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Joe awakens from his drugged state already tapping "SOS" again. After a moment, Joe stops tapping as he realizes that he has a new day nurse. The new nurse's footsteps are different; she seems lighter, shorter, and more buoyant. Joe expects her to immediately inspect his mangled body and then possibly weep or run out of the room in disgust. Instead, she places her hand on his forehead in a way that no one else has—without fear or disgust.
Joe prepares to tap to the new nurse, but before he can, she opens his shirt and moves her finger repeatedly over his chest in a design. Joe concentrates and realizes that she is tracing the letter "M." Joe nods his comprehension and she traces out "MERRY CHRISTMAS." Joe joyously signals his comprehension and life bursts in on his mind: the memories of Christmas, of his mother reading "Twas the Night Before Christmas," of his mother reading the story of the baby Jesus from the Bible. Joe retells the story of the birth of Jesus in his mind, in his own words. The story ends with Mary hugging her child close and feeling "pain and fear" for the baby as the angels and wise men approach.
Joe is full of hope as he realizes that his new day nurse is attuned to his need to communicate. Joe begins slowly tapping "SOS" again. The nurse tries different ways of making him more comfortable to see what he might be asking for. Joe shakes his head in response to each attempt and the nurse stops and waits. Joe taps again and the nurse taps his forehead tentatively. Joe nods excitedly and the nurse leaves the room. He knows that she has understood and he feels triumphantly happy, realizing that he has, in a way, just risen from the dead. Joe prepares himself for the crowds of hospital people who will want to see him "talk." But the nurse returns with only one man. The man's heavy finger taps on Joe's forehead, "WHAT DO YOU WANT?"
Chapter xvii and xviii cover the visit of the new day nurse, whom Joe imagines idealistically from her footsteps and her way of touching him. The new day nurse's capability to understand appears indistinct from her youthful footstep, just as the old day nurse's stubbornness and perfunctory care seem inextricably linked to her heavier, slower carriage.
There is an emphasis on learning in these chapters as Joe learns how to communicate. Up to this point, he has taught himself the idea of using Morse code to communicate, but here he listens in addition to speaking, as he learns the nurses' form of communication—tracing letters on his chest. After the nurse slowly teaches him to understand the letter M, he is able to teach her that he, too, is making letters, by using Morse code. Therefore, Joe's initial triumph is not simply a matter of finding someone who understands him, but is partially the result of his own personal growth, his own learning curve.
The nurse's "MERRY CHRISTMAS" message occupies Joe's mind for the remainder of Chapter xvii. His Christmas memories and his retelling of the baby Jesus story establish this chapter as one of rebirth for Joe, especially when we remember that Joe's own birthday falls in December. This theme of rebirth contributes to a sense that Joe's memories seem newly whole. For example, Joe's memory of the complete "Night Before Christmas" poem stands in contrast to the scraps of other poems and books he is unable to remember at the beginning of Book II.
Joe's remembered version of the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus contains modern, realistic detail. The most important departure from the original story, however, is Joseph's and Mary's growing fear as the truth of Jesus' destiny and their destinies begins to bear down upon them. This retelling evokes Joe's own feelings about his participation in the war. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are portrayed as a happy family who do not experience fear until the outside world encroaches upon their life, just as Joe was happy until the worldly events of the war interfered. In the same ways that Joe believes that abstract words like "liberty" are not worth the price of losing one's life, he imagines Joseph and Mary seemingly ignoring the abstract honor of their son's destiny and fearing for Jesus' suffering to come. The retelling is also prescient about the precondition of suffering to the position of prophet and savior: Mary seems to know that Jesus will undergo much suffering before becoming the Messiah. In this way, Chapter xvii foreshadows Joe's image of himself as a "new messiah" in Chapter xx because of his extensive suffering.
The narrative of Chapter xviii brings us to euphoric heights with Joe so that the anticlimax of the nurse's return with a single man and his terse question—"WHAT DO YOU WANT?"—appear devastating. Joe's ecstatic vision of himself as having risen from the dead, or having been reborn, is undercut by the lack of similar wonder in on the part of the nurse and the man she brings back with her. The man instead treats Joe with the disinterest that accompanies everyday events. The tone of the question, revealed in the man's aggressive tapping, could also suggest that Joe's consciousness is not unknown to the man, and that others see Joe's assertion of that consciousness as bothersome.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Johnny Got His Gun!