Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun Christ

By Dalton Trumbo


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.

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