Literature Study GuidesJohnny Got His GunBook 2 Chapters 15 16 Summary

Johnny Got His Gun | Study Guide

Dalton Trumbo

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Johnny Got His Gun | Book 2, Chapters 15–16 : The Living | Summary



Chapter 15

Joe cannot, will not, stop tapping because "he [doesn't] dare think." Thinking might lead him to conclude, reasonably, that no one will ever understand his efforts to communicate. He wonders if he is insane, "trapped in his own brain ... kicking and screaming to get out." Joe also thinks the nurse is keeping him prisoner. He feels a kinship with all ordinary people who've been unjustly imprisoned or enslaved, taken from their lives and families and forced into cruel servitude. Yet Joe thinks they were luckier than he is because despite their suffering they could see and walk and touch and drink clean water. "They were more nearly living than I and they were not imprisoned as securely," he thinks about the slaves who built the Egyptian pyramids and those sacrificed in the Roman Coliseum for the entertainment of the rich and powerful.

A doctor enters Joe's room and begins to prod his body. Joe thinks the nurse must have asked the doctor to come and find a way to stop Joe from tapping. During the exam, Joe continues tapping. Then he feels himself getting an injection in the stump of his left arm. Joe understands the shot contains something "to shut him up. ... They weren't interested in anything but getting him off their minds." He tries to overcome the drug by continuing to tap, but eventually "a fog settle[s] down over his mind" and lifting his head seemed like lifting a great weight.

Chapter 16

The injected drug sends Joe into a hallucinatory state, and in his mind things begin to dissolve into each other. His body is relaxed but seems to move "slowly through a windless world" like "a glowing space." Joe sees subtle but amazing colors; they seem to have scent as well as warmth or coolness. He hears soft music all around him. The music, colors, and space become a part of him. When the music stops, he hears a cosmic silence like the silence of eternal time. "It was a silence so dense that it ceased to be silence" and became "only fear." Then he waits for "the thing" to happen. The thing is like a concussive blast from a bomb or artillery shell. Joe falls through the air at great speed. Huge globes of light come at him and burst in his face.

Joe begins to whirl as if he's a helicopter. He hears the voices of people with whole bodies. Then "all sound seemed centered on one voice that filled the whole world." This universal voice stops his fall. It's the voice of a woman crying and calling for her little boy, who became a soldier. Joe realizes the little boy is Christ, who had "come up from Tucson" to the railway station. Men play blackjack at the station. Outside a band is playing and crowds are yelling. When Christ nears the card players, they ask him to play, and he says "sure." A red-haired guy deals, but a Swede says he wishes he had a drink. Christ smiles at this, and a glass of whiskey appears in front of the Swede and then all the players. The players wonder how Christ did that, but then Christ loses the hand. The red-haired guy gets up and throws down his cards. He's got to board the train because "I'm going to be killed on the twenty-seventh of June and I got to say goodbye to my wife and kid." He describes how a bullet in the head will kill him, but he adds, "We're all going to be killed that's why we're here." He says Christ is already dead and then describes how each of the players will die.

They all stop to listen to some high, thin music, beautiful but faint. "It is the music of death said Christ," Joe dreams, "the high thin music of death." Then Joe is in the dream scene. Someone says he shouldn't be there because "he ain't going to die." When Joe tells them what will happen to him, that he will be death in life, they agree to let him join them. The Swede says, "Jesus he's worse off than we are." Then they all go out to the train. Christ cannot stay long with them on the train because "I got lots of trains to meet lots of dead men." The train quickly reaches a yellow desert baking in the sun. Christ emerges from a distant cloud and floats above the desert. Joe looks at Christ and then jumps off the train because "dead men [were on it and] there was no place for him he was forgotten ... forever alone." The train moves on with the "dead men inside laughing." Joe is alone in the desert "running toward Christ ... he ran and he ran ... and finally he came up to Christ." Joe throws himself at Christ's feet and weeps.


Joe's insanity arises out of his unbearable isolation and the inability or unwillingness of anyone at the hospital to recognize his attempts to communicate. He derangement brings him to the edge of paranoia as he considers his impossible situation. Although Joe believes the nurse "is keeping him a prisoner," his real prison is his body.

Joe's identification with prisoners and slaves unites him emotionally with all those in history who have been forced to suffer. All those who have been enslaved or tortured are understood to be the "little" guys who are always subjugated by the "big" guys. Yet Joe envies the slaves because at least they have a usable body and he does not. They could opt for the liberation of death while Joe cannot even commit suicide.

The doctor who arrives in Joe's room is complicit in the war because he has no interest in treating the suffering of his patient. His main concern is to shut him up, to sedate him so he can quietly ignore him again.

The Christ figure in his dream embodies the suffering and sacrifice of the "little" guy. Christ is an outsider in his historical narrative, and his teachings focus on the elevation of the "little" guys (the meek, the poor) to a state of grace. The incident in which Christ miraculously provides whiskey to the gamblers may be a bit of comic relief, a sacriligious take on the Eucharist that substitutes wine for the blood of Christ.

Christ is at the station because he must "meet lots of dead men lots of them you wouldn't believe it." Christ is there to extend mercy to the dead men sacrificed to the war. Perhaps this is why he does not approach Joe, who does not die in the war. When Joe runs toward Christ and falls weeping at his feet, he begs for the release of death. But unlike the laughing men on the train, who know they are or will soon be dead, Joe is is trapped in a nightmare limbo between death and life.

Christ and Joe are united in that both are "already dead." Christ was killed, but he was resurrected after his crucifixion and entombment. Although Joe was not killed, his mutilation condemns him to a death in life. In his isolation Joe is, in a way, already dead. If he has any hope for resurrection, it can come only from communication with others or through his death and union with Christ. So far he has been able to achieve neither or these goals.

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