Johnny Got His Gun | Study Guide

Dalton Trumbo

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Johnny Got His Gun | Book 1, Chapters 1–2 (The Dead) | Summary

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The structure of Johnny Got His Gun is somewhat recursive—that is, the main character visits and revisits experiences in his mind. Chapters have been grouped in this study guide to focus the analysis on the novel's most important events and themes.

Summary

Chapter 1

Joe Bonham is feeling very sick. His head feels as if he's "been drinking dynamite." A ringing sound is so loud Joe can hear it above the loud noise of the bakery machinery. He finally picks up the phone; it's his mother, telling him to come home because his father just died. It's just before Christmas in Los Angeles, and Joe leaves work and drives home. His father is lying dead in the living room. His mother is crying quietly, an older sister is weeping. Before the two funeral men take his father away Joe takes one last look at him, thinking, "people've got to be harder these days than you were dad. ... I loved you dad goodnight."

Joe starts to think the whole scene is from a recurring bad dream. Things feel "floaty and sickly" to him, and now everything's very quiet. Joe realizes the ringing telephone came out of a dream, and it "had meant death," but from "way back in time." Joe feels as if "he were tied down and couldn't answer it yet." With every ring Joe feels more lonesome.

Joe realizes "he was hurt. He was bad hurt." He drifts in and out of dreams and can't tell what is a dream and what is not. He's awake but he can't see or hear. Joe feels the terror of being entombed. He starts to faint but is brought back by searing pain all over his body. He feels his body and his head swathed in bandages. Terrified, he understands now he's "stone deaf" and therefore "godforsaken." At least, he thinks, his deafness prevents him from hearing the bombers, shells, and screams of the war-wounded. Again Joe drifts into a dream, and he remembers his mother, Macia Bonham, and father, Bill Bonham: how well they got along together, and how kind they were to him as a child. Joe's dream is filled with sounds, but he feels so sick he "wants to die." He is "wallowing in blackness" as the phone rings and rings far away "with nobody there to answer it."

Chapter 2

It is autumn, and Joe hears his mother singing in the aromatic kitchen. Joe's mother was always canning in the fall, making fruit jam and jelly, preserves, and chili sauces. She sings as she works. When he thinks of food, Joe remembers the hamburger man who sold "the best hamburgers anyone ever ate." The smell of the burgers was wonderful. Joe's father always gave Joe money to buy hamburgers for the family on Saturday. Joe kept the bag of hamburgers under his shirt to keep them warm as he raced home. The burgers were "a great Saturday night feast."

Joe remembers the first snowfall of autumn, which to him was "the most wonderful thing on earth." Everything looked so beautiful covered in snow. In spring primroses were everywhere. One of Joe's favorite memories is when the aviator Lincoln Beechy came to Shale City and flew over the town to wow the townsfolk.

Joe's birthday is in December. His mother made a special birthday dinner for Joe and his friends. Joe's friends liked his father, "probably because his father liked the guys." After the birthday dinner, Joe's dad took him and all his friends to a show.

The County Fair was in the fall, and the carnival was the best thing about it. The smell of the fairgrounds was "a smell you never ceased dreaming of." In summer Joe and his friends swam in a big ditch just north of town. After swimming the boys talked about bikes, girls, and other important topics. When the boys were a bit older, they took girls out to the County Fair. The boys were very particular about the clothes they wore. If a boy was not dressed well enough or didn't have enough money, he couldn't take a girl to the dance. So he'd drive to the edge of the fairgrounds and listen to the dance music from there, wondering who his favorite girl was dancing with.

Joe was aware of the war only after his family moved to Los Angeles. He had heard terrible stories of German atrocities against Allied soldiers. After Joe's father died, "America entered the war and [Joe] had to come too." Now Joe lies in the hospital thinking, "This was no war for you. ... It wasn't his business ... he just wanted to live." Yet here he is, "hurt worse than [he] thinks." Joe considers he might be better off if he'd died. "It wasn't your fight, Joe," he thinks.

Analysis

Book I is titled "The Dead" because it deals largely with Joe Bonham's growing realization of his physical condition. Each mutilation and sense of loss that he acknowledges brings him nearer to being considered dead. He is a dead man who is somehow alive, a living man who is entombed alive in his own body. In the novel the line between life and death will always be tenuous.

Memories of past experiences fill Joe's dreams. In these chapters he remembers the good life he had as a child, such as his delight in the first snowfall, eating hamburgers, swimming with his friends, and celebrating his birthday. Yet the novel opens with a memory of loss: when Joe dreams of returning home to his grieving family, he is remote from the experience, saying "I loved you dad goodnight." Readers will note the use of the past tense in "loved," indicating that he may no longer feel this love. Joe also tells his dead father "it's just as good you're dead" because his father was not tough enough to survive in the world. This sentiment foreshadows Joe's later feelings, first expressed at the end of Chapter 2, that he, too, would be better off dead.

When Joe emerges somewhat from his dream state he begins to sense pain, but at this point it is unclear to readers how conscious he is of his injuries since he can't tell dreams from reality. Joe is certain about one physical change wrought by the war: he is deaf. To emphasize this loss, Chapter 1 is filled with references to sound: the ringing telephone, his mother singing and playing the piano, the dance hall, the County Fair.

Joe's memories in Chapter 2 reveal a vividly lived childhood, filled with seasonal delights. These experiences are described in vivid sensory terms: delicious smells and tastes, wonderful sights. These memories have the ring of truth and serve to show what a life fully lived is like. Of course, in a case of dramatic irony, the idyllic life depicted in these memories could not be further from Joe's current existence.

Joe's mention of his father's weakness begins the novel's exploration of the equation of success with capitalism in American culture. Joe's dad is depicted as kind and fun, and Joe's friends like him because he is good-natured. But he works in a shoe store, no doubt a poorly paid job, and so is seen as unsuccessful.

The visit by the famous aviator Lincoln Beechy shows how technology is repurposed for war. Mr. Hargraves, the superintendent of schools, makes a speech about the wonders of aviation, saying the airplane will be "a great instrument in making people understand one another" and will lead to peace and prosperity. Yet Beechy dies in an airplane, that wondrous "instrument of peace."

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