Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun The Body

By Dalton Trumbo

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.

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