Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Patriotic Songs

The title of Johnny Got His Gun alludes to a wartime patriotic song that included the line "Johnny get your gun" in the refrain. The title's use of the past tense emphasizes the inappropriate optimism and blind patriotism of the original song: Joe Bonham did get his gun, and the results are that he has lost everything but his life and gained nothing in return. Several other patriotic songs thread through the narrative of the novel by way of Joe's memory. At the beginning of Book II, Joe remembers snatches of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade," written to laud a small brigade of English soldiers who rode into a battle in which they were greatly outnumbered and brutally defeated. Joe's narrative uses the scraps of these songs ironically, revealing their ultimate absurdity and inability to comfort recognized suffering and pain.

Memories of Loss

Book I of Johnny Got His Gun consists mainly of Joe's flashback memories. The only pattern of these memories appears to be that many of them recount a moment of loss for Joe. They involve scenes when people from Joe's life left never to return, or when Joe's relationship with someone permanently altered. This pattern fits in with the novel's upending of the classic coming-of-age narrative. Joe, rather than coming into his character through learning or epiphany, reaches formative points that center around instances of loss, building up to a final state in which Joe has lost parts of his self.

Rebirth from Death

Book I of Johnny Got His Gun is entitled "The Dead"; Book II is entitled "The Living." This trajectory from death to life points to one of the novel's particular fascinations: rebirth from death. The trajectory, however, is not treated as optimistically as we might expect, as we see in the figure of "Lazarus" from Joe's war memory, who is "raised" from the dead twice by an exploding shell only to be "killed" several more times by the British regiment. Joe envisions himself as a Lazarus at the end of the novel, when he finally is able to communicate with the outside world, yet he is shoved back in his "coffin" when the doctor denies his request to communicate and sedates him once more. In this sense, rebirth from death is part of a larger circle in which one is doomed to relive the pains of one's former life.