Johnny Got His Gun | Study Guide

Dalton Trumbo

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Johnny Got His Gun | Book 1, Chapters 5–6 : The Dead | Summary



Chapter 5

In his hospital bed Joe remembers floating in the cool Colorado River on a hot summer day. As he floats he thinks about Kareen and seems to feel her floating there with him. Kareen's face seems to disappear beneath the surface. Joe realizes he's alone, "with water coming over my nose and mouth and eyes." His head feels so heavy he can't keep it above the surface. "Or maybe his body was too light for his head," he thinks. Joe can't swim because he has no arms, and he begins to sink and, finally, to drown. He feels as if his "legs are stuck in concrete and [he] can't move a muscle."

Joe's mind becomes entangled in memories of war. He seems to see rockets, bombs, and flares "whirling through his head." In his mind he hears "hissing ... explosions and howls and whines" and whistles that "cut through his ears like knives." The sensual onslaught is painful, "trapped somewhere between his forehead and the back of his skull." But in an instant things get quiet, and the pain goes away. This allows Joe to think. He has no arms, but at least he doesn't hurt, so he looks on the bright side. "You're alive and you don't hurt," he thinks, and "that's much better than being alive and hurting." He tries "to kick out with his feet to move what was under his legs." Then he realizes "somewhere just below his hip joints they had cut both of his legs off." He knows he'll never walk, run, or work again. Joe can't believe his condition and tries to connect to a reality in which "this dream of having no legs" is false. But it is the truth.

Joe is terrified. He tries to yell from fright, but "he only started because he had no mouth to yell with." He tries to work his jaws to prove he still has a mouth and realizes he has no jaws, tongue, or teeth. He cannot swallow because "he had no palate and there weren't any muscles left to swallow with." Panicking, he pants and realizes he has no nose: "A breath of air was passing through the place where his nose used to be." He has a "wild ... eagerness to die to kill himself," but he tries to calm down and stay alive until "he ha[s] found out everything" about his condition. He can't believe he could lose so much of his body and still be alive but "dead men don't think," and he's thinking, so he must be alive. He uses his sense of his skin to explore the huge hole where his face once was and discovers he also has no eyes. Joe feels calm because what he's discovered "must be a dream. He'd have to wake up or he'd go nuts." But he knows it's not a dream.

Joe knows "he was nothing but a piece of meat ... just a thing." He can't live like this but can't kill himself, either. He calls out to his mother in his mind, begging her to save him from this nightmare, but she is not there. In his mind Joe begs for "somebody to come ... [and] help me." He panics again, thinking, "It can't be me. ... No no no please. Please. Not me."

Chapter 6

Joe is lost in memories of his time working at the bakery in Los Angeles. He remembers laboring hard on Fridays to stack and load the bread, pies, cakes, and rolls sold by retail stores. The boss hires a temporary worker, Jose, a Puerto Rican man who works so hard and so well he's offered a full-time position.

The workers can tell Jose is different. He's calm, peaceful, and respectful. When Jose has forgotten to bring lunch, the men steal some milk and a roll from the bakery to feed him, and Jose is grateful. Jose tells the others his dream is to get a job at a movie studio. His coworkers think Jose is kind of nuts to think he'd land such a plum job. Jose had worked for a rich family in New York, but when the daughter of the family fell in love with him and wanted to marry him, Jose felt he had to leave. He knew there was no way her family would allow her to marry a penniless working man.

One day Jose comes into work with a letter and a puzzled look on his face. The letter is from the girl in New York, who has inherited some money and wants to come to Los Angeles and marry him. His coworkers encourage Jose to marry the rich girl, but Jose says he can't because he doesn't love her. The bakery workers think Jose is crazy. A month later Jose again comes into work with a worried look on his face. The problem this time is he's been offered a job at a movie studio. He simply applied for the job and got it. Yet he's troubled about how to quit the bakery job because Simmons, his boss, has been so good to him. He doesn't want "to offend his benefactor."

The men at the bakery come up with lots of ideas about how Jose can quit the bakery without offending Simmons. Jose rejects them all. Instead Jose takes on the grueling schedule of working two jobs: days at the movie studio and nights at the bakery. It's not long before he's nearly collapsing with fatigue, until one worker comes up with a plan. Jose will stand near Simmons's office window and deliberately drop some pies on the floor. Surely Simmons will fire him then. Jose tries it, but when Simmons sees what happened Jose can't help apologizing and offering to pay for the ruined pies. Simmons is mollified, forgives Jose, and keeps him on. Then the coworker suggests Jose upend an entire rack of pies in front of Simmons. The loss would be so great Simmons would have to fire Jose. Jose thinks the "whole thing is very dishonorable" but goes along with it anyway. When the time comes to do the deed Jose is "trembling like a leaf." But he takes the huge rack of blueberry pies and crashes it to the floor by Simmons's office window. Simmons screams at Jose and then fires him. Devastated by his dishonorable action, Jose puts on his coat and leaves the bakery forever.

In his hospital bed Joe seems to see Jose standing before him. Joe talks to his friend, asking how he's doing. But he can't hear Jose, if Jose is saying anything. Then Jose begins to disappear, and Joe begins to wake from the dream. "I know where I am," he thinks.


In Chapter 5 Joe faces the extent of his war wounds and asks questions about the meaning of being alive that will continue to haunt him. When he discovers most of his face and all of its senses are gone, Joe wonders how a person with so little left of his body can possible still be alive. The paradox of life and death and the insubstantial dividing line between the two is so absurd it amuses him.

Trumbo offers the character as a cynical example of the worst-possible outcome of war. At the same time, through flashbacks showing his interactions with others, he makes the character deeply human. As anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan (b. 1957) comments in an introduction to an edition of the novel, the author makes the reader realize that Joe was once "a son, a brother, a bakery worker, and a lover."

The story of Jose in Chapter 6 may represent the qualities a truly civilized man would have. Jose is a failure in society's eyes. He has no money and he's homeless. Still he turns down the offer of marriage by a rich woman because he doesn't love her. His standards of decency are the absolute opposite of society's. He is a model of courtesy and consideration, of honesty and hard work. In this way he is a success as a human being. Whether or not he makes pots of money working at the movie studio, Jose will always be a success because of his unimpeachable integrity and honesty. He stands as a counterpoint to many other deeply flawed characters in the novel. Jose's story may be the author's way of showing humans can be good and are redeemable.

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