Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun Society and Class

By Dalton Trumbo

Society and Class

Things weren't going well and they never would have gone well for you and it's just as good you're dead. People've got to be quicker and harder these days than you were dad. (1.14)

Harsh, Joe. Harsh. We don't learn until later why Joe is being so hard on his dad, but we'll spoil it for you here: Joe thinks his dad didn't make enough money, and he thinks that his dad was a failure because of that. At this point, Joe's thinking in materialistic terms, and this is the kind of thinking (or a side effect of the kind of thinking) that Trumbo thinks promotes war (since war, in his mind, is primarily about power and money for the big guys).

The guys from the Mission came stinking of disinfectant and looking very bedraggled and embarrassed. They knew that anyone who smelled the disinfectant knew they were bums on charity. They didn't like that and how could you blame them? They were always humble and when they were bright enough they worked hard. Some of them weren't bright. (6.2)

It's a little hard to tell what Joe's attitude toward these people is—that is, whether he's being sympathetic, harsh, or simply lamenting inequality. Why does Trumbo include this scene at all? How are the "bums on charity" related to the overarching theme of war and its causes?

It didn't matter whether the rat was gnawing on your buddy or a damned German it was all the same. Your real enemy was the rat and when you saw it there fat and well fed chewing on something that might be you why you went nuts. (7.29)

The idea of someone else growing fat off of other people's suffering is a metaphor here for the people who stand to make financial gains off of war, though it's never explicitly stated who exactly that refers to. Here, Joe refigures who the real enemy is: not the opposing side, but the ones who orchestrate wars in the first place. This idea returns at the very end of the novel, as well.

The garden in a way was his father's escape from bills and success stories and the job at the store. It was his father's way of creating something. It was his father's way of being an artist. (9.9)

The ideal of self-sufficiency (and existing outside of the capitalist system of bills and success stories, if you want to get political) is like a little guy's paradise. The garden is a place where Joe's dad can be creative and independent; he isn't a slave to any system there. It's probably telling that Joe doesn't place much value on the garden. It doesn't really make any money, and it doesn't do anything to enhance his family's status, so at this point in Joe's life, it seems kind of meaningless.

It was hard to understand how his father could be such a big failure when you stopped to think about the thing. (9.15)

Here, Joe is thinking about how the way most of us measure success—by how much money a person has—doesn't really apply to the actual happiness and wealth Joe's dad made from his garden. Joe can't understand how his dad could have been such a good gardener and still been such a "failure" in out in the working world. He doesn't understand yet that how much people are paid to do a given job doesn't necessarily match up to the worth of that job and the effort required to do that job.

When armies begin to move and flags wave and slogans pop up watch out little guy because it's somebody else's chestnuts in the fire not yours. (10.12)

This is kind of an outdated phrase, unless you're still the chestnut-roasting type, but basically Joe's saying that the average person has nothing to gain by these big men's wars, and all the loud noise is to make the little guys think that this stuff has something to do with them.

Little guys all over the world shot drowned stabbed crucified boiled in oil whipped to death burned at the stake—all these things were the fate of slaves the fate of the little guy the fate of men like himself. (15.6)

Okay, wait. Why are we talking about people being burned at the stake and boiled in oil in a World War I novel? Why are the little guys slaves? It's probably because Joe is suggesting that the little guys have been around throughout history—as slaves, witches, servants, and so on—and they've always been the ones to suffer when the big guys ask them to. If those were the little guys of the past, who are they in Joe's time? How about in our own time?

Away off in Rome a man in a palace stirred in his sleep. He almost awakened and then drowsed off again wondering in his dreams why he was nervous. (17.31)

In the biblical sense, Christ was something of a threat to the Roman Empire ("the Man" of the B.C.E.'s), as he represented a "little guy" who challenged their might and authority. Think about this in relation to what Joe says at the end of the novel about seeing himself as a new kind of Christ (20.28). Who might be the Roman emperor in this metaphor?

Remember it well we we we are the world we are what makes it go round we make bread and cloth and guns we are the hub of the wheel and the spokes and the wheel itself without us you would be hungry naked worms and we will not die. (20.30)

That's three "we's" (count 'em, folks), so Trumbo is clearly trying to establish some kind of solidarity with us, the readers. Why do you think he's so keen on pointing to the working class as the class that ultimately has the most at stake?

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. They will not be us the guys who grow wheat and turn it into food the guys who make clothes and paper and houses and tiles the guys who build dams and power plants and string the long moaning high tension wires the guys who crack crude oil down into a dozen different parts who make light globes and sewing machines and shovels and automobiles and airplanes and tanks and guns oh no it will not be us who die. It will be you. (20.31)

Again, who is this "we," and who is the "you"? And as a reader, where are you positioned between the "we" and the "you"? Are you an awkward third wheel? Do these categories make sense to you? Do you sympathize with them?

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