Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun Setting

By Dalton Trumbo


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.

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