Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun Mortality

By Dalton Trumbo

Mortality

Maybe it would be a lot better if you were dead and buried on the hill across the river from Shale City. (2.22)

Joe doesn't just wish for death; he also wishes to be homeā€”even if that means he has to lie in a grave at home. The fact that Joe will spend the rest of his life away from home and away from any of his loved ones only heightens the sense that he's living a kind of death-in-life.

The hand it was on is dead and it wasn't meant to be on rotten flesh. It was meant always to be on my living finger on my living hand because it meant life. (3.17)

As parts of Joe's body "die" (through amputation), he wonders what it means to be alive in more than a technical sense. It's freaky to think about how parts of you can "die" while you're still alive, but in this case, at least, it illustrates that life is more than the just the state of being alive: it's also about the actions and experiences that constitute what you call your life. This passage also makes us realize that at least half of Joe's body is literally dead.

Bill Harper was a lucky guy. Bill Harper had got Diane and then he had been killed. (4.45)

The grass is always greener, obviously. Joe is clearly being bitter here, but he's also pointing out that there seems to be something clean and easy about death that makes it different from the kind of suffering he has to endure for the rest of his life. Considering how much value Joe places on life, things must be really awful for him to consider death preferable.

A guy can think of being dead a hundred years from now and he doesn't mind it. But to think of being dead tomorrow morning and to be dead forever to be nothing but dust and stink in the earth is that liberty? (10.5)

Sure, we all have to die someday, but when actually confronted with the possibility that today might be your last day on earth, does that change how you might think about the idea of dying for liberty? Would it be worth it to you if you know for sure that you would die? Joe isn't so sure that people would choose to die for an idea if they really thought through what it would be like to actually die.

If a man says death before dishonor he is either a fool or a liar because he doesn't know what death is. (10.17)

Fair point. None of the living can claim to know what death is. But can Joe? Joe's in a weird position: he claims he knows what it means to be dead, and yet at the same time, he's jealous of the dead. Do you think he's convincing when he says that he's able to speak for the dead?

Did anybody ever come back from the dead any single one of the millions who got killed did any one of them every come back and say by god I'm glad I'm dead because death is always better than dishonor? (10.17)

Assuming that we've only got one chance at life, death represents the absolute and final loss of everything. Can an idea like dishonor really compete with that? Joe doesn't think so: he thinks that any dead person would come back and choose dishonor over death, if it came to that.

Why then should he be willing to die for the privilege of living? (10.18)

Joe's already alive, so why should he fight in order to live? In the context of World War I, at least, no one is actually threatening his life; he's not fighting out of any kind of self-defense. So what's the point?

He was the nearest thing to a dead man on earth. (10.22)

Johnny Got His Gun can get pretty surreal at times, but we think Joe is being literal here: maybe he really is the nearest thing to a dead man on earth. Even Joe, of course, can't really tell us what death itself is like, so whether he can actually speak for the dead is debatable. He can still speak for himself, though, and you could say his situation is at least as scary as death.

There's nothing noble about dying. (10.24)

Talk about a subversive statement. Is it shocking? Powerful? Insulting? Whatever you think of the statement, Joe's point is that death is something huge and personal, so sending people to their deaths (random and meaningless deaths, in Joe's opinion) for an abstract cause in a war like World War I seems especially horrible to him.

Dead. (10.28-29)

Thus ends Part I, entitled "The Living." Hm, that's strange. We wonder how the finality of a statement like this plays into what happens in Part II. It's also a structural reminder of how the line between living and dead is blurred in the novel.

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