Joe is the unfortunate soul who gets called to war and loses the one-in-a-million lottery of getting blown to a stump and surviving. The narrative is made up of his memories and his ruminations on war in the aftermath of his condition—and of him trying to make the world acknowledge his existence. No arms, no legs, no mouth, no nose, no ears, no eyes, no problem? Not so much.
What's the best way to get to know a person? Ideally, it's by getting the chance to walk in their shoes. Unfortunately, Joe doesn't have any shoes, but we get something even better: we get inside his head, and we see his entire life.
Now, in the book's present, we know that Joe is probably in his early twenties, and that he's an all-American-with-a-capital-A kind of guy. As a character, he's actually kind of unspectacular before the accident. His name, Joe, is (no offense to what are inevitably a lot of Joes out there) kind run-of-the-mill, and his last name, Bonham, comes from the French word bon homme, meaning "good man."
So Joe is basically just an average Joe. He has fond memories of childhood Christmases, he takes fishing trips with his dad, he has girlfriend drama. Snore.
But that's kind of the point.
Joe is a really easy character to understand and sympathize with. His experiences are things that pretty much everyone can relate to on some level. Getting older and becoming more distant from your parents? Being cheated on and wanting to run away? Show of hands, anyone?
That's what we thought. Trumbo wants you to be able to imagine that Joe is the kid down the street—or, even better, to imagine that he's you.
The novel's first line of dialogue is: "Hey Joe. Front and center" (1.4). In a way, it's as if Joe has been randomly picked out to serve as an example for the rest of us.
If you bothered to show up to English class, then you've probably become an expert on identifying Christ figures in literature. Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath, Simon in Lord of the Flies, Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea… we're the first to admit that Western literature loves a good Christ figure.
Well, folks, your good friend Dalton Trumbo makes this one really easy for you, because he straight up tells you all about his own Christ figure:
He had a vision of himself as a new kind of Christ as a man who carries within himself all the seeds of a new order of things. He was the new messiah of the battlefields saying to people as I am so shall you be. (20.28)
Wait a minute.
Wasn't there already a Christ figure in the novel? A really creepy one who climbed on top of trains and screamed?
Let's think about this. In Joe's morphine visions, he imagines Christ to be someone who signals death on the battlefield, in the form of a sixteen-year-old who is presumably going to die. But instead of sacrificing himself as the Biblical Christ does, the "sacrifice" is the trainloads of young men bound for the warfront. On top of that, it's a sacrifice that doesn't seem to be redeeming anybody.
A bit later in the novel, when Joe is thinking about the story of Christ's birth, he imagines Mary sensing that the joy of the occasion will come at a great cost to her child. We know that it totally does: in the Bible, Christ dies so that the sins of mankind can be redeemed.
Now think of that image of Christ crucified on the cross with nails in his hands and feet, and then think of Joe in the hospital bed with no arms or legs. It's like a modern, World War I version of a crucifixion. Furthermore, the sacrifice he has made seems even worse even than death to him. But where is the redemption? (Check out our "Symbols" section for more on this.)
Scroll back up to that quote.
Joe's fate is basically a warning that if we keep fighting wars, then many more of us will end up like Joe. We're only redeemed if we learn from Joe's suffering and heed his message about pointing the gun at the makers of war instead of at each other. In that sense, Joe has "died" for us; it's up to us now to listen to what he has to say.
Pretty biblical, huh?
Piggybacking off the idea of Joe as a Christ figure, let's talk a little more about that ending, eh?
In particular, let's talk about Joe as an anti-war symbol. In Chapter 19, he goes on a tirade about how he wants to be carted around the country in a glass case as an exhibit so that people might "learn all there was to know about war" (19.12). Joe wants to be a symbol against war, because then at least his suffering may do some good.
However, after the doctor denies his request, here's what Joe has to say: "He was the future he was a perfect picture of the future and they were afraid to let anyone see what the future was like" (20.30). The gist of it seems to be that because Joe's been denied the chance to show himself to people in the hope that there will be more like him, chances are good that everyone will end up like him eventually—at least as long as society keeps going to war.
What's even worse is that somewhere, there's someone in charge who knows this, too, and this person also knows that showing off Joe would be bad for morale. Think Joe's ever gonna get out of that hospital?
If Joe is an anti-war symbol, then he's a subversive one whose very existence threatens the status quo. He's like a dirty secret someone is trying to cover up. Don't be fooled, says the ending. Joe may not be anyone's poster-child, but he's still there in that hospital bed.