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Literature Study GuidesJohnny Got His GunBook 1 Chapters 9 10 Summary

Johnny Got His Gun | Study Guide

Dalton Trumbo

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Johnny Got His Gun | Book 1, Chapters 9–10 : The Dead | Summary



Chapter 9

Chapter 9 recounts Joe's memories of his childhood and youth. Joe, his friend Bill Harper, and Joe's dad are on a camping and fishing trip. Joe's dad had been taking him fishing for the past eight years. Joe is now fifteen, and he will go fishing with Bill for the first time the next day. Joe somehow knows fishing with Bill instead of his dad "will be the end of something." For this reason Joe hesitantly tells his father about Bill. Joe's dad understands and says the boys can take his treasured fishing rod. Joe agrees but understands how much responsibility his father is placing in him because dad's fishing rod is "very valuable ... perhaps the only extravagance his father had had in his whole life."

Bill arrives at dawn the next day and the two boys go off together to fish. They've been fishing all day from a rowboat when "the terrible thing" happens. A fish bites onto Bill's hook, but Bill, like Joe, had not been paying much attention. As the fish pulls on the rod—Joe's father's—Bill lets go of it. The rod "leap[s] out of Bill Harper's hand and disappear[s] into the water." Both boys try desperately to find the rod in the water, but it's gone.

They row to shore and clean the fish they've caught. Joe leaves Bill to go back to the campsite to tell his father what happened. As he walks back Joe thinks how little money his father earns. But he also recalls the wonderful vegetable garden his father tends. The garden keeps the Bonham family in fresh vegetables for most of the year, as Joe's mother cans or preserves the garden bounty. The chickens and other animals Joe's father tends provide the family with eggs, milk, and meat. For the most part, Joe's family is self-sufficient because of the garden and the animals. In spite of the goodness and usefulness of the garden Joe sees his father as a failure because he doesn't make a lot of money. He wonders why a man as resourceful as his father is viewed this way.

Joe slowly approaches the campsite. He thinks about how to tell his father his prized fishing rod is gone because Joe knows his dad cannot afford to buy another one. Joe decides to be as direct as possible. "Dad," he says, "we lost your rod." Joe explains how it happened. His father is silent for a few minutes. Then he says, "I don't think we should let a little thing like a fishing rod spoil our last trip." His father knows from now on Joe will go fishing with his friends, not with him. Joe "blinks back tears" because "he and his father had lost everything."

Joe awakens from this memory dream in the hospital feeling lonelier than ever. He wishes he could relive even a few minutes of his life in Shale City.

Chapter 10

Joe is lying in the hospital thinking his isolation is like being on a camping trip by himself, when he has "plenty of time to think ... and figure things out." Joe starts thinking about why he's in his current, and lifelong, predicament, "lying like a side of beef" in a hospital bed. He wonders why in the world he went to war. Someone said go to war and he just did. He never stopped to ask "what's there in it for me?" He thinks it's a person's duty to ask "what am I going to get out of it" before committing to anything. But with war, he realizes "you haven't even the right to say yes or no or I'll think it over."

Joe understands "lots of guys were ashamed" to say no to war. They believed they had to "go out and fight for liberty" even if it killed them. But Joe thinks, "What the hell does liberty mean anyhow?" It's just a word, an idea. Joe feels he was "a goddamn fool" for falling for such lies. In his mind Joe talks to the "big" guys who start wars and profit from them. "Are you as much interested in this liberty as you want me to be? ... Thank you mister. You fight for liberty. Me I don't care for some." Joe thinks if a guy refuses to fight for empty words he's called a coward. A lot of times "little" guys are asked to fight and die for freedom. But freedom from what, Joe wonders, and for whom? He thinks about all the other buzzwords the "big" guys use to get the "little" guys to fight and die: words such as decency, honor, and native land, words so abstract no one knows what they mean. What good are they? He wonders. "Whose native land is it after you're dead?"

Joe realizes the "little" guys better watch out when "flags wave and slogans pop up" to convince them to go to war. War benefits only the sloganeers, the "big" guys who will tell you "surely life isn't as important as principle." But they are only "willing to sacrifice somebody else's life" for their precious principles. The "big" guys in government and business say "Death before dishonor. ... But what do the dead say?" Joe thinks. Only the dead could say if dying for a slogan is worthwhile, but they can't say anything because they're dead.

Pondering the last thoughts of the men he knows who died in the war, Joe thinks, "Surely they didn't die thinking about democracy or freedom or liberty. They thought about home and the lives they'll never live." He knows this "because he's the nearest thing to a dead man on earth." Only he can tell the "big" guys about their lies and their empty words. Joe would like to tell all "little" guys, "The most important thing is your life ... [is] don't let them kid you anymore."


The fishing rod is the symbol of Joe's breach with his father. Up until this incident Joe and his father had a close and loving relationship. But the loss of the cherished and irreplaceable fishing rod ruptures this relationship irreparably and so represents Joe's coming of age. The loss also serves to emphasize Joe's father's identity as a failure. Joe has bought into the equation of success with money despite the fact that his father is a "good man and an honest man" who is committed to a life of self-sufficiency.

Chapter 10 cements Joe's realizations about war and propaganda. His antiwar arguments are fierce in their condemnation of the lies that lead "little" guys to die and fight for nothing. Joe saves his most intense and eloquent vitriol for the vacuous, "special kind of words" the "big" guys spout to lure the "little" guys into war, words that offer no tangible reason for young men to sacrifice their lives.

Joe warns all "little" guys to "Watch out. ... It's words you're fighting for." He tells the "big" guys, "You keep your ideals just so long as they don't cost me my life." Joe knows the dead never come back to say, "I'm glad I'm dead because death is always better than dishonor." Soldiers die "with only one thought in their minds ... I want to live." The reader can feel Joe's fury in this tirade against the rich and powerful. He rails against the institutions that advocate for war—churches, schools, newspapers, legislatures—and furiously annihilates all the platitudinous arguments for war. None of them, he thinks, are worth the sacrifice of human lives.

Finally, Joe asserts his right to speak for the dead because he thinks of himself as "one of them." "I would trade ... honor and freedom and decency for life." As professor and critic Tim Blackmore has pointed out, Joe is like the biblical Lazarus, who is brought back from the dead by Jesus in the Gospel of John. Joe, "Trumbo's Lazarus, emerges with a vengeance" to speak for the dead. The metaphor will be echoed again in Chapter 12 when Joe describes a dead German soldier named Lazarus and his effect on Joe's fellow troops.

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