Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun Tone

By Dalton Trumbo

Tone

Ironic

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.

Angry

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?

Nostalgic

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.

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