Literature Study GuidesJohnny Got His GunBook 2 Chapters 19 20 Summary

Johnny Got His Gun | Study Guide

Dalton Trumbo

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Johnny Got His Gun | Book 2, Chapters 19–20 : The Living | Summary



Chapter 19

Joe is stunned by the question the man has traced on his forehead. He thinks long and hard about how to answer the momentous question "What do you want?" His whole life seems to depend on his answer, so he must organize his thoughts before he responds.

Joe wonders if the question actually refers to "what they can give him." He feels insulted and belittled by this thought. He wonders, "did they think he would ask for an ice cream cone ... or a good book ... or dancing lessons?" He wonders if they think he'd ask for better food or a softer mattress. After all his years of isolation, how could they expect such trivial answers? Joe is angry as he thinks, "They should know what he wanted the silly bastards and they should know they couldn't give it to him." He wants his body back, his limbs, his senses, his life. Then the core yearning arises from his years of bodily confinement: "He wanted to get out."

In his mind Joe is raging. "Now I want out. ... You can't keep a man here like this. He's got to be doing something in order to be sure he's still alive." Joe thinks what his life would be like if he had all the things he's been robbed of: "If I had a voice ... If I had legs." Inside Joe is "going crazy ... and [he] screams and howls ... So let me out." Yet Joe realizes this would be difficult. In the outside world, someone would always have to take care of him. He'd need money to pay a caretaker. Joe then thinks he might earn money as "a curiosity ... an exhibition of a man" in a sideshow. He could be "an educational exhibit ... [teaching people] all there was to know about war." He would be a freak in a sideshow with a sign over him saying "here is war."

Joe begins to tap out his desire that "he wanted out." The more he taps, the more his "mind ran way ahead of his tapping" until he's tapping furiously. He taps faster and faster to get out the words and keep up with his thoughts. He taps how he can earn money as a freak exhibit in a glass cage. The hospital might even earn money from him because he'll be such a sensation. He taps "Believe it or not this thing thinks it is alive and it goes against every rule of nature although nature didn't make it so." Joe imagines being on display in factories where he can show working men about war. He taps that war may increase their wages and their injuries may save them money: "Maybe [when you return from war] you'll need only one shoe instead of two." Joe also taps about showing himself off to schoolchildren to teach them about war. He rewords nursery rhymes to reveal the horrible consequences of war. He wants to be displayed in colleges and universities, among all young men, so he can explain he is "living meat" that "contains a brain. That brain is thinking." Joe wants to be exhibited in legislatures, congresses, and parliaments "when they talk about honor and justice" and warmongering. He wants to be taken to churches displaying Christ on the cross—the "body of a man who was lucky enough to die." Joe's sarcasm is full of venom and fury. Near the end of his tapping tirade, he taps, "I know the truth and you don't you fools."

Chapter 20

Joe "feels the vibrations of heavy feet leaving the room." The man has gone, and only the new nurse is there. Joe is suddenly gripped by the fear he "made some mistake" in his tirade of tapping. Perhaps he'd been too eager or not made sense. Perhaps his thoughts rushed so fast he "he hadn't gotten them down in order clearly and sanely." Perhaps, he thinks, the man left to get someone to respond to Joe's idea. That's good; the response might be positive. Exhausted, he sinks back on the bed. After a while he hears the heavy vibrations of the doctor coming back to his room. Joe is filled with hope, thinking, "Here is my triumph ... my return from the dead."

But when the man taps his answer on Joe's forehead, it is not what Joe hoped for. The man taps, "WHAT YOU ASK IS AGAINST REGULATIONS WHO ARE YOU." Joe's mind goes blank, and "He could almost hear the wail of pain that went up from his heart." Why, he wonders, are they "stuffing him back into the womb back into the grave?" He is just trying to free himself from the prison of his war-ruined body. He is just asking to live. Yet they are saying, "Don't give us any trouble you are beyond life ... goodbye." Joe realizes they "wanted only to forget him." The breakthrough he sought for years has come, but "they had refused him." He is overcome with the understanding that the rest of his life will be unending loneliness and horror.

Joe rebels, thinking, "No no no He wouldn't let them do it." He begins to tap again, pleadingly: "please he wanted out ... he wanted a life. ... He was lonesome. That was all just lonesome." As he taps the new nurse puts her hand on his forehead to soothe him. Joe feels the hypodermic needle entering the stump of his left arm. They are doping him again. He feels himself sinking into a hallucinatory oblivion in which he sees Christ and hears a woman's voice crying in despair.

Joe holds fast to his last moments of consciousness, determined not let them "bury him alive." He will continue to tap no matter what. Even if they don't answer him, at least they'll know he exists. He won't let them forget him. He taps, "why why why?" because he can't figure out why they won't let him be free. Then Joe has a sudden realization. He is "a new kind of Christ ... the new messiah of the battlefields." He has visions of countless dead and dying men. He sees the "barren tortured earth" left after bombardment. Joe realizes "somewhere in the future they saw war," and they don't want Joe to tell others what war is really like and then have them refuse to fight.

Just before he loses consciousness, Joe thinks young men will eventually become sick of war, deciding "we are the living and we will not be destroyed." He thinks "If you make a war ... if there are men to be killed they will not be us." He envisions it will be the warmongers who die and not the working-class soldiers. If the working classes take up guns to kill anyone, it will be to kill the warmongers. They will not kill other working-class men because they are not the enemy. If the warmongers start a war, ordinary men will take up guns and make them pay with their lives.


In Chapter 19 Joe's future depends on how he answers the man. He says he wants his life back, wants his loneliness to end, wants to reveal his body as a lesson to others about war. But those in power refuse to listen because the last thing they want is for Joe to bear witness to what war can do to a man. Not only are they indifferent to Joe's request, they fear it because it reveals the truth about the consequences of war. These consequences cannot be disseminated to the general public because then no one would answer the call to war.

Joe wants to become the symbol that reveals the reality of war and the falsehood of war propaganda. When the man returns to Joe's bedside and taps out the question "WHO ARE YOU," it's as if he's accusing Joe of being a traitor for not acquiescing to the warmongers' propaganda. Joe's treason also lies in the truth he wants to tell about war. He is fiercely dedicated to bearing witness and convincing other "little" guys not to fall for propaganda, not to sacrifice their lives for the "big" guys.

The man's response, "WHAT YOU ASK IS AGAINST REGULATIONS," represents yet another form of propaganda. The "big" guys continue to make the regulations that subjugate and control the lives of the "little" guys. As becomes clear to Joe, the "big" guys will not let him be free because he will undermine their war propaganda. He thinks "No one could be so cruel" as to leave him trapped in his hellish existence, but of course the "big" guys are just that cruel.

Joe realizes he is the ultimate sacrifice for the "big" guys' war. He is like Christ in his martyrdom, his sacrifice, and his suffering. Joe is also a prophet who sees "a world of dead fathers and crippled brothers and crazy screaming sons." Joe's vision of the future is apocalyptic, filled with death and a "barren tortured earth." He himself represents that future.

Joe's final thoughts reflect the author's socialist beliefs. Joe thinks about the "little" guys waking up to the propaganda and the meaningless sacrifices they will be called on to make because of it. Joe believes that if the "little" guys can see the future, they will begin to ask questions and refuse to fight. In the end Joe expresses the viewpoint that killing other workingmen is not killing the enemy—it's killing a fellow human, a fellow worker. If the "little" guys, the working classes, ever do take up arms, Joe thinks, they will point their guns at and kill the "big" guys who have been exploiting them for so long.

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