Johnny Got His Gun
Joe is taken aback by the man's Morse code question "WHAT DO YOU WANT?" Joe has spent so long hoping merely to be heard and spoken back to that he does not know what he might want. He wonders if the hospital staff are really asking what they can give him. A slew of material goods come to mind, but Joe would have no use for any of them, so the question seems horribly inappropriate. The hospital staff should know that what Joe wants is to have parts of his body back—an impossible thing, which makes their question seem cruel.
Joe thinks about his wish to be out of his own head and able to be with people again. He realizes that he cannot ask to be taken outside the hospital, as this would cost money that he does not have. Then he realizes that he can pay his own way by serving as an educational exhibit for people, teaching them about the true horrors of war that they do not read about in newspapers. Joe taps out this request to the man. Joe becomes more excited and angry as he explains to the man that they could use Joe as a freak exhibit as "the dead-man-who-is-alive the live-man-who-is-dead."
Joe imagines the language that would be used to "sell" himself as an exhibit to families, men, girls, students, children. The selling pitch would be cold and dry, contrasting to the horror of Joe's body. Joe imagines being taken into parliaments and congresses and left in a glass case on the desk as a reminder to the men when they are busy making policies that might cause wars or support wars. Joe imagines being taken into churches and cathedrals as evidence of the murderousness of God's children. Joe imagines he will show everyone, because they are all "fools."
Joe feels the Morse code man leave the room. Joe wonders if his message came out jumbled or if the man failed to understand. Joe hopes that the man has merely gone to get a superior to get an answer. Joe feels the man returning and then feels a finger tap into his forehead, "WHAT YOU ASK IS AGAINST REGULATIONS WHO ARE YOU." The man continues tapping, but Joe is no longer paying attention. Joe's mind goes blank and he experiences pain—"a sharp terrible personal pain the kind of pain that comes only when someone to whom you have never done any harm turns on you." Joe wonders bitterly what he has done to deserve this response.
Suddenly, Joe realizes that they want only to forget about him. Joe realizes that there is no hope left for him—the loneliness of his world will never be alleviated. Then, in one last burst of hope and protest, Joe taps humbly his supplication—he wants out. Joe feels the nurse's soothing hand on his forehead then feels the man applying an alcohol swab to his arm. Joe realizes that they are sedating him again. Through horror and disbelief, Joe realizes that they will not even let him talk. He taps, slower and slower, "why? why? why?"
All at once, Joe realizes why they will not let him speak. He has 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." The truth that Joe's body would tell must be kept secret so that the generals can still recruit men to fight wars. Joe envisions the uprising that would occur if the horrible truth of war were common knowledge. The farmers, manufacturers, builders, and others would come together and refuse to be the ones who die, insisting instead that it would be those who profit from warfare that would die. Peace-loving workers would no longer kill other workers; instead they would unite and use the guns of the ruling forces against those ruling forces in order to allow for peace.
Chapter xix offers a good example of the black humor that is interlaced through Johnny Got His Gun—similar to the Lazarus story from Chapter xii, for example. As with the Lazarus story, black humor can arise out of a situation that is so dire that it comes to seem absurd. After over four years, the silence of the outside world is broken for Joe with the question, "WHAT DO YOU WANT?"; Joe's confusion gives way to anger and a sense of the absurdity of this question. In reaction, Joe becomes sarcastic, entertaining such possibilities as one in which he would like some fudge: "I've been waiting all these years and tapping all these months because I love fudge so much." The humor here becomes a context to reveal the inappropriateness of the Morse code man's response to Joe.
Joe's response to the Morse code man shows that Joe realizes he will not be dealt with hospitably. Joe would like to be taken around as an educational exhibit on the horrors of war, but he suggests his idea through Morse code as a moneymaking freak-show exhibition. Joe's response also shows that he understands and, to some extent, has internalized "their" way of looking at the world, which values men by their moneymaking potential. Like Jose in Chapter vi, Joe does not expect to be treated according to the kind of man he is; he expects to be treated only as a worker. Though this mode of thinking is not his own, Joe knows he will be given no "free ride," but must earn his way; he presents his case accordingly.
Joe, however, also presents the grotesqueness of viewing a man for his earning potential, with the idea of his body being brought to different spots in America and hawked as a must-see oddity to different classes of people. The tone of the text takes that of a fast-talking freak-show announcer, selling a product to an uncomfortable audience. The Morse code man's response to Joe's request underlines the incompatibility of "their" worldview with human understanding. Joe's request is denied on the basis of "regulations," although the novel has already gone to great lengths to depict Joe as an existence in a liminal space, a being to whom categories and regulations are inapplicable.
The rhythm of these final two chapters is staccato: every few paragraphs, Joe reaches a new level of understanding in regard to his mistreatment by the very people who sent him to war. In many ways, the conclusion that he reaches at the end of these tiered understandings—that they will never let him out because his body would tell the truth about war and therefore make it impossible for them to keep enlisting others to fight their wars—is a conclusion that Joe seems implicitly to have known for most of the novel. Joe does go some way, in these final chapters, to identifying who "they" is. Once he identifies "us" as the makers of products—men who work with their hands—it becomes clear that the distinction is a economic-political one, between the working classes and those who profit off of the working classes but do no hands-on work themselves. Joe's recognition of this distinction leads to his vision of the workers fighting not against each other, but against the upper classes. The novel thus ends on a note of tempered pacifism—peace may be possible only by taking, or threatening to take, arms once again.
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