    • The telephone. The entire novel begins with the telephone ringing, which is Joe's first indication that he has been wounded in the war and made deaf. At the same time, we're treated to the story of Joe's parents' courtship over some of the first telephone lines.
    • The airplane. When the aviator Lincoln Beachey comes to town, the school superintendent gives a long speech about how airplanes are "ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity and mutual understanding" (2.11). We the readers are supposed to pick up on the irony of this statement, because airplanes were one of the deadliest instruments of destruction during World War I.
    • Trains. Trains are hardly a new technology at this point, but still, they do carry loads of young men away from their homes to their deaths at the front. Headed by a screaming Christ, these trains become symbols of death.
    • Medicine. Let's not forget the fact that Joe's very survival is something of a medical technological triumph: "The war had been a wonderful thing for the doctors and he was the lucky guy who had profited by everything they learned" (7.14). Do you smell that irony? We certainly do: medical technology has made it possible for doctors to keep Joe alive, but, depending on how you look it, what they've really done is trap Joe somewhere between life and death. Joe actually thinks this is worse than dying outright.
    • Morse code. Even the Morse code that Joe resorts to tapping out (again, not a new technology for 1918) gives the sense of an impersonal, technological mechanization. Also, in the end, Joe's communication via Morse code goes nowhere: nobody listens to him, and he's stuck just where he was, probably forever. It looks like Morse code is only an effective way to communicate if you're in war or commerce.

    With the exception of the telephone, one of the things that these technologies have in common is that they seem to erase individuality: an airplane dropping bombs or shooting bullets from the sky doesn't think about any one person in particular but just sees the enemy as a distant, undistinguishable mass; trains don't discriminate either, but carry off people by the cartloads; medicine doesn't seem to see Joe as a person at all, but just as a case of "amputate this, amputate that"; and Morse code reduces language to a series of blips, most of them calling for help (think about how Joe's tapping compares to the new nurse actually tracing out the letters of "MERRY CHRISTMAS" on his chest).

    Now, we aren't ones to hate on technology, given how we're a website and all, but we've got to admit that it doesn't come out looking that great in this novel. It's not that Dalton Trumbo hates everything made out of metal (after all, who doesn't love telephones?): it's how technology is used in Johnny Got His Gun that seems to be the problem. The real question is whether or not its misuse is inevitable.

    Does technology have to be dehumanizing? Does war make technology more dehumanizing, or does the dehumanizing potential of technology help create a mindset that leads to war (if you start to see people as not quite people, then it's easier to kill them)? Or both? These are some of the big questions Trumbo raises. There aren't any easy answers here, but there's a lot of food for thought.

  • The Good Ol' Days

    The flipside of technology is what we're going to call the "Good Ol' Days"—you know, that blissful time before technology, when all people did was lie in grass and eat strawberries, without a care in the world? That's the world of the pastoral, and it makes kind of splash in the flashback sections of Johnny Got His Gun.

    Okay, we're exaggerating a bit, but Joe sure does long for the days of childhood in Colorado. Basically, what he's feeling is nostalgia for a way of life where people grew their own vegetables and lived simple lives without the complications of big mean capitalist warfare. Many of us remember our childhoods fondly, but imagine how much more we'd miss those times if we were stuck in the trenches surrounded by the rotting bodies of our friends?

    The Good Ol' Days tend to be associated with our youth, because for whatever reason, a lot of us end up thinking that everything was better when you were younger, right? In Joe's youth, a lot of his positive memories tend to center around delicious homegrown goodness, such as:

    • The food that his mother cooks and cans and preserves and bakes on her own (2.1-4).
    • The cornucopia of vegetables that his father grows for the family in his garden on his own (9.10-14).
    • The hamburger guy who sells Joe hamburgers every Saturday (2.6) because there are no corporate chains in good ol' Shale City (mainly because they don't exist yet).

    You might have noticed that the memories associated with the Good Ol' Days tend to revolve around the senses (smell and taste are big ones for the novel). Poor faceless Joe, of course, has been thrust into a world where metal bombs deny a person even these, the simplest and most basic of pleasures.

    That's one way of measuring the contrast between the pastoral and the technological in Johnny Got His Gun. Considering what Joe says about how he think the future will look (20.28), it's possible that he sees World War I as a catalyst that permanently separates the good ol' days (the past) from an inhuman world governed by technology and warfare (the future).

    We've got more to say about this idea, so be sure to take a peek at the "Nostalgia" section under "Tone."

  • The Fishing Rod

    We could get all Freudian, but we're going to focus another way the fishing rod is symbolic: it stands for Joe's relationship with his father.

    First things first. When Joe breaks the news to his dad that he wants to go fishing with Bill Harper, his dad, instead of being sore about it, offers to let them use his expensive rod. "There was nothing his father treasured more" (9.5), Joe says, so it's a big deal. As of now, the rod seems to indicate something like the trusting and loving bond that exists between Joe and his dad. After all, you don't let just anybody go off with your most prized possession.

    Of course, we know what ends up happening to the rod: Joe calls what happened "the terrible thing" (9.7). Melodramatic? Maybe... if it were just a stupid fishing rod. But what makes it terrible is that Joe initially thought that he was the one deciding to gain a little independence; as it turns out, he doesn't even have a choice in the matter, because the symbol of independence is taken from him.

    Think of what Joe says towards the end of the chapter: "He and his father had lost everything. Themselves and the rod" (9.21). What leads Joe to this conclusion?

    Well, the problem is that even though the fishing rod is probably mass-produced, and even though Joe's dad could theoretically just go out and buy another one, the guy just doesn't have enough money to do it: "[N]ow that it was gone he wouldn't have enough money to buy another and so he was a failure" (9.17).

    Well, that escalated quickly. The fact that Joe's father can't afford another fishing rod causes Joe to lose a lot (and we mean a lot) of respect for him. Joe is so enslaved by the idea of success being measured by money that he can't even understand the immense wealth provided, for example, by his father's garden (9.9).

    There's a connection between the way Joe measures his father in terms of his income and the way war (and sometimes technology) measures in terms of numbers, not individuals. Trumbo gives us the sense that there's some kind of a connection between these two attitudes, as if think in materialistic terms makes it easier to see war as something legit.

    So going back to the line about how Joe and his father have lost everything, what does it mean that they have lost "themselves"? Well, they've lost their relationship, and they've lost respect, and the implication is that they aren't going to gain those things back. So it really is a "terrible thing," isn't it?

  • The Rat

    Ah, the rat. Even though he likes to eat, he's not the fat and friendly kind (yes, we just ruined Ratatouille for you forever):

    It didn't matter whether the rat was gnawing on your buddy or a damned German it was all the same. Your real enemy was the rat and when you saw it there fat and well fed chewing on something that might be you why you went nuts. (7.29)

    Nicely put, Joe. If we were intent on ruining literature, we might translate this statement into something like: "Don't hate the player; hate the game." But we're not. So we won't.

    Basically, the rat is like a furry little land-vulture: he profits off of other peoples' destruction. The more people who die, the fatter he gets—and Joe himself is like a constantly regenerating all-you-can-eat buffet.

    But for Joe, the rat also represents something very, very specific.

    First of all, let's notice how the rat doesn't seem to discriminate between sides: he just up and eats everyone. Second, Joe and the other soldiers hate the rat more than they hate their supposed enemies; in fact, they hate the rat so much that they'll even fight it to defend those enemies. These guys don't want to see anybody eaten up by the rat; the rat is the real enemy.

    But before we get to what the rat represents, let's take a closer gander at what Joe says about the rat "chewing on something that might be you." Imagine you're, you know, watching a rat munch on the dead face of a Prussian officer. Seeing that makes you understand that at any moment, that rat could be chowing down on the grade-A meat of your own mug.

    Think about that. At any time, you might be the rat's next dinner.

    All right. So based on everything we've just said, who is this rat? The short answer: it's the people who get fat off the spoils of war. Who gets fat off of war? There's no simple answer, but try these for size:

    • People who are in control of industries that are particularly important during wartime, like weapons, artillery, textiles, food, steel, airplanes… basically, a lot of industries (see what Joe says in 19.18 about prices going up during a war).
    • Politicians looking to increase their country's sphere of influence (see what Joe says in 19.25).

    We totally smell a rat. Could there be more?

  • Christ

    Okay, folks, it's about to get real, because we're talking about the big J.C. here.

    Yes, we know: Christ is, like, Western literature's all-purpose symbol (unless he's literally in the story, playing himself, which as far as we know only happens in the Bible), but in Johnny Got His Gun, his role is more complicated than usual. See Joe's "Character" bio for one discussion on how the figure of Christ figures in the novel, but here we're going to ask the question: Why Christ?

    In Joe's "Character Analysis," we mention how the image of Joe laid out on his hospital bed brings to mind a modernized crucifixion, with Joe's arms and legs are amputated rather than affixed to a cross. Before it was a symbol for Christianity, the cross was best known a Roman torture device.

    Hey, did someone say Romans? Because Dalton Trumbo totally wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's film Spartacus in 1960. Know what that one's about? Yep: it's about an everyman slave who, when forced to fight as a gladiator, decides to fight the powers that be and rises up to lead a slave revolution.

    No, we're not just going off on a random tangent. Remember in Chapter 15 how Joe goes on that weird rant about ancient slaves? Like this?:

    He got to thinking of all the prisoners he had ever read about or heard about all the little guys from the beginning of the doing of things who had been caught and imprisoned and who had died without ever becoming free again. (15.4)

    Huh. So Joe equates the little guys with slaves. Sounds a bit like Spartacus.

    But we're not here to talk about Spartacus; we're here to talk about Jesus.

    So let's try to remember that before he was the biggest thing since sliced bread, Jesus Christ was also a little guy trying to fight the powers that… were. Though he's not necessarily an average Joe, being the son of God and all, he certainly gets refigured as one in Johnny Got His Gun, which casts him as both a 16-year-old runaway and then as Joe himself. He's still into his usual shtick—conjuring beverages, having bad luck with thirteens, being associated with sacrifice and whatnot—but something is missing in the equation.

    The biblical Christ's job is to spread the word of God on Earth against an establishment that wants him suppressed, and then to redeem mankind through his death. Joe also wants to spread the word (about war) against an establishment that wants him suppressed, and to redeem mankind through his (almost) death. Only this time, we don't quite make it to the redemption part.

    Think about what Joe says when he's imagining visiting churches on his grand tour: "Set me high on your altars and call on god to look down upon his murderous little children his dearly beloved little children" (19.27). Well, those murderous little children can't be redeemed if Joe never makes it off of his hospital bed, and that's a big problem.

    It's as if World War I silences both Joe and Christ—no one's going to let those kinds of messages get out anymore.

  • Lazarus

    Did you notice how Trumbo organizes the novel around two parts called "The Living" and "The Dead"? We're going to go out on a limb here (pun intended) and say these categories are pretty important in Johnny Got His Gun.

    "The living" and "the dead" may seem like distinct categories, but there's a lot of gray area between the two here, even in terms of the novel's structure. First of all, Book I is called "The Dead," and Book II s called "The Living." Shouldn't those be reversed?

    Nope. That's because Joe, who in many ways is "dead," spends the second half of the story trying to come back to life in some way.

    Now, it's no coincidence that we have a character named Lazarus in the story. The German soldier nicknamed Lazarus is pretty dead, as far as dead things go. Yet a bunch of weird freak accidents keep "resurrecting" him in literal and grotesque ways. We're not talking zombies here, folks: we mean that each time this dude is buried, a bomb lands somewhere and sends his dead body back up above ground for all to see.

    This is a pretty far cry from the miracle that the biblical Jesus performs on the biblical Lazarus, where the resurrection of the dead is something to be joyous about. It's also a lot more hygienic.

    Joe himself toes the line between the living and the dead, naming himself "the nearest thing to a dead man on earth" (10.23). Later in the novel, he actually compares himself to Lazarus:

    [A] lid had been lifted from a coffin a stone had been rolled away from a tomb and a dead man was tapping and talking. Never before in the world had the dead spoken not since Lazarus and Lazarus didn't say anything. Now he would tell them everything. (18.21)

    Of course, Joe doesn't get the chance to tell them everything, and after he is shut down by the doctor, he feels that they are "burying him alive" (20.23). So then how is the biblical story of Lazarus re-worked in the novel? What happened to that happy ending? Why does that kind of ending no longer seem to be possible? Or can we see Johnny Got His Gun as Joe's chance to spread his message?

  • The Body

    How can you not pay attention to Joe's body? We probably feel the way a lot of Joe's nurses do: maybe we're compelled to stare, or maybe we want to be sick, or maybe we want run out of the room and start to cry.

    Okay, so it's hard not to get fixated on the grotesqueness of Joe's body. So how do we begin to analyze it?

    The answer is that, as usual, there are a lot of ways to approach it. But before we start, let's point out that because Joe's body is so central to the conflict in the novel (after all, if his body were any nearer to okay than it is, then Joe's problems wouldn't be the same), the bodies of other characters are probably going to be important as well, since symbols tend to work by extending outward like that.

    Particularly in the first half of the book, a lot of Joe's walks down memory lane are prompted by certain sensations attached to parts of his body. For instance, Joe's realization that he's lost his left arm makes him think about Kareen, who gave him a ring before she left (it was on his left hand) and lay on his left arm all night before he left. Similarly, when Joe feels heat, he remembers working out in the desert.

    Even though you might not think about it much, the body's kind of a place where all experiences occur. Every time you see, hear, feel, taste, or smell something, it happens on or in your body. So the fact that Joe has lost the majority of his body means that he's actually lost a lot more than just his physical parts.

    Given that the body is more than just the sum of its parts, when there's bodily destruction in the novel, it's a big freakin' deal. In fact, Trumbo makes Joe's mutilation as scary possible by not telling us everything at once. It's not like: "One day Joe woke up and wouldn't you know it, he had no limbs or face! Aw, shucks." Trumbo makes it real by gradually revealing just what has been lost, and what those lost parts meant to Joe beyond the fact that, yeah, they were his arms and legs.

    As a symbol, the body is kind of weird, because it can represent both life and death. Life itself is largely a series of bodily experiences, but at the same time, there's nothing deader than a dead body. This idea isn't lost on Joe, who wonders about what it means for him to have only part of a body left. This makes him think about where his amputated limbs went:

    Do you wrap it up in an old newspaper and throw it onto a junk heap? Do you bury it? After all it's part of a man a very important part of a man and it should be treated respectfully. Do you take it out and bury it and say a little prayer? You should because it's human flesh and it died young and it deserves a good sendoff. (3.15)

    Later on, Joe thinks about how you can keep cell tissue "alive" in a lab. All of these ways of thinking blur the line between what it means to be alive and what it means to be dead. In fact, the body itself stops being an accurate way of measuring life or death: Joe is technically alive, in the sense that the doctors have managed to keep him alive, but his existence sure doesn't seem to resemble life. If half of Joe's body is dead and thrown on a trash heap, then is Joe himself alive or dead?

    That's not the only confusion between live and dead bodies we get in this novel. Think of how Lazarus's rotten corpse is thrown around like a night-of-the-living-dead rag doll, or how the wounded soldiers described by Joe in 7.12 are hooked up to tubes just to perform basic functions. Dead? Alive? Who can tell?

    Johnny Got Your Gun also gives us the scary idea of a healthy mind trapped inside a non-functional body. This certainly applies to Joe, who calls himself a "prisoner" on more than one occasion (see 15.4 and 19.8 for two examples). So now the body is a jail cell too? Yikes. At one point in the novel, Joe also imagines the reverse—a body trapped by a maimed mind—when he thinks about the Limey subaltern who goes mad after falling into a rotting Lazarus:

    The young Limey had legs and arms and he could talk and see and hear…  And lying in another English hospital was a guy who wasn't a bit crazy but who wished he was. He and the young Limey should swap minds. Then they'd both be happy. (12.30)

    So this dude has a live body but a dead mind. Nobody gets a break in this novel, do they?

    And finally, not to always bring it back to Christ, but we're just going to point out that in the Bible, Christ's body is important, too, since it becomes, among other things, a metaphor for the Christian community. What happens if that body loses its legs, arms, mouth, nose, ears, and eyes?

    Chew on that, Shmoopers.

  • The Little Guys

    Ladies and gentlemen, let's talk about Marxism.

    In a really, really concise nutshell, Marxism argues that society, instead of being organized according to who has the most money (or "capital"), should be organized around who has the "means of production," or who actually works and makes the stuff that helps society function. No 1% here.

    Now, there's way, way more to Marxism than this, but for the sake of this book, that's pretty much all you need to know.

    So what's the deal with Marxism in Johnny Got His Gun?

    Remember those "little guys" who keep popping up all over the novel? Whoever they are, it seems as if they're the ones always being sent to war to do the dirty work of... presumably the big guys, who are also never completely identified.

    Part of the reason why Trumbo uses these vague terms instead of having Joe recite an all-out Communist Manifesto (which he sort of does, anyway) is that he's trying to show the general logic behind the idea instead of going all political and trying to come up with an agenda that the reader will automatically judge. There may be political consequences to the stuff Joe is saying, but the stuff he's saying is based on something deeper than just politics.

    The "little guys" first appear when Joe obsesses about war at the end of Part I (10.10, 10.18, 10.25), but it's not totally clear who he's referring to—beyond, you know, the everyday people who get drafted into wars. We don't get any sense that there might be Marxist undertones in this idea until the end of the novel, in passages like this (the "we" is the little guys):

    [W]e we we are the world we are what makes it go round we make bread and cloth and guns we are the hub of the wheel and the spokes and the wheel itself without us you would be hungry naked worms and we will not die. (20.30)

    Whoa. Where did that come from?

    Joe thinks that it's the common people like him who have the power to prevent future wars. Joe thinks that governments—and the rich, powerful in charge of industries that can profit from war—will continue to get into wars because 1) it benefits them economically, and 2) they don't have to do the fighting themselves, so there's nothing really at risk for them. If all the "little people" wised up and just said no, says Joe, there wouldn't be any wars.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Limited Omniscient) / Joe

    Despite the fact that we're always inside Joe's head, Johnny Got His Gun is told in a third-person voice, meaning that Joe never refers to himself as "I" except in direct thoughts. It's a bit strange, because clearly we are getting Joe's perspective on things, yet there's still this odd narrating voice that insists on referring to Joe as "he."

    In fact, a lot of the time, we're getting what are clearly Joe's thoughts through this third-person filter. Like here: "Oh Jesus Christ they'd cut off his left arm" (3.6). Or here: "Maybe nothing was real not even himself oh god and wouldn't that be wonderful" (8.15). The narrator isn't the one who thinks "Oh Jesus Christ" or "oh god and wouldn't that be wonderful," and yet it's not a direct thought, because then it would read: "Oh Jesus Christ they'd cut off my left arm."

    This is what people who spend a lot of time in libraries call free indirect discourse.

    So why wouldn't Dalton Trumbo just write the novel in the first person? Let's take the first line of the book as an example. It starts with this line: "He wished the phone would stop ringing." In first person, this would become: "I wished the phone would stop ringing."

    Okay. The difference is really subtle, but in the first person, Joe has a lot more control over the situation. Sure, he still can't stop the phone from ringing, but he's still asserting that he as a person wishes that it would. In the third person, it's as if things are happening to Joe as a passive agent rather than Joe doing those things actively; not only is the annoying phone ringing, but all Joe can do is wish that it would stop.

    Given how the conflict of the book comes to revolve around Joe's helplessness, this seemingly small detail might make a huge difference in how we read the book.

    But just to be hypothetical: do you think the book would have been more effective if it had been written in the first person? One thing to consider here is that in the movie and stage adaptations of Johnny Got His Gun (check out our "Best of the Web" section), things do happen in first person. How does it change your experience of the work?

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Anticipation Stage

    You might say that Joe is literally unfulfilled: he has no limbs or senses. His desire becomes to reconnect with the world in his new condition.

    Dream Stage

    It's, again, literally a dream stage: all of Joe's memories reinforce his desire to reconnect with the living.

    Frustration Stage

    Yeah, there's a lot of frustration in this book. Learning how to measure time, learning where things are and who people are, and learning how to communicate—all this takes Joe years, and there are a lot of pitfalls along the way.

    Nightmare Stage

    Things get tougher for Joe when he starts tapping. His usually nice nurse gets impatient with him, and the doctor starts injecting him with morphine to quiet him down. And then, of course, there is the literal nightmare involving Christ on a train.

    Destruction or Death Wish Stage

    This is where things finally fall apart for Joe. The doctor shows Joe that all his efforts to communicate have been for naught. Joe has been wishing for either life or death this whole time, but ultimately he's denied both.

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition (Initial Situation)

    Your Average Joe

    Things start out pretty normal for Joe. Well, yes, his father dies, but that's not hugely abnormal. We start out thinking that Joe is just a guy like us.

    Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

    How Did It Happen?

    This is when we find out that Joe is in the hospital, and that he's badly hurt. We aren't given the extent of Joe's condition all at once, and even when do we find out about all the physical damage, there is still the plot buildup surrounding Joe's life and how he got to be where he is.

    Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

    Finally, A Little Attention

    Another conflict in this book revolves around Joe trying to break out of his physical prison and communicate with the world. Tension builds as he learns how measure time, and then how to tap. It peaks when the tapping is finally successful with the new nurse. It seems as if Joe's just about to break through the communication barrier.

    Falling Action

    It's Against Regulations

    Oh, but what a barrier it is. Joe is successful beyond what he could have dreamed of in terms of finding a way to commune. But his hopes come crashing down when he realizes that the world doesn't seem to care about what he has to say (and he has a lot to say). You could say that the action falls immediately after he receives the second response from the doctor, since before that moment, we're still excitedly anticipating what his reply to Joe will be.

    Resolution (Denouement)

    You Say You Want a Revolution

    Well, now Joe sees the way things are, and he doesn't like it. He thinks about everything he has gone through he decides that there need to be some major changes around here. It's kind of the "moral of the story" moment.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Johnny Got His Gun is going to have a bit of an unconventional structure for this kind of plot analysis, because there are multiple ways of determining what the central "conflict" of the story is. Is the conflict Joe trying to reconcile the fact of his lost limbs and senses? Is it Joe trying to communicate with the outside world? Either one is valid. We at Shmoop have decided to use the more external conflict (Joe trying to get the nurse and doctor to understand him), but that doesn't mean that this is the only way to map out three acts in this book. We'll explain our reasoning below.

    Act I

    Act I lasts from the beginning of the novel until Joe decides that he needs to start measuring time at the beginning of Book II. Yeah, that's a big first act. The reason we chose it is because most of Book I is stage setting. We get to know Joe pretty intimately, but nothing "happens," in terms of plot, except that Joe discovers his physical mutilation. His initial revelation could also mark the end of Act I, as both are points of no return; but even after he realizes how badly injured he is, nothing really changes until Book II.

    Act II

    The end of Act II, in which there's been a lot of struggling to cope the reality of being catastrophically mutilated, ends when Joe's at his lowest, when the doctor doses Joe with morphine for the first time and he has that crazy vision of the train. This is Joe's lowest point because things start to look up afterwards, when he gets a new nurse.

    Act III

    The rest of the book constitutes Act III. Here, we recover a bit from the downer of the morphine episode: the new nurse who gives us some hope, and Joe seems to be on the brink of making it all worth it, at least in a way, when… tragedy strikes. Yet again.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    Pop Culture References

    • "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" (3.39)
    • "Over There" (3.39)
    • Lincoln Beachey (2.9)
    • Evelyn Nesbit (14.16)