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Johnny Got His Gun

Dalton Trumbo

Important Quotations Explained

Chapters xix–xx

Key Facts

What the hell does liberty mean anyhow? It's just a word like house or table or any other word. Only it's a special kind of word. A guy says house and he can point to a house to prove it. But a guy says come on let's fight for liberty and he can't show you liberty. He can't prove the thing he's talking about so how in the hell can he be telling you to fight for it?

This passage, from Chapter x, indicates Joe's extreme skepticism about abstract language and the intent of those who use it for persuasion. From Joe's point of view, the farther removed words are from the things they describe, the more room there is to for the meaning of the words to shift to accommodate the desires of whoever is using them. Joe's point is that liberty can mean one thing to one person and another, very different thing to another person, therefore making the end value of the word nothing. If the word cannot be trusted to mean something—if liberty cannot be truly promised—then it is not remotely worth risking one's life for.

He was a dead man with a mind that could still think. He knew all the answers that the dead knew and couldn't think about. He could speak for the dead because he was one of them. He was the first of all the soldiers who had died since the beginning of time who still had a brain left to think with.

This quotation, also from Chapter x, discusses Joe's unique position as someone on the edge of both life and death. This borderline status is simultaneously the tragedy of Joe and the novel, and, as we see in this quotation, what makes him special and gives him hope. Because Joe is nearer than anyone else living to death, he has the authority to talk about death firsthand and to potentially make people change their minds about what they perceive to be worth dying for. In this regard, Joe's tragedy also makes him both a leader and a prophet.

Flor da lee. Flor da lee. God save the king. Come on up honeybunch lonesome wanta try something new parley vous fransays? A gallon of red wine like water and sourdough bread and maybe please god I find an American girl who don't talk heathen languages.

This passage appears in Chapter xiv, at the end of Joe's long memory of prostitutes and women he has been with—a memory he experiences while his regular day nurse is masturbating him in an effort to alleviate whatever is making him tap his head. The chapter ends with a depiction of wartime Paris, which Joe had visited while on leave. The technique of the prose here is slightly different than the stream of consciousness used in most of the novel. Rather than of rendering Joe's thoughts as they come, this section reads as more of a montage—an impressionistic array intended to relay the feeling of Joe's time in Paris rather than a realistic plot line. This passage addresses the loneliness that Joe felt then, remembered through his current loneliness, and how both moments of loneliness were, for better or worse, momentarily alleviated by sex. This passage also points to Joe's underlying patriotism, or identification with his country. This patriotism works against much of what Joe argues in the novel, yet it remains as a contradictory force.

This will be the goddamndest dime's worth a man ever had. This will be a sensation in the show world and whoever sponsors my tour will be a new Barnum and have fine notices in all the newspapers because I am something you can really holler about. I am something you can push with a money back guarantee. I am the dead-man-who-is-alive… I am the man who made the world safe for democracy. If they won't fall for that then for Christ sake they're no men. Let them join the army because the army makes men.

This selection appears in Chapter xix, when Joe is pondering his answer to the question "WHAT DO YOU WANT?" The question itself is dehumanizing and absurd to Joe, given how long he has waited to communicate and given the state of his body. The question sparks a sarcastic tirade in Joe, but this quotation comes from the section of the tirade that is only half-sarcastic. Joe knows what he wants—to get out of the hospital and be near people—and he presents this wish in terms that "they" can understand. He dehumanizes himself, espousing his worth as a freak-show exhibit. He also mimics the ideology of those who run the war, namely that the "army makes men" and that a man's worth can be measured in money. The sarcasm of the passage creates a vehicle for Joe's bitterness.

He had a vision of himself as a new kind of Christ as a man who carries within himself all the seeds of a new order of things. He was the new messiah of the battlefields saying to people as I am so shall you be. For he had seen the future he had tasted it and now he was living it.

This passage appears in the final chapter of Johnny Got His Gun, after Joe realizes that the hospital staff will never let him out to be seen by others, nor will they even let him continue to be conscious and communicative. Joe's vision of the future is an apocalyptic one of unending war. He realizes from the lack of human compassion that the hospital staff has shown him that there will not be enough human compassion in the future to forestall further warfare. Instead, the technology of modern war will take over.

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