Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun Freedom and Confinement

By Dalton Trumbo

Freedom and Confinement

Only when you're deaf you're lonesome. You're godforsaken. (1.30)

Joe has no idea how bad it's actually going to get. Trumbo describes how Joe discovers his injuries one at a time in order to build tension and give each injury its due. Going deaf? That's totally awful. Losing your left arm? Also totally awful. And your right arm? And your legs? And your jaw? And your eyes? Your whole face? Somehow, it's more frightening to hear about these injuries one by one than to get them all at once—sort of like how it can be more frightening to get the details one of individual soldier's death than to hear about impersonal statistics.

No matter how far you are separated from other people if you have an idea of time why then you are in the same world with them you are part of them but if you lose time the others go ahead of you and you are left alone hanging in air lost to everything forever. (11.9)

Joe is so alone in the world that he will take any little thing he can get. But why does learning how to measure time become such an important part of the plot? What does it do for our relationship with Joe?

It was more of a panic it was the panicky dread of losing yourself even from yourself. It made him a little sick at his stomach. (11.11)

Joe is wondering how much time he has lost. All this emphasis on how reality has been blurred and on how little Joe has to anchor himself to it (remember his nightmares of the rat?) helps show the extent of his imprisonment. He doesn't even have the luxury of scratching out days on the wall of his cell. He barely even knows when it's day or night.

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)

Part of the horror of Joe's situation comes from the fact that he is totally, completely lucid about everything. This is one of the reasons he thinks he is able to speak for the dead. Are you convinced by his logic?

Then he could talk. Then he would have smashed through his silence and blackness and helplessness. (13.18)

Okay, let's get meta. Communication becomes the only real way that Joe can "escape" his confinement, since there is no way for him to get physically better. The ability to be acknowledged as a person with thoughts would, in a sense, give Joe at least a small sliver of his life back. So, okay, Joe doesn't succeed at getting his message out to the world in the end, but what about the book itself? Isn't that Joe's message? And isn't it out in the world? There was at least one real person out there in Joe's situation whose story inspired Trumbo to write this novel: does Johnny Got His Gun help that person tell his story, even if he never knew that it would be told?

It never seemed to occur to her that there was a mind an intelligence working behind the rhythm of his head against the pillow […] She never thought that to be dumb was a sickness and that he had found the cure for it that he was trying to tell her he was well he was not dumb any longer he was a man who could talk. (14.2)

It's easy to write Joe off as just another casualty of war, but trouble starts to brew when he demands to be heard and recognized as an individual. Why doesn't anybody want to take the time to listen to poor old Joe? Is it because it's easier to forget about him? How do you think people rationalize forgetting about him like this?

He got to thinking of all the prisoners he had ever read about or heard about all the little guys from the beginning of the doing of things who had been caught and imprisoned and who had died without ever becoming free again. (15.4)

Wait, why is Joe using words like "caught" and "imprisoned" to describe being in the army? Why does he equate the army with prison? Is it because both, in his mind, strip people of their freedom and their humanity? What does he really have a problem with? See the "Christ" section under "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for another spin on this quote.

He too had been taken away from his home. He too had been put into the service of another without his consent. He too had been sent to a foreign country far from his native parts. He too had been forced to fight against other slaves of his own kind in a strange place. (15.6)

Looks like Joe is equating war (specifically conscription, or the draft) with a kind of enslavement. That's a pretty controversial thing to say, though keep in mind that at the time that Johnny Got His Gun was written, war and conscription were inseparable. One question we might ask would be whether Joe would feel the same way about war if there were no draft.

They were forcing him to be silent. They didn't want to hear him. They weren't interested in anything but getting him off their minds. (15.10)

Now why would someone want to get Joe off his or her mind? We can't imagine. Also, you might say that the loss of Joe's ability to make others acknowledge him—to make himself heard—is in some ways worse than his actual physical condition. Joe seems to think that people who wage and support war have the responsibility to see and understand war's consequences, but basically no one seems willing to take on this responsibility.

It was as if all the people in the world the whole two billion of them had been against him pushing the lid of the coffin down on him tamping the dirt solid against the lid rearing great stones above the dirt to keep him in the earth. (18.17)

Hopeless much? That's a lot of people who not only don't want to think about you, but who, by ignoring you, are actually against you. It seems like pretty much everyone thinks things would be a whole lot better if Joe would just die already. It's another way in which the victims of war are dehumanized in this novel, despite what people might say about honoring and remembering them.

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