Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun Suffering

By Dalton Trumbo


He was sick and probably out of his head and he was badly hurt and he was lonesome deaf but he was also alive and he could still hear far away and sharp the sound of a telephone bell. (1.32)

Does Joe change his opinion about being alive once he realizes the extent of his wounds? At what point does the scale tip? On a side note, what's up with his insistence that being deaf is lonesome?

How am I going to work now? They don't think of that. They don't think of anything but doing it their own way. Just another guy with a hole in his arm let's cut it off what do you say boys? Sure cut the guy's arm off. It takes a lot of work and a lot of money to fix up a guy's arm. (3.11)

It's hard to tell here whether Joe is being melodramatic (considering that they just cut off his arm) or if he's on to something about the whole wartime situation being dehumanizing and routine. Joe also makes it a point here to bring up money, one of the book's big themes: it would be too expensive to fix Joe's arm (he thinks), so the doctors just decided to cut it off. That means that in the grand scheme of things, money is more important than, say, an individual's ability to work and enjoy the rest of his life. Who decides what's too expensive? Who decides how much money an arm is worth?

It was a hundred and twenty-five in the shade and there wasn't any shade and he felt like he was smothering under a white hot blanket and all he could think was I've got to stop I've got to stop. (4.4)

The strenuous physical labor described here contrasts with the suffering Joe is going through in the present, where instead of having his body worked to near its breaking point, Joe is condemned to never have a working body again. It's the same when sex is described in the novel: we realize this is something Joe can never have again, so reading his thoughts about it makes his present situation seem that much worse to us.

He would never again be able to say hello how are you I love you. He would never again be able to hear music or the whisper of the wind through trees or the chuckle of running water. He would never again breathe in the smell of a steak frying in his mother's kitchen or the dampness of spring in the air or the wonderful fragrance of sagebrush carried on the wind across a wide open plain. He would never again be able to see the faces of people who made you glad just to look at them of people like Kareen. (7.4)

This passage emphasizes how Joe has lost even the most basic things that make life worth living—things as simple as being able to smell good food, let alone eat it. What exactly does Joe have left?

Four maybe five million men killed and none of them wanting to die while hundreds maybe thousands were left crazy or blind or crippled and couldn't die no matter how hard they tried. (7.13)

Which is worse? Does Joe have an opinion on this? Or are they two sides of the same horrible coin? Joe makes us think harder about the statistics we hear about war: we get a certain number of dead, and a certain number of wounded, but we don't really hear about the lifelong consequences that affect people after a war. There are people like Joe and the Limey subaltern who are forever altered, and there are thousands of others who have psychological scars, missing limbs, killed lovers and family members, and so on. The cost of a war goes way beyond simple statistics—and those statistics are already pretty awful on their own.

Maybe nothing was real not even himself oh god and wouldn't that be wonderful. (8.15)

Poor Joe. When he first realizes the extent of his condition, he wishes that he could die. But when that proves unsuccessful, how does he attempt to give his life meaning again? Can you imagine living like Joe for the rest of your life? How would you find meaning in that life?

But he was so cut off from them that even if they were standing beside his bed they would be as distant as if they were ten thousand miles away. (9.21)

Joe has his own special brand of suffering in which every possible avenue for happiness seems to be irrevocably cut off. But that means that even the smallest things are really, really big deals. If Joe had any easy way of reentering society, we wouldn't absorb the gravity of the situation as much.

He was all alone with his medal. (13.15)

This sentence has fantastic irony. After all, a medal's no good when no one knows who you even are, much less when you're as messed up as much as Joe is. Does Joe's medal make him happy? Was it worth the price for him? Why is he given it in the first place?

All life dead all life wasted and becoming nothing less than nothing only the germ of nothing. A kind of sickness that comes from shame. A weakness like dying weakness and faintness and a prayer. (14.33)

That's one depressing orgasm. Even sexual gratification has become a kind of suffering for Joe, as it reminds him that he will never experience fulfilling sexual gratification again. Also, what do you think he means when he says: "All life dead"—and why is he thinking it at this particular moment?

They all looked at him and finally the guy who looked like a Swede said Jesus he's worse off than we are. (16.16)

Let's take a step back and ask a broad question: if this novel comes to the conclusion that suffering like Joe's is worse than death, then what might the novel saying about war and suffering?

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