Johnny Got His Gun
Johnny Got His Gun: Fishing with Father
Dalton Trumbo is perhaps best known for his Communist viewpoints and for his involvement in the HUAC committee in Hollywood and for his work in the movie industry. However, Trumbo’s novels are widely regarded as some of his best work. In one of those esteemed and probably best-known novels, Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo uses a third-person point of view and stream of consciousness-like syntax to characterize the exceptionally complex and changing relationship between the young man and his father.
Trumbo’s book is structured in an exceptionally unique way. The most striking aspect of its structure is Trumbo’s extensive use of flashback. The passage about the main characters fishing trip with his father is an example of Trumbo’s use of flashback, as it is written in a reflective point of view of the young man on a camping trip with his father and his friend. “They had been coming to this place ever since he was seven,” says Trumbo, “Now he was fifteen and Bill Harper was going to come tomorrow… Tomorrow for the first time in all trips together he wanted to go fishing with someone other than his father (Trumbo). While the third-person point of view somewhat isolates the reader from the situation, it also makes it more interesting in that it emphasizes just how groundbreaking the situation is in their relationship. In other words, the third-person point of view amplifies that the boy is growing up and is breaking away from the once close relationship he and his father had once shared. The use of third person point of view likewise highlights a striking generational gap between father and son. On one hand, the son wants to wake up “Early in the morning” to go “Fishing” with his friend Bill Harper. On the other, his father, who is presumably old, tired, and somewhat boring, “Doesn’t want to go fishing” as he’s tired and “[Going to] rest all day” (Trumbo). Not only does point of view illuminate a generational difference, it also characterizes the changing nature of their relationship. That is, they were once best friends who did everything together, but now are growing apart as the boy grows up and becomes his own person, not needing the once invaluable support and attention of his doting father.
Additionally, Trumbo uses stream of consciousness-like syntax to characterize the evolving relationship of father and son. This is especially evident when Trumbo says, “For a while his father didn’t say a thing. Then he said why sure go along Joe… A little later [he asked if] Bill Harper [has] a rod?” to which the son responded that Bill doesn’t have a rod (Trumbo). The boy’s father in turn tells his son to “take my rod and let Bill use yours” as he wasn’t going fishing with them and thus had no use for it (Trumbo). The fact that the boy’s father gives his son his prized pole, the “only extravagance his father had in his whole life,” is a kind of symbolic passing of the torch between father and son (Trumbo). In other words, the pole is a symbol for both the newfound independence and freedom of son and for the changing nature of the relationship between father and son (from loving and almost mutualistic to loving yet independent). Similarly, Trumbo’s use of such fast-paced, stream of consciousness-like syntax during which the boy’s fishing trip is described at the end of the passage underscores the boy’s happiness for his new freedom and the changing nature of his relationship with his father when Trumbo says, “He got up and gave Bill his road and took his father’s for himself…” (Trumbo). The boys then went to their fishing trip, hoping that they catch something and yearning for an experience without adult supervision, again showcasing the power of a single fishing pole.
In effect, the son is becoming his own person who doesn’t particularly need his father anymore. And through the use of third-person point-of-view and symbolism, Trumbo not only makes the aforementioned evident, but also makes it clear that the two, even though the son is becoming his own man, will always be close to each other and will still have a good relationship no matter what happens in their lives, which is underscored when the boy ironically destroys his father’s pole, signifying that the father’s broken trust in the boy and foreshadowing the gruesome fate of the boy.
Trumbo, Dalton. Johnny Got His Gun. New York: L. Stuart, 1970. Print.
A Literary Analysis of “Johnny Got His Gun”
In an excerpt from the novel, Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo shifts from an apprehensive to a resigned tone utilizing the boy’s changing perspective, focused details, and sophisticated diction proving that with focus and determination one can successfully develop into a mature adult.
Trumbo narrates the story as an outsider, in order to emphasize the importance of a father and son relationship. He is able to divulge the feelings of both the father and the son, “It was an ending and a beginning and he wondered just how he should tell his father about it.” Trumbo is able to create a universality around their strange situation by making it represent puberty and the boy’s transition from adolescence to adulthood. During this time, a shift in dominance occurs between the men in the house and it becomes a power struggle whilst balances out once puberty is over and both are equal in manhood. Trumbo was also able to tune into Joe’s specific dilemma by considering context clues and eye contact, “He sat in front of the fire and looked across at his father and wondered just how he was going to tell him,” which he manipulated to fit his own personal views and life experience. However, the focus is on the boy’s inability to read his father’s opinion on him having a new fishing partner and leaving his fishing childhood in the past, where he can learn from it and grow into the fisherman he was meant to become.
Trumbo’s selection of detail is based on the understanding of a father-son relationship that changes with knowledge and experiences. The whole concept of development comes from the boy’s life stage during the fishing trip, “They had been coming to this place ever since he was seven. Now he was fifteen and Bill Harper was going to come tomorrow.” Joe and his father have created their own father-son tradition to immortalize their biological and emotional connection which grows stronger as the years go by, it’s location is the sustainable variable that will connect them forever. Their bonding time is focused on growth and the effects of maturity on their relationship; there will come a time when the boy can no longer rely on his father to protect him and he must become the man of the house. Trumbo’s selection of detail also relates to his complex setting, which focuses on the simplicity of language and human interaction. He begins by setting the stage for Joe and his father’s relationship, “They fished in the lakes and when they slept at night the roar of water from the streams which connected the lakes sounded in their ears all night long,” emphasizing the shared importance of the location to their roles in each other’s lives. Therefore, demonstrating Joe’s fear of telling his dad that he wants to share their bonding time with another boy that is going through the same transitions. The details ebb and flow with Joe’s apprehensive around revealing his feelings surrounding the inevitable shift in their father- son relationship which he refuses to accept as adulthood slowly takes ahold of him.
Trumbo employs sophisticated diction to further illustrate Joe’s metamorphose from inside his father’s shadow to outside into his own reflection. Joe’s bonding time with his father revolved around the art of concentration – fishing. They would ritualistically wield the same fishing rod each time, so much that it became an extension of their being. The more time they spent together on their adventures, the more the rod and the act of fishing grew in importance to their growing relationship, “valuable,” “extravagance.” “expert,” and, “glistening.” Therefore, when Joe wanted to invite a friend to tag along on their ventures, his father surprised him by suggesting, “you take my rod and let Bill use yours.” What astonished Joe the most wasn’t that his father was accepting of his friend joining their fishing trip, but that he considered him responsible enough to use his “treasured” fishing rod; when Joe’s father gave him permission to use his fishing rod, he also gave him permission to grow up and become his own man. Thus, the purpose of Trumbo utilizing enlightened language is to further illustrate Joe’s metamorphose from inside his father’s shadow to outside into his own reflection. The sophisticated diction falters whenever their fear is associated with the next step but grows stronger with their hopeful attitude, proving both Joe and his father’s resignation when discussing the up and down flow of their father-son relationship which must occur for Joe to experience all the stages from childhood to adulthood, that is father will be there to guide him through as well.
Dalton Trumbo wrote Johnny Got His Gun when World War II was becoming an overwhelming possibility, if not the only means to an end. It was publicized during a time of rapid change as the world was thrust into yet another war that would deconstruct everything they’d built since World War I. Trumbo focused on America’s exploration and globalization, caused by their interactions with other societies and cultures.
Johnny Got His Gun: Mortality
“If the thing they were fighting for was important enough to die for then it was also important enough for them to be thinking about it in the last minutes of their lives. That stood to reason. Life is awfully important so if you’ve given it away you’d ought to think with all your mind in the last moments of your life about the thing you traded it for. So did all those kids die thinking of democracy and freedom and liberty and honor and the safety of the home and the stars and stripes forever? —- You’re goddamn right they didn’t. —– They died crying in their minds like little babies. They forgot the thing they were fighting for the things they were dying for. They thought about things a man can understand. They died yearning for the face of a friend. They died whimpering for the voice of a mother a father a wife a child. They died with their hearts sick for one more look at the place where they were born please god just one more look. They died moaning and sighing for life. They knew what was important. They knew that life was everything and they died with screams and sobs. They died with only one thought in their minds and that was I want to live I want to live I want to live. —- He ought to know. He was the nearest thing to a dead man on earth.” ― Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun
Johnny Got His Gun is a harrowing narration of a man, Joe, who is held captive by the useless shell of his body. Within the first beginning chapters, the reader discovers that the story’s protagonist, a WWI soldier, has had all four limbs amputated after being hit by an artillery shell. Along with his limbs, his face is gone, and with it use of his eyes and ears, and is left with no way to communicate. His entire world is confined to a hospital room in an unknown country, where he is maintained. He receives nutrition through a feeding tube. His bedding is changed. Nurses enter and leave his room. Through this, though silenced, blind, deaf, and immobile, Joe is conscious. He is a human paradox, both alive and dead. The book shifts between Joe’s memories, sentiments, and the present, reflecting the twisted thought processes of the human mind.
Joe’s situation is vital to the very core of the novel. Not only does it bring a unique perspective; it also gives him the ultimate authority to present his anti-war polemic. We assume as readers that his cognizance is why he can narrate to us, as if we’d lose that if he were dead. Many of his conclusions are based solely on his experiences predating or during the war, and in that sense, his consciousness is unnecessary. However, not having the option of death gives Joe’s revealed thoughts a grim honesty. The hopelessness he feels is obvious in much of the book, especially concentrated in The Book of the Living. In it, Joe’s relationship with Death is contradictory, desiring both death and life. As a dead man with a working mind, he frequently sees being dead (in a medical sense) as a much more attractive, impossible alternative to his present state, while also finding solace in his memories. After his attempts at communication fail, his attempt to live (through exhibiting his body to send a message) is rendered impossible as well. Trumbo successfully illustrates Joe’s position as a living hell: he struggles to distinguish reality from nightmare and gradually realizes his hopeless fate.
Joe sees the power of death and physical trauma as equals, responsible for leveling the worth of person in war, reducing veterans to their injuries. He dismisses the driving themes behind war, removing the glory behind words of honor and sacrifice to one’s country. Regardless of their national identity, those who fight in war are products of the horrors they experienced, not the nationalistic themes that put them there in the first place. Joe’s character captures this perfectly, and can generalize the war to all those who fought and the lasting effects by the thoughts he presents rather than by replaying battle scenes in his head.
The last two chapters of Johnny Got His Gun start with Joe’s communication breakthrough, continue with new levels of understanding of his condition, and conclude with a direct message to society. Joe desperately wants to live in the only probable sense: by feeling air outside the hospital and being in the presence of people. He knows this is impossible and eliminates it as in option: “The government would say he is nuts who ever heard of a guy without arms legs eyes ears nose mouth getting any fun out of being around people he can’t see or hear or talk to? The government would say the whole thing is a crazy idea and the hell with it he’s better off where he is and besides it costs too much dough.” He offers to make a profit by selling himself as an exhibit in order to show an embodiment of war. This situation, though equally impossible, would be better for Joe—or rather, better for the effect he would have. They cannot let him out; they need people to enlist. Joe is resigned himelf to coding “Kill me, SOS” over and over again after his requests are ignored. The conclusions made at the end of the novel send a message that the distinction between “them” and “us” is a socioeconomic one. “It will be you—you who urge us on to battle you who incite us against ourselves you who would have one cobbler kill another cobbler you who would have one man who works kill another man who works you who would have one human being who wants only to live kill another human being who wants only to live.” Joe concludes by urging the working class to rise against the upper class.