Literature Study GuidesJohnny Got His GunBook 2 Chapters 11 12 Summary

Johnny Got His Gun | Study Guide

Dalton Trumbo

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Johnny Got His Gun | Book 2, Chapters 11–12 : The Living | Summary



Chapter 11

Joe is exercising his mind by doing multiplication tables and practicing grammar. He challenges himself to remember the characters and incidents in the books he's read, particularly those of 19th-century British author Charles Dickens. Then he tries to remember and recite in his thoughts the poems he's learned or memorized. After the poetry he turns to remembering some of the scientific facts he was taught. Finally Joe's thoughts turn to the Bible. Joe does rather well remembering important Bible verses, but he chides himself for not remembering enough and thus having too little to occupy and strengthen his mind. He's stuck inside his mind, and "all he could remember was himself his life and that was bad." He berates himself for being unable to remember the plots of the novels he's read because he hadn't been paying close enough attention.

Joe decides he has to "start at the beginning. He had to start in with an idea" that has been germinating in his mind. It has to do with time. He thinks "time was the most important thing in the world." If Joe can figure out his place in time, he can "get a hold on [himself] and keep [himself] in the world." People out in the world live in time, so if Joe can know the time he would "be part of them." Joe has lost a lot of time since he was injured. Now he must figure out a way to "trap time" and get "back in the world."

Joe knows the nurses visit him on a set schedule. He sets himself the task of counting seconds, then minutes, then hours, and keeping track of them. If he can remember the number of minutes between each nurse visit he will be able to determine the length of each day and thus count days. The next time the nurse leaves his room, Joe begins to count seconds. He has to divide his mind in half, repeatedly counting up to 60 seconds in one half and keeping track of the number of minutes in the other. He concentrates intensely, but at first he only gets to 11 minutes before "his mind slipped off the track and his figures were lost." He must wait for the nurse's next visit and begin counting again. He keeps losing track of the count, though once he counts up to 114 minutes. But when he stops to figure out how many hours that is, again he loses the count.

Joe sees "he's tackling the thing from the wrong angle" because it's too complicated and he'd have to keep the count for twenty-four hours. He tries to count simpler things, such as each change of his bed clothes and each bath, both of which occur about once every twelve nurse visits. Tracking these events will enable Joe to figure out days.

One day Joe's attention is drawn to the sensation of the mask on his skin, particularly feelings of heat and cold. Joe decides he can use the felt warmth of the sunrise on his skin to determine each day's morning. Then he'll count the nurse's visits, which happen six times a day, or every four hours. He'll stay awake until the next sunrise and so will be able to tell time. Joe figures his sheets are changed and he's bathed every two days.

Joe concentrates on sensing the warmth of the sunrise and correlating it with the nurse's visits. When he's done this for "two sunrises," he feels he's "trapped time forever [and] can begin to catch up with the world." Joe's concentration and determination pay off. Keeping track of time is "like being born all over again into the world." After he succeeds, he imagines the smell of dawn, of "dew on the grass," and the sight of the brightening morning. In his mind he sees the sun coming over the Colorado Rockies and remembers hometown mornings of his childhood. In his mind he sees other people getting up and greeting the new day. Joe is immensely grateful for his new ability: "if I never have anything else I will always have dawn and morning sunlight."

Chapter 12

Joe is happy because he has now counted all 365 days in the past year. He's trapped time by correlating sunrise with nurses' visits. He "was like other people ... he controlled a little world of his own" through time. Joe has "learned a lot ... so he couldn't possibly lose the grip he had gained on time." He's even able to tell one nurse from another. The footsteps of older, heavier nurses create a stronger vibration on his hospital room floor. Other nurses walk more lightly and produce smaller vibrations. The night nurses vary, but they have one thing in common: when they first lift his mask and see his face they react in some way. Some cry, some gasp, some run out of the room.

With his newfound sense of (some) control over his environment, Joe imagines living a real life. In his mind he takes walks in the woods. He imagines sleeping next to Kareen. Joe figures Kareen is 22 years old now. In a few years, he imagines, she'll start to get gray hair. Later she'll be an old woman, and "the girl at the station would never have existed." Then Joe rejects this notion: Kareen will remain 19 years old forever. Since she exists for him only in his memory, he can keep her young and "keep her safe."

Joe's thoughts of Kareen, and his desire to be near her, lead him to wonder where he is. The hospital he's in might be anywhere. He was so badly injured—and is so unrecognizable—he might be in a hospital near the old battlefield, or in England as he had been fighting with "Limey" (English) soldiers. Yet Joe wishes he was home in America. If he is not, then he has "lost something he could never hope to get back."

Joe has keen memories of the Hun (German) they called Lazarus. The German seemed to be wandering aimlessly in front of the English trenches when the English soldiers began to shoot at him. The German was killed and his body left in the mud with "one arm hung over the barbed wire." Several days later the German's body began to stink. An English officer, Corporal Timlon, demanded the body be buried and prayed over, so the English soldiers dug a hole, lowered the body into it, and said a prayer. Soon after, the Germans began shelling around the English trenches. No one was hurt, but one shell landed on the buried German's grave and sent the body flying into the air, finally to land, again, on some barbed wire. Corporal Timlon begins calling the dead German Lazarus. Like the biblical Lazarus, he has been resurrected from the dead. The men leave Lazarus on the wire, but he starts to stink worse than ever. So Corporal Timlon orders the men to bury the body six feet deep this time. That night Lazarus is wrapped in a sheet and buried deep in the ground. Timlon reads a prayer for the dead, and everyone thinks that is the end of Lazarus—until a German shell rips open his grave and again sends Lazarus flying onto the barbed wire. This time the English soldiers shoot at Lazarus until he falls off the barbed wire and into the mud.

Unfortunately a new subaltern, or junior officer, arrives at the trench. To prove his bravery, the Limey subaltern, as he is known, sneaks out of the trench to go on night patrol. The other soldiers do not find him until the next morning. The subaltern has tripped over Lazarus's body, his arm going through the German's decaying flesh. The man's mind is unhinged by the terrible experience, and he is sent back behind the line. The troops learn the subaltern is being kept in a straitjacket and might be permanently insane. Joe now thinks it's funny the subaltern has legs, arms, and senses but is too crazy to realize it, whereas he, Joe, is sane enough to realize he has none of those things. Joe thinks, "He and the young Limey should swap minds. Then they'd both be happy."


Book II is titled "The Living" because here Joe begins to try to come back to life. He uses his mind to figure out how he can create some kind of meaningful existence for himself despite his desperate condition. This is an important turning point for Joe because it focuses him on connecting to the outside world. When he turns from counting seconds to analyzing the events in his days and organizing them into a coherent chronology, readers realize his resilience. He can use the only sense he has left to situate himself in time and in the real world, giving himself a sense of control over and connection to it.

His ability to differentiate the strength of a vibration in a footstep reveals how increasingly attuned Joe's remaining sense is to his surroundings. It is a major step forward in his reentry into the world of the living. Joe "had made a new universe [and] he had organized it to his liking and he was living in it." Significantly, Joe refers to his condition as "living," not as dead or dying as he had previously.

Trumbo presents Joe's loss of identity as a consequence of war. He wishes "to be in the hands of his own people"; the lack of an identity as an American dehumanizes him. His loss is twofold: he has lost his personal identity, because no one knows who he is, and his national identity, because he believes he's not in the United States.

In Chapter 10 Joe thinks he has a right to speak for the dead, like a modern-day Lazurus returned from the dead. Now readers are presented with a real, dead Lazarus who can only be resurrected from death to new death. In the words of critic Tim Blackmore, this German Lazarus forces the men to "once more confront their physical future in all its corruption." Lazarus's repeated resurrections, though slightly comic, represent war's persistent devastation of human bodies, whether alive or dead. The war machine can never get enough killing. Lazarus's fate is contrasted with Joe's, whose mind is awakening into life from the hopeless death-in-life he felt earlier. In this way Joe is the true Lazarus.

While the German Lazarus is presented as a contrast to the novel's main character, the Limey subaltern who goes insane after stumbling into Lazarus's dead body has a kinship with Joe. Their kinship lies in their fellow victimization at the hands of the warmongers and their propaganda. The subaltern is forever damaged psychically, and Joe is destroyed physically.

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