Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun Lazarus

By Dalton Trumbo


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?

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