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Johnny Got His Gun | Study Guide

Dalton Trumbo

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Johnny Got His Gun | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Book 1: The Dead

Because of Joe's inability to communicate or to move, his mind frequently retrieves memories of his past, particularly his childhood and youth. He remembers significant events, such as the death of his father, a life-altering fishing trip, his best friends, his girlfriends, and his jobs.

Joe's earliest memories are of his childhood in Shale City, Colorado. His memories of this small town revolve around friends and family. He remembers special events such as the time a famous pilot visited the town. He remembers the pain of loss, such as the girlfriends who left him for other boys.

Joe's mind then shifts to the present, and he thinks about his decision to fight in the war. Joe regrets deciding to fight because he's realized the war had nothing to do with him. It was started and supported by the powerful people who benefited from it. As Joe's awareness of his present situation grows, he begins to understand the extent of his terrible injuries. First he realizes he has no left arm. Then he can tell his right arm has been amputated. Joe still has sensation in his skin and so senses there's a kind of mask covering what used to be his face. His face is mostly gone, along with all the senses that reside there. Soon Joe can tell the doctors have also amputated both his legs. Most of Joe's body is gone, and his only remaining sense is touch.

When Joe sleeps or is given sedatives, he often descends into terrifying nightmares, such as a terrible dream about a rat. Because he is perpetually trapped in his mind, he's often unsure if the nightmares and dreams occur when he is asleep or awake.

Joe does have good memories of his childhood. He remembers his beloved father and the wonderful garden he tended, which kept the family self-sufficient with healthful homegrown food. Joe notes with some bitterness that the world viewed his father as a failure because he didn't make much money. But his father's lack of material success also affected Joe's attitude toward him. When Joe lost his father's expensive fishing rod, his dad couldn't afford to replace it, and Joe lost respect for his "failure" of a father.

At a crucial point in the novel, Joe analyzes the propaganda that convinces good and simple people to want to go to war. In his mind Joe explains to himself the meaninglessness of words like freedom and liberty. He concludes they are untrustworthy abstractions, and ordinary people should never fight and die for such vague concepts. Warmongers use patriotism and other appeals to nationalism to convince the unwary to fight wars that profit only the rich.

Book 2: The Living

Joe begins trying to exercise his mind as a way to connect with reality. He attempts to calculate time as a way to keep his mind active and to connect to the world outside his body. His counting exercises inevitably fail, but then Joe understands he can use his skin's sensation of warmth to recognize the sunrise at the beginning of the day. Later he correlates the sunrise with the times the nurse comes to give him care. Joe manages to count the passing days, and eventually he counts up to a full year. On New Year's, Joe celebrates this accomplishment in his mind by thinking of a hike through a beautiful forest.

A few years later, Joe is still lying in bed. One day he senses the vibration of a group of people walking across the floor of his room. One visitor places an object on Joe's chest. Joe realizes it must be a military medal, and he is furious: does the military think it can reward him, even perhaps compensate him for his suffering, by giving him a crummy medal? Joe tries to shake the mask off his face to show the people what war really does to people, but they turn and walk out.

When Joe realizes his skin can sense vibrations when someone walks across his hospital room, he contemplates using his one remaining sense, touch, to develop a means of communication. As a boy he learned and used Morse code. Now Joe moves his head up and down on his pillow to tap out the Morse code for "help," S.O.S. Whenever a nurse comes into his room, Joe taps his head to communicate "help." His regular nurses think his head movements indicate mental disturbance or seizures, so they inject him with sedatives to calm him down.

On Christmas Eve a new nurse arrives to replace his regular nurse. Joe is thrilled when the new nurse uses her finger to write letters on his chest, spelling out "MERRY CHRISTMAS." She's the only person who realizes she can communicate with him by touch. Joe begins to tap "S.O.S." on his pillow. At first the new nurse does not understand what he's doing. When she realizes he's using the tapping to communicate, she leaves his room. Joe hopes she's going to find someone in the hospital who knows Morse code.

After a while the new nurse returns to Joe's room with a man, presumably a doctor. The man uses Morse code on Joe's forehead, tapping the code for "WHAT DO YOU WANT?" Joe knows his answer is crucial; this may be his only chance to communicate with this man, or with anyone. Joe spends some time thinking about how he should answer. Joe finally taps a code saying he "wants out," wants to get away, to leave the hospital and rejoin the outside world and be with other people again. In his enthusiasm Joe taps out the idea that he could support himself on the outside by becoming a sideshow freak. People would pay to see him. This would give Joe a purpose in life: to reveal what war can do to a person.

The man responds to Joe's idea by tapping on his forehead "WHAT YOU ASK IS AGAINST REGULATIONS."

Joe realizes the man is complicit in keeping the realities of war from becoming public. He is just like the warmongers. Joe now understands he will never be allowed out of his hospital room. He will never be permitted to communicate. Joe wonders why he is kept alive as a mutilated husk of a body if he can never be a person, a communicating person. As Joe thinks about spending the rest of his life trapped in his grotesque body and solitary mind, he feels a needle being jabbed into him. The man is giving him a sedative to render him unconscious and cut off further communication.

As Joe sinks into oblivion, he recognizes he is the "new messiah of the battlefields," whose form is so horrific it must be hidden from humankind. If people saw him, they would refuse ever to fight in a war again. Joe believes if ordinary men take up arms again, it will be to overthrow the warmongers—those who think ordinary people's bodies and lives are expendable.

Johnny Got His Gun Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Joe realizes the extent of his body mutilations.

Rising Action

2 Using his mind, Joe situates himself in time.

3 Joe taps his head in Morse code to communicate.

4 The new nurse realizes Joe is tapping in code.


5 Joe is sedated so he can't communicate his anti-war ideas.

Falling Action

6 To show he's still a thinking human, Joe continues to tap.


7 Joe envisions the "little" guys refusing to fight anymore.

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