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Literature Study GuidesJohnny Got His GunBook 2 Chapters 17 18 Summary

Johnny Got His Gun | Study Guide

Dalton Trumbo

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Johnny Got His Gun | Book 2, Chapters 17–18 : The Living | Summary



Chapter 17

Joe awakens from his sedative-induced hallucinations and immediately begins tapping an S.O.S. against his pillow, asking for help. As Joe's head clears, he realizes he has a new day nurse. He senses her footsteps vibrating more lightly than those of his regular nurse. Joe becomes very tense as he tries to learn as much as he can about the new nurse. As the nurse throws back Joe's covers, she's shocked for a moment by what he looks like. But instead of crying or running away in horror, she puts her hand on Joe's forehead. Joe is glad the new nurse is not afraid of him. Her hand on his forehead is calming, and Joe "ripples his skin" to try to communicate his appreciation. Joe wonders if the possibility of communication is better with the new nurse than with the old one. The new nurse is "unafraid and gentle," so maybe she will be more receptive to him. If he taps his head very firmly and clearly, she might understand that he is talking.

Before Joe can begin tapping, the new nurse does a strange thing. She opens his shirt and "moves the tip of her finger against the skin of his breast." At first Joe is puzzled, but then he concentrates on the movement of her finger, which he can tell "was not traveling aimlessly." She is moving her finger to make "the same design over and over again." The design is "all straight lines and angles." Then Joe has a breakthrough, realizing her finger is tracing the letter "M" on his skin. When he recognizes the letter, Joe nods quickly to indicate he understands, and she pats his forehead. Then she starts to trace other letters on his chest. It's not long before Joe understands the new nurse has written "MERRY CHRISTMAS" on his chest. The old nurse must be away for the holiday, he thinks. Joe nods energetically to the new nurse to show her he understands. Joe is wild with "a kind of hysterical happiness." After so many years, someone has finally communicated with him.

In his exhilaration Joe falls into memories of childhood Christmases. He remembers how every Christmas Eve his mother read aloud the poem "Twas the night before Christmas." He recalls it was "a wonderful thing to hear her read." His mother glowed as she read, and "It was so warm so secure so comforting to be home on Christmas eve." After reading the poem, Joe's mother read the nativity story from the Bible, and Joe's thoughts turn to the details of the story. Joe remembers the star of Bethlehem that led the three wise men to the manger. The air fills with singing angels announcing the birth of Jesus and the coming of peace on earth. The angels call on everyone to rejoice and sing, for "a savior is born." While the rejoicing continues, Mary hugs her infant close to her, her eyes filling with tears as if she can see his future.

Chapter 18

Joe forces his mind away from memories of Christmas. He begins tapping again, firmly and vigorously, for he realizes that, like him, the new nurse believes they are communicating. Joe taps "carefully and slowly" to show her the pattern as he taps S.O.S over and over again. Somehow Joe is "conscious of her near him watching and thinking."

The new nurse begins to do things she thinks Joe wants, based on his tapping. She brings a urinal and a bedpan, but Joe shakes his head "no." She keeps bringing him things to "eliminate all possible causes for his tapping one by one." But no matter what she tries, Joe shakes his head "no." When the new nurse has tried everything she "stand[s] there quietly ... try[ing] hard to understand." Joe concentrates so hard on his tapping he almost stops breathing. He feels this is the last opportunity he'll have to communicate by tapping Morse code. If the new nurse walks away now, she'll take Joe's life with her, leaving him alone in his "madness and loneliness ... [with] his silent screams." She is "life and death" for him. Joe prays as he taps, begging God to make the new nurse understand and liberate him from his living death.

Joe feels the new nurse's finger on his forehead. She taps four times, which in Morse code is the letter "H." Joe nods vigorously. Then he feels the new nurse's footsteps going away. Joe understands she's going to find someone who knows Morse code. Joe lies in bed exhausted but exhilarated. He feels the millions of people who have been "pushing the lid of the coffin down on him" have now relented, and he has "risen." Now the doctors can no longer think of him as a slab of meat. They'll know he has a mind and thoughts and an identity as a human being. He imagines they'll be astonished and thrilled at his wonderful mental capacities. Joe feels a "wild frantic happiness ... greater than anything he could conceive." He can even imagine having and using his limbs and senses again: "He was a man again."

Joe imagines the new nurse running through the halls of the hospital looking for someone who knows Morse code, saying "a dead man was tapping and talking." He imagines the amazed staff gathering in awe around his bed. Then the door of his room opens, and Joe senses two sets of footsteps. One is the new nurse, and the other is a man, perhaps a doctor. The man's finger touches Joe's forehead and taps a series of letters: "WHAT DO YOU WANT?"


Joe knows that if he can communicate with others then his death-in-life existence will cease and he will become more fully human. The new nurse gives him hope; she recognizes Joe's tapping as an attempt to communicate. He feels as if the lid on his coffin, his body, has finally been lifted. "He had risen," he thinks, a clear reference to the resurrected Christ, who also was deemed dead and buried before he rose again. When he's able to communicate, Joe is determined that he will "talk for the dead."

When the man uses Morse code to communicate with Joe, the question he asks is so momentous and monumental Joe is at first struck dumb. "WHAT DO YOU WANT?" encompasses the whole world for Joe. It also seems to contain a kernel of hostility. It expresses no compassion, no joy at Joe's ability to communicate. It seems more like a cold command than the "wonderful ... and splendid" reaction Joe had been expecting. It is, instead, what a "big" guy would say to a "little" guy he cares nothing about.

The baby Jesus as Joe envisions him is newly born into life. Joe hopes the ability to communicate will also bring him back to life. However, Joe's awful fate may be foreshadowed by Mary, who "hugged her baby closer. Her eyes were filled with pain and fear for the little baby" as she contemplates his future.

The biblical Joseph may represent Joe's father, both failures because they are poor. If that's the case, then Joe might be considered the baby Jesus, about to be reborn as fully human in the hospital.

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