Johnny Got His Gun | Study Guide

Dalton Trumbo

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Johnny Got His Gun | Book 1, Chapters 7–8 : The Dead | Summary



Chapter 7

Joe knows he must stop the "smotherings and the sinkings and the risings. ... He has to stop the fear." If he can control his emotions, then he can think things through and decide what to do next.

He envisions himself as "a full grown man ... stuffed back into his mother's body ... completely helpless." He knows "he will be in this womb forever." Joe mourns the many aspects of a real life now lost to him forever, such as saying hello or listening to music, walking or running. Joe wonders why his terrible wounds did not kill him. He knows plenty of soldiers who had lost limbs or eyes and survived. But somehow he had suffered all possible war wounds together. "The shell had simply scooped out his whole face and the doctors had got to him soon enough to keep him from bleeding to death." Joe believes when he comes to terms with being in the womb "for good," he will then "calm down and [be able to] think." Slowly his thoughts become calmer, and he can figure out small details of his condition. For example, he tries desperately to free his cloth face mask from a scab by tossing his head back and forth, but he can't do it.

Joe remembers when he was wounded. There was a lull in the combat, so the doctors behind the lines probably had enough time to treat and save him. "So they fixed him up and tucked him back into the womb." Joe figures gangrene had set in, which is why his limbs had to be amputated. He remembers some hideous things the military doctors did to other wounded soldiers. There were also men who went crazy from the shelling and horrors of war and were locked away or lost their minds. Yet Joe knows he's unique. His survival is the medical profession's "triumph ... the greatest thing [the doctors] ever did."

Then Joe decides he will try to turn over. If he can, "he might be able to kill himself"; maybe the metal tubes keeping him alive will stab into his torso. Joe tosses from side to side "in a faint rocking motion," but his muscles are too weak to allow him to turn. Joe feels ashamed to be 20 years old and unable to perform this simple action. He starts "slipping away," descending into blackness, and dreams about the rats in the wartime trenches. He remembers a dead Prussian soldier in a trench with a "fat contented rat" feeding on the man's face. The American soldiers caught the rat and beat it to death, feeling foolish afterward. Joe thinks the rat, not its victim, was the real enemy. In his dream Joe can feel the rat eating at him, biting and chewing around his wounds, and he knows the rat will never go away. When the dream exhausts Joe, he falls back "into the womb ... into the loneliness and the blackness."

Chapter 8

Joe feels a nurse's gentle hands washing him and dressing his wounds. For Joe "she is company ... she was his friend" who for a few minutes relieved his loneliness. While the nurse tends him, the rat disappears, so Joe understands the animal was part of his nightmare. But he realizes the rat will return to disturb his sleep again; that's not right, Joe thinks, because "sleep should be like death."

Joe decides he must find a way to get out of his dream whenever the rat appears in it. As a boy he used to get rid of nightmare monsters by yelling until he woke up. But now he can't yell. Joe wonders if he can think his way out of nightmares by telling himself over and over, "It's just a dream." The problem is Joe has no eyes to open to signal wakefulness, so his challenge is to find a way to prove whether he's awake or asleep. Perhaps, he thinks, "if you're thinking about a dream that's proof you're awake." He decides the minute he feels sleepy he'll tell himself he's "not going to have any dreams about rats." Then he realizes he also has a problem knowing when he's sleepy. All former signs, such as yawning and drooping eyelids, don't apply now. And in his immobility Joe is sleepy almost all the time, so he's got no warning that sleep is coming. The only time he's sure he's awake is when the nurse touches his skin.

Somehow, he thinks, he needs to get his mind to tell him what state it's in. He can no longer dream of the past but must concentrate on "thinking, thinking, thinking ... every minute he was awake." If he's unable to do this, and he still cannot distinguish dreams from waking thoughts, then he is robbed of "the only thing that distinguished a normal person from a crazy man ... respect."


Joe is obsessed with figuring out how he can know he is really alive. He understands he has no real, lived life; he's like a helpless fetus in the womb. Yet his situation is far worse: a baby could one day be fully alive. His present condition is not life in any meaningful sense. It will end only with his death.

Joe gains more insight into the complicity of the medical profession in creating his inhuman condition. They can save people from almost any injury, but they're professionally indifferent to those they save. He imagines the doctors think of him more like a broken object than as a human being whose quality of life should be taken into account. Meanwhile, Joe has borne witness to soldiers' horrendous sacrifices in war: maggot-ridden wounds, losing limbs or eyes, or insanity. Because Joe has all possible physical wounds combined, his body is the ultimate representation of the physical realities, horrors, and consequences of war. Little wonder he is obsessed with keeping the last possible consequence, insanity, at bay.

A key aspect of Joe's struggle with reality is his inability to distinguish between wakefulness and sleep. Joe knows he's awake when the nurse touches him. But he can find no other means of distinguishing being awake from being sleepy or asleep. He's thwarted in every method he tries because each involves a sense he no longer has. "His whole life was so much like sleep that he had no way of keeping track" of his state. He decides to exercise and strengthen his mind by constantly thinking because his mind "was the only thing he could use so he must use it every minute he was awake."

When Joe sleeps he has nightmares about the rat, a symbol of the "big" guys, including the doctors, who live off the injured or decaying bodies of the "little" guys they send to war. Joe's obsession with the awareness of being asleep or awake becomes critically important because he must escape his dreams of the terrifying rat. Like the rat in the trench, the "big" guys will feed on any flesh—German, English, or American. Their purpose is to get fat; that's why they start wars and why they are the real enemy.

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