Joe Bonham is the narrator and protagonist of Johnny Got His Gun.The novel takes place after Joe has been severely injured in World War I. Joe grew up in a working class household in Shale City, Colorado in the beginning of the century. Joe's family was not well-off, but he remembers them as having been happy. After Joe graduated high school, the family moved to Los Angeles so Joe's father could look for higher paying work. In Los Angeles, Joe got a job in a bakery, working at night. Joe's father soon died and Joe was eventually sent to war.
The novel takes place after Joe has been injured at the front, where he was serving as an infantryman. As the novel proceeds, Joe realizes that he has lost all of his limbs, as well as his face, leaving him blind, deaf, dumb, and without smell. Joe thinks rarely of his experiences during the war, and when he does, the memories deal with human interactions rather than battle. Joe does not hold himself as a soldier first. Instead, the novel mainly consists of his reminiscences of childhood and his current struggle to remain sane and, finally, to communicate.
Joe is not a hero type. He is unextraordinary in every capacity save the gravity of his injury. His character is meant to be representative of an every-day, young American man. His injury, however, puts him in remarkable circumstances. Unable to fully experience or communicate with the outside world, Joe must live inside his head. The novel occurs fully within Joe's head as well, making the remaining characters quite flat as compared to supporting characters in most novels. Joe understands, with bitterness, that his injury has granted him a status unlike any other man— he exists on the boundary of life and death. Joe's position makes him lonely and sad, yet there is something extraordinary about it as well. Though Joe acknowledges his own importance sarcastically, the novel shows Joe attaining the status of a leader or even a prophet.
After his injury, as Joe slowly learns strategies to fight off his loneliness and the threat of insanity, his political consciousness also increases. He begins to view his war experience and injury in a larger context of modern warfare conducted in the interests of the upper classes. Joe likewise views his treatment at the hands of modern medicine negatively, a pessimism that is confirmed by a hospital official's terse treatment of him through Morse code at the end of the novel. Joe's approach to these issues is characteristically un-intellectual. Instead, he adopts a realist approach with a common sense tone. He debunks various myths, such as the myth that death can be noble. As Joe becomes increasingly disillusioned with his recent experience of war, his memories of his past take on a nostalgic hue. Implicitly, Joe privileges the security and insularity of both his childhood and the past of his countrymen over the brutal inhumanity of modern warfare and medicine.
Joe stands at the absolute center of Johnny Got His Gun but his character is not wholly foregrounded in the novel. Rather, the emphasis rests upon the circumstance Joe finds himself in, and the effects of that circumstance upon his mind and burgeoning political consciousness.
We know the regular day nurse only through Joe's interpretations of the vibrations and touches that he feels from her. From these, Joe reasons that she is a heavier woman who knows her job well and has been doing her work for a while. The day nurse comes to seem like a gray-haired, maternal figure and Joe imagines that they like each other. When she comes into Joe's room he squirms to show his happiness and she pats him in return. This interaction is indicative of the place that the day nurse holds—she seems to treat Joe somewhat more like an animal than a human. Thus she is not mentally open to the possibility that Joe might be trying to communicate. The day nurse does not understand Joe's efforts to communicate through Morse code and becomes frustrated by his continual tapping. At first, she tries to alleviate what she perceives as his nervousness in a variety of ways, even going so far as to masturbate him once. As Joe's tapping continues and their mutual frustration grows, their relationship seems to sour, and Joe even envisions that she is abstractly holding him prisoner. As a caretaker, capable of great humanistic love, the regular day nurse stands apart from the terse medical establishment, represented by the Morse code man, yet is not capable of the perceptive sympathy of the new day nurse.
Joe's father, Bill Bonham, courted Joe's mother and raised a family with her in Colorado. Joe's father never made enough money, although he loved his family and fed and treated them well. He and Joe had a close relationship, and he got along with Joe's friends, as well. Joe remembers that his father valued people over things, as depicted in the story of Joe losing his father's fishing rod. Joe saw his father as someone unfit for the "quicker and harder" modern times. As all of the characters in Johnny Got His Gun are portrayed either through Joe's memories of them or through his imaginations of them through their vibrations and touches, all of the characters seem to refer back to Joe and his perceptions rather than stand on their own. Thus Joe's father is presented through partial memories, all idealistic, and his character comes to stand for Joe's nostalgia for an older way of life.