Johnny Got His Gun | Study Guide

Dalton Trumbo

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Johnny Got His Gun | Symbols



Joe is like Lazarus, who in the New Testament Gospel of John (John 11:1–44) is brought back from the dead through one of the miracles performed by Jesus. While Joe has not physically died, he sees himself as trapped in a living death. In Chapter 10, as the embodiment of the consequences of war, he wishes to speak on behalf of the dead.

In Chapter 12 Joe describes the dead German soldier whom the fighting men nickname Lazarus for his repeated "resurrections." Lazarus's body hangs on a wire for days and cannot be shelled out of existence. When it is buried, it "rises again" after a shell hits its grave. At this point in Book 2, titled "The Living," Joe has begun to try to choose life over death. But he is not entirely different from the dead Lazarus, because war will continue to ravage human bodies over and over regardless of the outcome, death or life.

The Rat

The rat that haunts Joe's dreams of war represents the "big" guys who benefit and profit from war. Like the warmongers who push young men to die in battle, the rat gnaws at the body of a dead soldier, getting fat on the meat that was once a living human being.

In the dream the soldiers finally corner the rat and beat it to death, but then they feel silly. They seem to recognize that beating one rat to death has a negligible effect on all the rats that feed on, or profit from, the war dead.

Fishing Rod

The fishing rod is symbolic of young Joe's love for his father. Joe loses the fishing rod his father prizes so much and cannot afford to replace. Losing the rod represents a coming of age for Joe, as it creates an unbreachable barrier between him and his father. Joe is, in a sense, cut loose from the protection of his father and loving family.

Before this incident Joe simply adores his good and kind father, but after he realizes his dad cannot afford to replace the fishing rod, Joe loses respect for him. His father starts to seem rather pathetic. Nothing is ever the same again between father and son.

Homestead and Garden

The Bonham family is largely self-sufficient. The family garden, including the homestead and livestock, represents the simple, innocent life of Joe's childhood and youth. The homestead also represents the Bonhams' independence and ability to support themselves.

The family doesn't use the homestead and garden to generate money, although the family could use the additional income. They use these resources to feed the family. The garden harks back to a simple time when a family could sustain itself without the outside, commercial world. In this way, it evokes the Bible's idyllic Garden of Eden, where the first humans lived before committing sin and being cast out. In a similar vein, the homestead keeps the outside world, including the war, at bay. Joe's memories of the brimming life of the homestead represent nostalgia for a simpler, less commercialized, and more resilient way of life.

The Medal

Every military organization hands out medals for bravery in action. The medal Joe Bonham receives is a double symbol. On one hand it represents the courage he showed on the battlefield and honors the sacrifice of his body to the war effort. On the other hand, the medal represents Joe's naivete: his foolish willingness to fight in a pointless war. Joe is shamed and infuriated by the medal. He has given up his life for the war, and this trinket is supposed to compensate for his unimaginable suffering. Joe rejects this tinny reminder of war and its consequences.

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