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Johnny Got His Gun | Study Guide

Dalton Trumbo

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Johnny Got His Gun | Book 1, Chapters 3–4 : The Dead | Summary



Chapter 3

Joe has been "rising and sinking" in and out of consciousness for months. Yet each time "he came to the surface ... he fainted into reality and ... fainted into nothingness" again. He can tell the doctors or nurses are "working on him." He feels the medical staff taking off his bandages and working on his left arm. He seems to be getting stitches or having them removed. Joe panics when he realizes he can feel what the staff does to his arm, yet "he couldn't rightly feel his arm at all." He's shocked to realize the doctors have amputated his left arm at the shoulder. Joe is furious, and he can't understand why "the dirty bastards" cut off his arm. Joe wonders how he'll be able to work at a job with only one arm, and he blames the doctors for not caring about this. He thinks "war is hell" since in war arms get cut off. He wonders what they've done with the amputated arm.

Joe remembers he had a ring on his left hand—the ring his girlfriend, Kareen, gave him. He wonders what the doctors did with the ring after they amputated the arm. He thinks, "I can wear it on the other hand." Joe then sinks into memories of the time Kareen gave him the ring just before he went off to war. In the memory Kareen cries because she's afraid Joe will be killed. Joe and Kareen are lying together on a sofa in her house when her father, Mike Birkman, returns. At first he seems angry to see them like this, but then he tells Kareen and Joe to go up to her bedroom to spend the night together. Mike knows it's Joe's last night before the war. He lets them have sex because Joe "may never get another chance." Joe and Kareen are shy together at first. In bed, Kareen again begs Joe not to go to war. They love each other, but it's not clear if they have sex that night.

Mike, a miner who detests all politicians and industrialists, makes breakfast for Kareen and Joe. He tells them to hurry up and finish eating or Joe will miss his train. At the train station four trains wait to carry recruits off to war. The atmosphere is festive, with "bunting [and] ... children and women carrying flags little flags." Other people at the station are singing patriotic songs, including "Johnny Get Your Gun." Some are drunk and laugh. Young men are kissing their girlfriends and families goodbye. Finally Joe bids goodbye to Kareen, Mike, and his family. Kareen begs Joe to "put both of your arms around me" and he does. Then Joe emerges from the memory with the thought, "I haven't got any arms Kareen. My arms are gone." When the memory fades and Joe's awareness is in the present, he understands "They've cut my arms off both of my arms."

Chapter 4

Joe is immersed in a memory of the time he and his friend Howie were working laying railroad track in the blistering heat of the Uinta desert. Joe and Howie worked with a railroad section gang, and they can't stop their backbreaking work for even a minute. Most of the men in the work gang are Mexican, and Joe and Howie have a hard time keeping up with them because they're such hard workers. Joe suffers terribly from the heat. They get a break for lunch, but Joe and Howie forgot to bring food. The Mexicans offer the pair some of their own food, but the boys turn their noses up at it. Then the guys followed the Mexicans to a canal where everyone goes swimming to cool off. The dip in the warm-water canal reminds Joe of the pool at the YMCA in his hometown. He thinks how much better the pool is than this muddy canal.

The heat intensifies as Joe and Howie work that afternoon. Pretty soon they "began to stumble at their work and finally to fall," but still they must keep working. Joe thinks he can feel his heart and lungs beginning to fail. He's so sick he wants "to die," and soon he feels faint. In this state he tries to think of Diane, his girlfriend, who's now dating Glen Hogan. It's intimated Joe took this job to get away from his cheating girlfriend. That night the Mexicans are singing near the bunkhouse, which is oven-hot. Before he falls asleep Joe again thinks about Diane. A little later Howie shakes Joe until he wakes up. Joe is sickened by the smell of the Mexicans' dinner. Howie shows Joe the telegram he just got from his girlfriend, Onie, begging him to return to her. Howie asks Joe to catch the last train back home with him. The two hurriedly pack their few belongings and barely make the train. On the ride home Joe wonders why he hit his best friend, Bill Harper. All Bill did was tell the truth about Diane dating Glen Hogan. Later the same night Howie tells him he, too, was having girl trouble. The two young men both, in fact, left to work on the rail lines to forget their unfaithful girlfriends.

Joe remembers the many good times he and Bill had together. He decides he will go to Bill's house and apologize as soon as he gets home. Then Joe thinks Howie is lucky because his girlfriend apologized and wanted him back. But Diane is smitten with the rich and handsome Glen Hogan. Joe decides he'll talk to her and convince her to dump the snooty Glen. Back in town that night Joe wanders the streets and finds himself on Diane's block. He wants to talk to her but nixes that idea because he's so dirty from railroad work. Suddenly the door to Diane's house opens, and Joe sees her embracing a man: Bill Harper. Joe's best friend has betrayed him, but instead of blaming Bill, Joe thinks "[I'm] no good ... just no good." Joe realizes he and Bill can never be friends again. He's lost his best friend and his girlfriend. He is so depressed and upset he wishes he could die or be killed. It seems everyone but him has a girlfriend. Joe loses all self-respect because he lacks friends and a girl.

Joe then seems to return to awareness of the present. He thinks, "That was a long time ago ... when he was a kid in high school." He remembers Bill Harper was killed in the war. Joe becomes confused and lightheaded. He's relieved, though, that he's feeling cooler.


When Joe realizes he's lost his left arm he accuses the doctors of complicity with the "big" guys who don't care what they do to ordinary soldiers. The doctors, like the "big" guys, don't care about Joe or how he'll make a living with only one arm. The doctors are, similarly, indifferent to the effects their decisions have on the "little" guys. The contrast between "big" guys and "little" guys occurs throughout the novel.

This concept is played out on a smaller scale when Joe thinks he's lost his girlfriend, Diane, to the rich, handsome, and arrogant Glen Hogan. Hogan is a "big" guy because he's good-looking and has a nice car. Joe is an ordinary "little" guy and so sees himself as a failure.

Mike Birkman represents the "little" guy, but he adds another dimension to the stereotype. He's a strong, hardworking, and intelligent man who understands the power structure of politicians and capitalists. He despises them all and is wise to the empty patriotic platitudes they employ to lure "little" guys (workers) to fight their wars for them.

It seems as if all the people at the train station have bought into the "big" guys' pro-war propaganda. The vacancy of their patriotic displays suggests they have been brainwashed. No one except Mike, who mutters "goddamn fools," seems to be aware of and disgusted by the display. The statement "And [give] their lives if necessary that democracy may not perish from the face of the earth" foreshadows Joe's later understanding of the empty words used to lure men to war. "Shall not perish from the earth" comes from President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, a speech delivered in 1863 at the dedication of a cemetery for the Union troops killed in the Civil War's Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863).

The flimsy line between life and death is apparent when Joe thinks about losing his ring. "The ring was meant always to be on my living finger on my living hand," he thinks. The ring "meant life." Without the ring of life and love, Joe essentially feels dead. He felt this way before—when he was working with the railroad section gang—but this time there is no relief from his situation.

Similarly, he experienced loss and betrayal when Bill Harper and Diane became lovers, but his feelings of isolation then cannot compare to what he feels in the hospital.

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