Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun Themes

By Dalton Trumbo

  • Warfare

    What is it good for? War is the crux of Johnny Got His Gun. Were it not for war, Joe would be living his normal life, and we probably wouldn't find that life all that compelling to read about. Instead, the novel's drama comes from the idea that war leaves a wake of seemingly needless destruction that throws a wrench into all the everyday things we take for granted.

    We actually don't see a whole lot of actual warfare in this novel; instead of in descriptions of battles, warfare manifests itself through all the things that Joe loses—not just literally, in the sense of his limbs, but in the life that he will no longer be able to live.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Given that Johnny Got His Gun is based on the story of a real soldier who lost his limbs and senses, do you think that the book is melodramatic in its depiction of war and its destruction? Why or why not?
    2. We might get freaked out by war as it is depicted in something like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers, but neither necessarily compels us to take a stance against war. Is Johnny Got His Gun different? When actual warfare is described in the novel, how are we supposed to react?
    3. What does war look like for the average civilian in this novel?
    4. Does Joe think that there are ever any times when fighting may be necessary?

    Chew on This

    Johnny Got His Gun would convey its anti-war argument better if there were more scenes of actual warfare and a less narrow focus on Joe's life.

    Joe's prediction of a perpetually war-torn future has in many ways come true (minus all the headless babies).

  • Manipulation and Propaganda

    "Why is propaganda so much more successful when it stirs up hatred than when it tries to stir up friendly feeling?" asked the British philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1930, long before it was definitively proven that haters gonna hate. Well, whatever the reason, propaganda certainly is successful with Joe, who may not be able to locate France on a map but who has certainly heard about how nasty those Germans are.

    In Johnny Got His Gun, Joe's not happy that he was duped into fighting a war that has pretty much nothing to do with him; he now wants to show people what war is actually like and what its real costs are. Why was he manipulated to begin with?

    Questions About Manipulation and Propaganda

    1. Before Joe actually encounters warfare, where do his notions of it come from?
    2. Where does Joe encounter propaganda? What form does propaganda take in the novel? Is it easily recognizable as propaganda?
    3. How well would you say Joe understands why World War I is actually being fought? How can you tell?
    4. What conclusions does Joe come to about why he was fed war propaganda? Who was feeding it to him?

    Chew on This

    In Joe's mind, pro-war propaganda is not something that only exists during wartime.

    The cultural glorification of warfare that Joe hears and experiences on the day he leaves Los Angeles is the same thing as propaganda.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Prison sucks in general, but it doesn't get much worse than being a prisoner in your own body, does it? At least, that's what Joe thinks in Johnny Got His Gun. Try this little experiment: next time you're lying in bed, imagine that you can't see, smell, hear, or taste, and then imagine that you can't even move, except to tap out Morse code on your pillow, and that's the way you'll spend your entire life.

    Yeah, on second thought, don't even try that.

    Any possible recourse for an even semi-normal life has been cut off (sorry) for our poor protagonist, and Trumbo does not let us forget it for an instant. But Joe at least gives it a shot, and while he's on his quest to reenter the world, he thinks a lot about the nature of his confinement, about its irony, and about why exactly it is that he has been "sentenced."

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Why do you think Joe puts so much emphasis on things like measuring time and communicating?
    2. What do you think is the biggest reason Joe has for wanting to be able to communicate? Are his reasons personal, political, or what?
    3. Why do you think the novel ends the way it does? Is Joe's request to be let out denied for political reasons? Is it because the people in charge don't want the world to see what war has done to Joe?
    4. How do you think Joe will spend the rest of his days after the novel ends?

    Chew on This

    The nurses and doctors in the novel are not unsympathetic; they're reasonable in their refusal to let Joe out.

    It is worse to be dead than it is to be Joe. Alternatively, it's worse to be insane like the Limey subaltern than it is to be Joe.

  • Suffering

    One of the things that Joe dwells on a lot during the course of Johnny Got His Gun is how he is worse off than if he were dead. His suffering doesn't necessarily take the form of physical pain, but he's trapped in a state of loneliness, isolation, and immobility, and he's unable to communicate with anyone as result from his physical condition.

    It's a bad situation, all right, but as Joe himself points out, there are all kinds of suffering caused by war. Even though Joe insists that his case is special, and that it can't get much worse than what has happened to him, you should try to think about what exactly it is about Joe's suffering that allows him to be a spokesperson for all those dead, maimed, and otherwise hurt in war.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What causes Joe to suffer most? Is it his physical condition, his isolation, the reason (or lack of thereof) why he has been wounded, or something else?
    2. How does Joe's situation change his attitude toward war?
    3. Joe isn't the only one who suffers in the novel. How does the suffering of other characters affect how we view Joe, or how Joe views himself?
    4. Joe has come to stand in for veterans who feel that they have been left isolated or helpless. How might someone suffering less catastrophic wounds than Joe still relate to his experiences in the novel?

    Chew on This

    In the novel, Joe says more than once that death is better than suffering. At the same time, he says that the only thing soldiers want right before they die is to keep living. These two arguments are not contradictory.

    Joe's suffering is more psychological than physical.

  • Home

    The title of Johnny Got His Gun comes from a popular song called "Over There." Over where? Over in Europe, far away from our hero Joe's home. What's he doing so far away from home? What's the point of him fighting in this war? Does he know? Does anyone truly know?

    Joe's home is Shale City, but he's fighting for the United States in a war between the great powers of Europe over some pretty vague political issues. (Don't ask Joe what they are; he doesn't really know.) So what's home? A place? A city? A nation? Who is Joe fighting for, and why?

    Questions About Home

    1. Why is Joe always reminiscing about the past?
    2. How does Joe's idea of home change as the novel progresses?
    3. Would you say that Joe is patriotic? If so, how would you describe his patriotism?
    4. Why does the idea of home become so important to Joe?

    Chew on This

    The idea of home in the novel comes to be a blanket term that encompasses anything familiar, even if it is a general familiarity like the idea of America.

    The idea of home in the novel is a very specific term tied to one individual's experiences and memories of home.

  • Principles

    So, why get your gun and go over there in the first place?

    One of the big questions Johnny Got His Gun asks is why people feel like war is an obligation. While Joe doesn't necessarily go the way of John Lennon, he does come to the conclusion that war tends to be automatically associated with words that are thrown around without anyone stopping to think about what they might actually mean. What's honor? What's liberty?

    Joe's arguments may seem pretty straightforward, but not many people (especially in 1914) would think to question concepts like honor or liberty; people just took them for granted. Now, it's not that Joe is saying honor and liberty don't exist, or that they're not important. He just wants people think about what they actually mean, and what they actually require from people.

    Is it honorable to fight a war? Does fighting a war ensure liberty? Those are the kinds of questions Joe wants people to ask.

    Questions About Principles

    1. What is the difference between fighting for an immediate cause and fighting for a word (see Joe's discussion of this in 10.10-11)?
    2. Is Joe correct in saying that liberty is not something you can point to? 
    3. When Joe asks, "And what kind of liberty were they fighting for anyway? How much liberty and whose idea of liberty?" (10.3), what do you think he's getting at?
    4. Are there aspects of principles like honor and liberty that Joe isn't considering? Is he simplifying the issues? Or is he revealing an inherent contradiction in the way people think about abstract principles like these?

    Chew on This

    For Joe, principles are not inherently bad, but they can be bad when they are used broadly and if people are not asked to think critically about them.

    Joe's argument against principles is effective precisely because he breaks down the rationale into measurable parameters.

  • Society and Class

    So, who wants war, anyway?

    One of the main anti-war stances of Johnny Got His Gun is that war is encouraged by class inequality. What the heck does that mean? It means that the working classes tend to be the ones who do most of the grunt work when it comes to war, and yet they don't actually profit by it. It also means that the big guys—those with power and money—can pretty much wage war whenever they want, because they're not the ones who are ever going to have to fight it.

    Sounds kind of bleak, right? What does Trumbo want anyone to do about it?

    The message at the end of the novel is essentially that the class situation needs to change if we want to prevent wars in the future. Trumbo's thinking big: he's saying that you can't deal with something as big as war without first dealing with the social conditions that make it possible.

    The discussions of class in the novel might not always have a big shiny arrow pointing to them—but they're there.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why don't you think the discussion of class is more obvious in the novel?
    2. Who are the little guys? Why does Joe align himself with them?
    3. Who are the big guys? Are there multiple big guys?
    4. Do you think that class plays as big a role in war as Joe seems to think it does?

    Chew on This

    Joe's classification of the "big guys" and the "little guys" is ineffective because it oversimplifies the social situation.

    By tying the issue of war to issues of society and class, Joe makes a convincing case about why the social system is flawed.

  • Mortality

    Did you know that the original title of Johnny Got His Gun was All Quiet on the Western Front and Zombies?

    Yeah, that's because it wasn't. But we would still like to point out that as a self-proclaimed specimen of the living dead, Joe is just one small step away from total zombiehood. Fortunately, he has no teeth.

    But seriously, folks, how many times does poor Joe compare himself to a dead man? Or lament the fact that he's neither living nor dead? The line between being dead and being alive is pretty blurred in this novel, and Joe's attitude toward life and death is similarly complex: he sees death as absolute and final and puts a premium on life and living, but he still considers himself unlucky to not have been killed.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. How would the novel be different if Joe were dead and narrating to us from beyond the grave? Why is it important that Joe is alive?
    2. Joe sees both death and severe physical trauma as equally reprehensible outcomes of war. How do death and physical trauma figure structurally in the novel? Does Trumbo treat them in the same way or differently? Does one get more attention than the other? Why?
    3. How are we supposed to feel about the fact that Joe both wants to live and wants to die?
    4. By the end of the novel, does Joe come to any conclusion as to whether it is better off for someone like him to be dead or alive? What implications does this have for the novel's message?

    Chew on This

    The fact that Joe is still alive at the end of the novel (and will probably live for a while afterwards) complicates our view of death by forcing us to consider that sometimes suffering and isolation is tantamount to death.

    Johnny Got His Gun is a book that is read by the living about the dead. We can only begin to comprehend the book's message when we consider what exactly it means to be dead, or to have died.