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Johnny Got His Gun

  • Study Guide
Summary

Chapters xix–xx

Summary Chapters xix–xx

Analysis

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.