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As Joe Bonham is trapped inside his mind, his escalating insanity brings forth images of the women that have impacted his life. Since he is a man who is seemingly without form, Joe considers himself to be practically dead, but females like his mother, his friends, and his former lovers help to keep him alive. His portrayal of these feminine figures is the reader’s only access to each personality and truly provides an insight into his psyche and into the life he used to lead. Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun takes place exclusively in his main character’s mind, but recollections of Kareen, Joe’s mother, the nurses, and females across the war-torn world reflect qualities of the life that Joe has been forced to leave behind. There are other women from his youth that float in and out of his consciousness, but these few help the reader piece together who Joe was before and was he has come to be.
Kareen Birkman is Joe’s most recent lover. Their relationship is fresh before the start of the war, but her importance in Joe’s life is unquestionably evident. She brings out a liveliness that he can no longer match as he learns to accept the permanence of his immobility. Trumbo scatters descriptors across the third chapter to illustrate her character – at least in the way Joe first perceives her. Kareen is “perfectly formed and healthy and beautiful”, an image that capitalizes on Joe’s new deformities. As she lays beside him in bed, he takes particular care in describing “how beautiful her feet” are and how she smells like “clean clean flesh”. Both distinctions are rather uncommon features to point out, but Trumbo places them here as a preface to the extent of Joe’s injuries. At this point in the novel, Joe is only aware that one of his arms has been amputated. Within moments of reflecting upon Kareen’s beauty, he joins his self-image with the loss of both arms and later, his legs and face as well.
While the beginning of Johnny Got His Gun sees Joe’s shock regarding these losses, he also makes a point of recalling long, detailed memories. At the first mention of Kareen, Joe’s mind spirals into their last night together and their tearful goodbye for his departure for war. It is only sane that a soldier should think of his girlfriend that he has been forced to leave behind. Dalton Trumbo slowly alters how Kareen appears in the book, however, as a nod to Joe’s descent into madness. She transforms from a living, breathing character to merely a symbol of what Joe has lost. The first time that Kareen is used this way is subtle. Joe comes to the realization that the ring that she gave him is missing and laments that it was meant to be “on his living hand because it meant life”. He goes on to recount final memories of his lover, but the importance of Kareen herself already comes into question.
There are countless moments that appear later in the text in which Kareen is mentioned with lack of purpose; “Don’t sink Kareen, ” Joe warns as his dream of floating along a river becomes increasingly violent; “Steamships loaves of bread girls Kareen machine guns, ” Joe lists in his mind as he tries to cling to reality. She has lost her tangibility as a character and her status as Joe’s beloved. He comes to associate her with the broader concept of everything that soldiers – and the dead – leave behind during war. His memories and his sanity start to decrease rapidly towards the end of the novel, and Kareen’s name alone serves as little more than an exclamation and an anchor word for the whole world that exists outside of his stifling hospital room.
The last time that Kareen is mentioned in Johnny Got His Gun is perhaps the most striking example. Joe distantly recalls the time “when Kareen told him she loved him and he was as happy as he had ever been”. All of these positive memories and emotions of love are immediately discredited as he decides that the newly formed communication between Joe and the nurse creates a “happiness that was greater than anything” he has ever experienced. Her portrayal has devolved into a meaningless figure for Joe and vehicle for Dalton Trumbo to point out the level of mental struggle that has escalated far beyond Joe’s physical disabilities.
While Kareen appears as an important and three-dimensional character for some of Joe’s musings, the women in his own family go largely unnoticed. Even so, it is evident that the lack of a mother figure – which he seems to need most in Johnny Got His Gun – has become an issue, as he attempts to regain concepts of time and communication. Mentions of his mother, Macia, are few – as he seems to savor memories with his father in more depth. But she is presented in a way that presents comfort of home and of childhood – concepts that are now inaccessible for her son.
The first time that Macia appears, along with Joe’s two younger sisters, is when Joe discovers his father’s death. She “wasn’t crying very hard”, presenting strength amidst a great loss; this is something that Joe has difficulty emulating throughout later parts of the novel. Even her two daughters represent this quiet strength; her youngest is “still asleep”, while her eldest is “crying like a woman”. Joe is the one who makes these observations, and it is strange how he notices that his “sister only thirteen. . . was practically grown up”. This description, which appears only a few pages into Joe’s story, can be easily overlooked. However, it serves as a powerful preface to the premature aging that Joe himself is forced to face after the trauma of war. These women – who symbolize his sense of familial comfort – undergo an experience that taints their innocence and youth.
While Joe’s sisters never reappear, his thoughts about his mother are nostalgic, albeit sparse. Johnny Got His Gun features a memory of Macia that is not even Joe’s but nonetheless creates a rare, tangible depiction. She plays piano for Joe’s father over the telephone line during their courtship. The moment is meant to show a joie de vivre within the woman, but Joe sees a “thick silence and a yearning to listen and lonesomeness”. He seems incapable of extricating positive memories of home with the struggles that lay underneath. The anger and confusion towards the extent of his injuries are the reasons he has polluted his mother’s portrayal. Macia joins Kareen in becoming a distant symbol of home rather than a three-dimensional character. The last mentions of Joe’s mother are desperate grasps at the comfort he has subconsciously rejected. He cries, “Oh mother mother sing to me” and grieves that he “would never again breathe in the smell of a steak frying in his mother’s kitchen”. Joe’s departure for war is an indicator of his independent nature, so perhaps his absent fixation on her is normal. These little moments in the text are places where Joe can no longer face his suffering alone and must cling to the woman who represents the innocence he once had.
The women of Joe’s family come from a part of him that he has tried to hide. As a young man in love and on his way to war, Joe’s natural instinct was to distance himself from the frivolity of childhood memories. However, the trauma that soon follows leaves him no choice but to occasionally refer to these symbols of strength and home as Joe struggles to face the extent of his physical and mental limitations.
Though Joe has been reduced to a slab of meat for several years, the women who are the most constant source of relief from the manic of his mind are the nurses. Throughout his journey, he encounters and identifies several. They are the reason for his survival – whether he wants this or not – but they transform into darker characters when Joe thinks he can see who they truly are. Interestingly enough, Joe knows almost nothing about any of the nurses, yet they are presented as more tangible characters than any other female in the book, referring to one of them as “company even though he couldn’t see or hear her”. The nurses in Johnny Got His Gun are first depicted as saviors that give Joe the ability to tell time, connect the real world, and experience the human interaction that he craves.
When Joe begins to accept his immobility and use his limited capabilities to understand reality, he discovers that he can “even tell his nurses apart”. He knows that one has “smooth slick hands. . . like the hands of a woman who has worked a long while”, while another was “young and beautiful”. These little observations are viewed as milestones of Joe’s physical and mental progress. Every movement of the nurse is communicative, telling him “thanks and how are you?” or looking at him and “getting a little sick”. The portrayal of these women is reliant purely on Joe’s interpretation of their movements, and his admiration for each is directly caused by their inadvertent aid in his notion of time and his communication efforts. His view of each nurse is correlated with mood and mental state.
The shift towards distrust occurs at “the change through the tips of her fingers and the sharp little twinge of disgust that went through him”. Joe believes he is being sexually assaulted, thus corrupting his vision of these women who gave him relief from the raging insanity that was simmering in his brain. Every effort of his to reach the nurse – both before and after this horrific interaction – is plagued also by his deep frustration that they “didn’t understand after all he had gone through” to talk via Morse Code. In this way, the betrayal that Joe feels towards the nurses is a manifestation of how the world refuses to listen to him. Despite his rants about the naivety of fighting for freedom and his new perspective as “the dead-man-who-is-alive” and “the live-man-who-is-dead”, no one in the entire world can hear his message, at least not until the last few chapters of Johnny Got His Gun. Suddenly the vibrations of footsteps and the lightness of each nurse’s fingertips strangle Joe’s mind with the discovery that he can never truly reconnect with reality.
Joe Bonham was a man in love; he was a man of independence; he was a man whose own life was influenced by the women surrounding him. Even the lingering distaste for any one of these women cannot take away the impact that Kareen, Macia, his two sisters, and his many nurses made on him. Joe’s hatred towards war evolves into his disgust that men are encouraged to fight to “save the beautiful French and Belgian girls”. At a first glance, this moment appears to discredit his admiration for the women in his own life. In Joe’s last moment before leaving for the front lines, “his mother and his sisters. . . and Kareen are there”, waving goodbye. To take a closer look at this comment, however, the reader can see that Joe is merely rejecting the idea that he should risk his limbs and life for his sexual desires.
This vein of thought follows through with the common view of females during much of the twentieth century – that “as both real bodies and a symbolic ‘motherland’, women are contested objects of conquest”. War time creates an obvious divide between genders, especially during the Great War of Johnny Got His Gun. Men become soldiers, while women are supposed to become nurses or stay at home and wait for their husbands to return. Joe refers to soldiers’ fascination with becoming heroes for the French and Belgian ‘conquests’. These women were little more than sexual fantasies to push boys into the horrors of battle. His disconnect from the real world reveals his own wish that he had stayed home and stayed safe instead of believing that “the safety of his women was worth more than his own life”. Joe Bonham chose not to “die for womanhood”, but he never denies the importance of the personal relationships he had with strong female figures throughout his life.
Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is first and foremost a novel that documents Joe’s Bonham’s mental journey and struggle. While the main character flits in and out of consciousness and flirts with insanity, the way he portrays each important female figure gives an insight into his own progress. Kareen is young, beautiful, and in love with Joe. She is Joe’s possibility for a domestic future with a house full of kids and a love that soldiers spend every moment dreaming about. Macia is the mother figure that Joe pretended he never needed, but the quiet comfort and strength that she and her daughters represent is vital as Joe clings to his slipping sanity. Every nurse that walks into Joe’s hospital room holds his last chance of ever coming back into the real world. Throughout history, women have been portrayed as background figures or symbols of weakness. Even as Joe attempts to play down the roles of women in his life, there is no denying that his very psyche has been shaped by their strength. Joe himself may forget it, but Dalton Trumbo reveals to the reader that even the horrors of war cannot remove Joe’s longing for the women of his heart.
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