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Literature Study GuidesJohnny Got His GunBook 2 Chapters 13 14 Summary

Johnny Got His Gun | Study Guide

Dalton Trumbo

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Johnny Got His Gun | Book 2: Chapters 13–14 : The Living | Summary



Chapter 13

Joe's calculations are upended one day when the nurse changes his bedclothes two days in a row, not every third day. The change in schedule is both disturbing and exciting. Joe would enjoy getting his linens changed daily. A daily change of bedclothes "would be something to break up time" and occupy his mind. Sometimes, too, the nurse bathes him at unexpected times. One day the nurse does another new thing. She sprays his body with a cool misty liquid and gives Joe a new mask. Joe feels refreshed and "completely redone." He's enjoying the clean feeling when he senses the vibration of four or five people entering his room.

Joe becomes tense as the group gathers around his bed. He wonders who his visitors are. Perhaps it's his family or Kareen. But Joe feels ashamed. "He didn't want anybody he had ever known to see him." Joe turns his head away and becomes agitated, rocking back and forth. A man's hand rests on his forehead and calms him. Joe feels his cover sheet being folded down from his neck. Joe thinks the doctors are there to examine him, to admire their handiwork. Joe feels someone pulling up the fabric of his nightshirt over his left breast. When the fabric is released and falls back against his chest Joe feels it's heavier now. He feels the coolness of metal through the nightshirt. One of the men had pinned something on his shirt.

A man bends down and kisses Joe's temple. That's when Joe realizes the men had given him a medal. Joe thinks he must be in a hospital in France, where it's common for generals to kiss soldiers when they pin medals on them. He thinks English and American generals would just shake his hands. Joe becomes angry. The military brass who pinned the medal on him had all their limbs and sense organs. Joe thinks, "How many generals got killed in the war?" Not many, he decides. And few, if any, had been as severely wounded and disabled as he had. Joe's anger and resentment grow, and he has an intense desire to reveal his mutilated face. "He wanted them to get just one look at that hole in his head." Joe tries to blow the mask off his face, but cannot. While he's trying to use his breath he feels vibrations coming from his body. He is "grunting like a pig" to show his contempt for the generals and the medal. But then he senses the men leaving his room; he's alone with his medal.

Joe considers the vibrations he made. He realizes he could create vibrations as a form of communication. This thought becomes "a dazzling white light" in his mind. Joe remembers when he was a kid he'd had a wireless set (two-way radio) he'd used to communicate with his friend Bill Harper using Morse code. If Joe now can figure out a way to tap out the dots and dashes of Morse code, he can communicate with people. Joe lifts his head a bit and lets it fall back against his pillow. Then he does it again. Two lifts and falls equal the two dots that in Morse code make the letter D. Then he uses his head to tap out Morse code for Help (dot-dot-dot dot-dot dot-dot-dot): S.O.S. Joe practices tapping out words, sentences, and questions. While doing this he hears a nurse enter his room. He begins to tap frantically. He wants the nurse to acknowledge she understands his efforts to communicate. Joe feels the woman standing by his bed looking down at him. He begins grunting to show he's communicating, but the nurse does not understand. She touches and then strokes his forehead to calm him. As the pressure of her hand increases, Joe realizes she's trying to get him to stop tapping. Eventually his neck gets tired as the pressure of her hand increases. He stops tapping and lies back quietly.

Chapter 14

Joe is consumed with his tapping all day, and he loses track of time. He even dreams of tapping, which again makes it hard for him to distinguish waking from sleeping. He has no idea how long he's been tapping, but it has taken over his sense of touch. He doesn't try to think or remember the past anymore. He doesn't pay attention to vibrations in the floor. The day nurse keeps trying to calm him. She can't understand he's trying to communicate. Joe taps so much he feels "pain shooting all the way down his spine and across his back," but he continues to tap. The nurse tries massaging Joe, which he enjoys, but it does not stop his tapping. The nurse's gentleness and mercy cause Joe to feel "a kind of love that took in all living things" and makes them "a little more comfortable, a little less unhappy." The nurse massages all parts of what's left of Joe's body, and her touch arouses him sexually. He responds to the nurse's massage as "he fell in with her rhythm ... [and] his heart pounded to a faster tempo and he forgot everything in the world except the motion and the sudden pumping of blood." The massage causes Joe to have an orgasm.

His arousal leads Joe to remember a girl named Ruby, a middle-school girl and his first love. Ruby was "never embarrassed" at boys' attraction to her. "She came right to the point." Thoughts of Ruby lead to memories of Laurette, a young woman who worked in a brothel. When Joe and Bill are older teens they gather the courage to enter the brothel, where they're introduced to two young women. Laurette, the girl who's with Joe, likes books. Joe and the girl spend their time talking about reading. Joe thinks about Laurette and goes back to see her. He visits her several times, but they always just talk about books. Joe knows he should have sex with her, but he doesn't know "how a fellow started things like that." So they never have sex. Joe thinks he loves Laurette, and one day after Joe graduates from high school Laurette tells him "in a kind of roundabout way" that she loves him too. Yet once when Joe goes to the brothel to see her, Laurette is gone on a three-month vacation. Joe gets the job in the bakery, but by the time Laurette returns, he's living very far away, so he never sees her again.

Joe remembers a girl named Bonnie who boldly introduces herself to him, reminding him they were once schoolmates. Bonnie's impressed by Joe's job in the bakery. Joe is tempted to visit Bonnie, and it's possible Joe has sex with her even though she probably sleeps around for money. Bonnie has money and offers to pay for Joe's college, telling him "you stick with me. I'll send you through school." At some point he leaves her. Joe also recalls a girl named Lucky whom he met in Paris while on leave from the war. Lucky is "the best of the bunch ... nicest ... smartest." She's stark naked when she opens her door to Joe. Lucky has a son at school in the United States. Joe finds peace being with and lying with Lucky. He doesn't like Paris because "It had too much life and too much death and too many ghosts." But he really likes Lucky.

Thoughts of Lucky lead Joe into a stream-of-consciousness, feverish dream about his time in Paris, where soldiers spent a few days leave and then were sent back to the front. Each time they go back they think there's a greater chance they'll be killed. They get drunk and pursue sex in Paris because "it may be the last time." The soldiers think about "the little old guy" who sits and figures and calculates and never makes a mistake.

Joe thinks of a German girl preparing an artillery shell. She's polishing it and cleaning it until it glistens. "It has a number and the number is mine." Soldiers try to get other soldiers on leave in Paris to drink absinthe, a strong liquor. Paris is a city of debauchery, and the soldiers pursue pleasures of all kinds. They go wild, break up furniture, have sex with prostitutes. All the while the little old guy calculates faster and faster as the figures get bigger and bigger.

In another of Joe's side thoughts, a German truck heads toward France. The truck carries shells, one of which has Joe's "number" on it. It's coming nearer, and "nothing can stop it ... we shall meet it when it comes." All soldiers must do their duty and they do. The endless cemeteries containing the bodies of dead soldiers attest to that. The little old guy keeps doing his calculations, never making a mistake, and the cemeteries keep filling up. In an aside, Joe describes a hill "like a woman's breast," hiding an ammunition dump containing the shell that is intended for him. In a final aside, Joe thinks of a shell with his name on it that comes "howling and ... shrieking" toward him. He can't help but reach out to "embrace it."


The military brass give Joe a medal for bravery. To the officers the medal represents courage in battle. For Joe, however, the medal is a symbol of his gullibility and horrific sacrifice. He wants to show the men the kind of horrific sacrifices men have made for their meaningless war.

Joe learns he has a way to communicate by tapping his head against his pillow to create Morse code. "He would do the greatest thing of them all," he thinks; "he would talk." The need to communicate dominates Joe's waking and sleeping life. Yet Joe's efforts are incomprehensible to hospital staff, who think the head tapping is just a sign of agitation.

Joe's memories of Lucky evoke a stream-of-consciousness portrayal of life in Paris for soldiers on leave from the front. The writing style is deliberately disjointed and crazily upbeat to match the soldiers' carefree, drunken debaucheries. Yet the frenetic wildness of the soldiers in Paris is constrained by the introduction of the "little old guy [who] keeps a book and figures averages all day long and all night long and never makes a mistake." The little old guy is a metaphor for fate, and he calculates constantly who among the soldiers will live or die when they return to battle. When Joe describes the endless cemeteries filled with graves of dead soldiers, the little old guy "figures faster and faster faster and quicker harder and stronger and faster faster faster." The little old guy must keep up with the never-ending rise in the death toll.

Joe's memories in Chapter 14 mingle sex and death. A shell is a phallic symbol, and a girl's handling of it is highly sexual. A soldier will stretch out his arms to "embrace" a shell as it roars toward him, and then "tense" himself for acceptance. Then "the earth which is your eternal bed will tremble at the moment of your union." The union of the living man with the shell that kills him is likened to sexual climax, though presumably it is one that will be enjoyed only by the war machine that has produced the soldier's death. Similarly, Joe experiences an orgasm at the hands of one of the nurses who has life or death power over him.

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