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Table of Contents
- Video Summaries of The Things They Carried
- 1-Page Summary of The Things They Carried
- Full Summary of The Things They Carried
- “The Things They Carried” and “Love”
- “Spin” and “On a Rainy River”
- “Enemies, “Friends,” “How to Tell a True War Story,” and “The Dentist”
- “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” “Stockings,” and “Church”
- “The Man I Killed,” “Ambush,” and “Style”
- “Speaking of Courage” and “Notes”
- “In the Field,” “Good Form,” and “Field Trip”
- “The Ghost Soldiers,” “Night Life,” and “The Lives of the Dead”
Video Summaries of The Things They Carried
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1-Page Summary of The Things They Carried
In the beginning of this story, Tim O’Brien describes an event that happened in Vietnam. In the rest of his story, he talks about all of the different things soldiers brought with them on their missions. Some intangible things were guilt and fear, while other objects were tangible like matches and morphine.
Throughout the book, there is a character named Ted Lavender. He’s one of the low-ranking soldiers in Alpha Company that dies before he can even get out of Vietnam. The author tells us that he was shot by a sniper while peeing behind some bushes on his way back from getting high and going to the bathroom. His lieutenant blames himself because he was thinking about Martha when it happened, but it turns out she never loved him anyway. Even 20 years after his death, Cross still feels guilty about what happened to Lavender.
O’Brien explains the events that led him to Vietnam. In June of 1968, he receives his draft notice and decides to move north to Canada so he won’t have to go fight in a war he doesn’t believe in. He then goes back home and later heads off for Vietnam.
In addition to Ted Lavender, a few other members of the Alpha Company are killed during their mission overseas. They include Curt Lemon who is killed when he steps on a rigged mortar round and Lee Strunk who dies from injuries sustained by stepping on a landmine. In “Friends” O’Brien remembers that before Strunk was fatally hurt, Strunk and Dave Jensen had made a pact that if either man were irreparably harmed, the other man would see that he was quickly killed. However, when Strunk is actually hurt, he begs Jensen to spare him and Jensen complies instead of following through with his promise. Instead of being upset by the news of his friend’s swift death en route to treatment, Jensen is relieved.
In “Speaking of Courage”, Norman Bowker remembers the death of Kiowa, a close friend and fellow soldier. The story was written years after the war when Bowker was driving around a lake in his hometown. In the story, he thinks about how he failed to save Kiowa from drowning because he couldn’t pull him out of the marshy field where they were fighting. He feels guilty that he wasn’t able to help his friend. However, O’Brien has dealt with this guilt differently than Bowker did by writing stories like “Notes” and “Speaking of Courage.” These stories are meant to make sense out of what happened during the war for himself and others who were there so it doesn’t feel meaningless or hollowness afterward.
Several of O’Brien’s stories are told from the perspective of twenty years after his experience in Vietnam. Exposure to the guilt of old friends, such as Jimmy Cross and Norman Bowker, prompted him to write stories in order to understand what they were going through. However, two other stories are written so that he can confront his own feelings about killing a man with a grenade outside the village of My Khe. In “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien imagines the life of his victim, from childhood until death if he hadn’t killed him. In “Ambush,” O’Brien imagines how he might relay this story to his nine-year-old daughter Kathleen.
The author of the previous story, “The Lives of the Dead,” also felt guilt and confusion over a death. He explains that he was able to successfully deal with his feelings by imagining what happened to Curt Lemon and Kiowa.
Full Summary of The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried is a collection of stories about the Alpha Company and its soldiers. All of them focus on Tim O’Brien (same name as the author), who narrates most of the stories.
As the Vietnam War heats up, Alpha Company is sent to help fight. Soldiers carry goods necessary for their survival and also things that remind them of home. One soldier carries pictures from a previous love interest named Martha; however, he’s so distracted thinking about her that he can’t effectively lead his troops. Upset over this fact and blaming himself for one death in particular, he burns her photos and promises to be more attentive as a leader.
In “Love”, Jimmy Cross goes to visit Tim O’Brien, a soldier he knew in Vietnam. This meeting takes place after the war is over and they are both living in Massachusetts. Cross told O’Brien that he ran into Martha, who was married to another man now. He also tells him that she still loves him but isn’t going to leave her husband for him because she doesn’t love him anymore.
Cross wants O’Brien to portray himself as a great leader if the writer ever writes about their experiences together during the war. He feels guilty about Lavender’s death and wishes that he had died instead of her so they could have been together.
Spin is a collection of short stories about the war. The author compares it to Ping-Pong, saying that you can make the ball go in any direction. He says he has been writing only war stories for years now because his daughter thinks he should write something happier, but every time he tries to do so, all he sees are gruesome images from the war.
In “On The Rainy River,” O’Brien describes his decision to either run away or go to war. He was split between the instinct to run and the instinct to do what everyone expected: go to war. He took a car up to the Canadian border, and a friendly hotel owner rowed him along a river right up to Canada. In the end he couldn’t bring himself jump out of boat; he cried in it, paid Elroy for room, and drove home. It is hard story for O’Brien tell because it shows that he was coward and made wrong choice
In the story, “Enemies”, two soldiers get into a fight over a missing knife. The soldier who wins the fight breaks his opponent’s nose. Later in the day, he uses his own gun to break his own nose and asks if they’re square. In another story called “Friends”, one of these soldiers makes an agreement that if either are seriously injured or crippled, the other will kill him. One day during training, one of them steps on a mortar and loses his leg as a result of it. He is terrified because he thinks that this friend will kill him for breaking their pact. However later on in life we find out that Strunk has died which seems to relieve Jensen from feeling guilty about killing someone else again
In the story “How to Tell a True War Story,” Curt Lemon is killed by stepping on a mortar. The author has to go up in a tree to pick out his remains, and one of the other soldiers makes a bad joke about lemon trees because of this. After Curt’s death, Rat Kiley writes his sister an extremely long letter that she never responds to. He dismisses her as being dumb and stupid for not responding. Another true story in this book is when they torture a water buffalo after Lemon died from stepping on the mortar. It seems impossible so it must be true according to O’Brien.
Curt Lemon was killed in Vietnam. O’Brien describes the incident in “The Dentist”. Lemon was a macho guy, but one day a dentist came to check up on the men’s teeth. He became so afraid that he passed out during his appointment with the dentist and woke up ashamed of himself for asking for unnecessary treatment.
A Green Beret soldier named Rat Kiley tells the story of a young man who brings his American girlfriend to Vietnam. The girl is on duty with the Green Berets, but her boyfriend doesn’t know this. He thinks she’s cheating on him, so he gets mad at her and later finds out that she was actually doing ambush duty with the Green Berets. In the end, she becomes a killer and disappears into mountains by herself.
Henry Dobbins has a habit of keeping his ex-girlfriend’s stockings around his neck for good luck. He believes that it helped him stay safe during the war, and he continues to wear them even after breaking up with her. The company set up camp at a pagoda where some monks still lived. Henry befriended the monks and gave them chocolate and peaches as parting gifts before leaving.
In the short story The Man I Killed, Tim O’Brien describes a soldier named Kiowa who sees a dead North Vietnamese soldier lying in the jungle. He is described as thin and scholarly with arched eyebrows like those of a woman. O’Brien imagines that he was afraid to go to war and possibly even in love with someone at home.
In “Ambush”, O’Brien’s daughter, Kathleen, asks him if he has ever killed anyone. He tells her that he hasn’t. When she is older, she will understand the reasons why they had to kill those people. In “Style”, Azar and Dobbins enter a compound full of dead bodies and find one girl still alive who seems to be dancing in some kind of ritual.
In “Speaking of Courage,” Norman Bowker returns to his hometown after the war is over. His best friend is dead and his ex-girlfriend has married someone else, so he has no one to talk to about why he failed to get a Silver Star medal for courage. He imagines a conversation with his father about the subject; the reason he didn’t get the medal was that he let his comrade Kiowa die in a shit field after Kiowa was shot. Bowker stops for a burger, drives around his hometown lake, and stops to admire the sunset. In 1975, writes O’Brien in “Notes,” he received a letter from Bowker telling the story that he retells in “Speaking of Courage.” O’Brien wants to emphasize that he made up the part about Bowker failing to save Kiowa and worrying about why he didn’t get the Silver Star. The letter shook O’Brien who had congratulated himself on adjusting so well transitioning straight from Vietnam into Harvard University but it also made him question everything else people told him or wrote about themselves including their own stories which are all based on memory which can be faulty at times because we forget details or make them up sometimes without even knowing it as was done by Tim O’Brien here when writing this piece of fiction disguised as nonfiction.
In the story “In the Field,” all of Kiowa’s comrades search for his body in a shit field. Eventually, they find it. In the story, Bowker is thinking about writing a letter to Kiowa’s father but decides to play golf instead. He says that what happens in stories is more important than what happened in reality. A few months later, O’Brien and his daughter return to Vietnam where he buried Kiowa’s moccasins and tried saying goodbye.
In the story “The Ghost Soldiers,” a soldier named O’Brien blames another medic, Jorgenson, for almost letting him die of shock after getting shot. They make noises outside Jorgenson’s encampment to scare him, but he figures out that it is just O’Brien and says they are even. In “Night Life” we get an account from someone else about how Rat Kiley went crazy and had to leave the company because of all the stress in war.
In “The Lives of the Dead”, O’Brien says that stories are meant to save lives. He was in love with a girl, Linda, when he was nine years old. They went on a date and then she died from brain cancer. Afterwards, he dreamed about her and they skated together. Stories are meant to bring people back to life like Linda or soldiers who were killed in Vietnam.
“The Things They Carried” and “Love”
Summary of “The Things They Carried” The first story introduces the reader to the soldiers in Alpha Company, led by First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. The narrator is one of those soldiers, and he distinguishes one soldier from another based on what they carry.
O’Brien lists the things soldiers carry to war. They carry weapons and ammunition, but they also have personal items like their own ponchos and provisions for food. Some of them even wear things that remind them of home, such as a girlfriend’s stockings around their neck or a bible on their hip.
A young man, Lieutenant Cross, is in love with a woman named Martha. He has been carrying letters from her for quite some time and he is obsessed with whether or not she’s a virgin. One day he took her out on a date but when he tried to put his hand on her knee she rejected him. He wishes that they had gone up to her room together so that he could have held onto her the whole night. After all this time carrying letters from Martha, O’Brien points out how much responsibility Cross has taken upon himself because of it.
The first casualty of the war was Ted Lavender, a soldier who was shot dead outside Than Khe. He hit the ground hard because he had more ammunition than most soldiers and went to relieve himself while his comrades were blowing up a tunnel. Kiowa, part native-American in the company became obsessed by the death of his comrade and kept repeating “boom-down” which is how he described it when asked about what happened.
Kiowa is horrified by the death of his comrade, but he enjoys being alive and takes comfort in his Bible. He smells the glue on it and feels its texture against his face as he falls asleep that night.
Lavender is one of the only soldiers who dies in combat. The other soldiers rarely see enemy fire, but they’re always on edge because they know that death could come at any time. They are afraid to die and long for discharge from the army, but they won’t admit it to themselves or each other.
Meanwhile, the person who was most affected by Lavender’s death is Cross. He felt that he may have let her die because he was too wrapped up in thoughts of Martha to do his job properly and take proper precautions. The morning after she died, Cross burned all his letters from Martha as well as photographs of her. However, even though he did this, it didn’t make him feel any better about what had happened to Lavender.
Even though he feels guilty about Lavender’s death, Cross can’t help but think of Martha. He tells himself that he no longer loves her or cares whether she is a virgin. He both loves and hates her, and decides to focus more on his men instead of thinking about Martha.
The author uses a common literary device in this first short story. He describes the things that soldiers carry into battle, such as water and weapons, to show how they’re ready for war. This is similar to an ancient Greek trope about soldiers carrying items with them before going off to fight. The author updates it by listing modern objects rather than the ones used in older times. Still, the effect is similar: It makes you feel like these characters have already been killed or are already dead even though they haven’t fought yet. The list of items acts like a will because it shows what each soldier has on him/her when he/she goes into battle so that people can know where their possessions should go if something happens to them during war time.
The first story is told in the third person, so the reader sees it as if they were watching a movie. The soldiers move slowly across an unfamiliar landscape while carrying their various burdens. They use slang and swear at each other to try to diffuse the feeling of danger and helplessness by describing death as being “zapped” or “torn up.”
The war in Vietnam was a time of chaos and conflict. The soldiers were always on edge because they knew that they could die at any moment, so when one of them died from the ongoing battle, there was an additional layer of tension stemming from the fact that Cross felt responsible for it. Guilt became his most prominent emotion after this incident.
Six years after the war, Jimmy Cross visits Tim O’Brien at his home in Massachusetts. They look at pictures and reminisce about their experiences together. Cross says he never forgave himself for Lavender’s death, as well as worries that O’Brien will portray him poorly if he ever decides to write a story about them.
Cross shows O’Brien the photo of Martha playing volleyball. The image is the exact same one that he burned after Lavender’s death (see “The Things They Carried”). Cross explains how he came to have another copy. He had run into Martha after the war and she never married, becoming a nurse who went on Lutheran missions to Africa. When they met again, she didn’t want anything romantic to happen between them and gave him another copy of her picture with instructions not to burn it as he did before.
The shift from the first story to “Love” is jarring because it combines many elements of storytelling that are normally not combined. In a novel, there would be no changes in geography, time and narrator all at once. However, short stories often have multiple narrators or locations and different times. Therefore, combining these things can be jarring for the reader who expects continuity between stories in a collection.
Love is a theme in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” It ties up the story and makes it more complete. The main characters are also concerned with why people tell stories, which is called meta-fiction. Meta-fiction asks what purpose fiction has, and if it’s being manipulated or distorted. In “Love,” Cross wants to be portrayed as a hero because he feels that the story isn’t true without him acting like one. However, readers wonder whether O’Brien will change his character to make him look better or keep things truthful for all of them.
“Spin” and “On a Rainy River”
The book “Spin” is a collection of disjointed memories. One soldier gives his friend a chocolate bar; another one sends the draft board in Ohio lice that he plucked off his body. During their time at war, some soldiers play checkers to restore order and normality into their lives. Others take tranquilizers or get drunk to forget about the horrors they have seen on the battlefield. But aside from these few colorful events, O’Brien mostly remembers being bored and scared during his time as a soldier.
The war was like a Ping-Pong ball, O’Brien writes. You can put a fancy spin on it to make the events and stories seem different, but they’re essentially the same. He is a 43-year-old writer who has trouble remembering certain things from his time in Vietnam. The bad memories, such as Kiowa sinking into a field or Curt Lemon being blown to pieces, keep playing over and over again in his head. O’Brien feels guilty about remembering these things and only writing war stories because he thinks that’s all he can do well. His young daughter Kathleen tells him he should find another topic other than war to write about since everyone seems to want happy endings nowadays; however, O’Brien feels that this task is almost impossible for him since it’s what he knows best.
O’Brien tries to think of a happy war story, but all he can remember is the soldier who deserted and went back to the army after experiencing peace. He says that this contrast made him enjoy peace more. O’Brien’s strongest memories involve his company of 19-year-olds, such as Bowker wanting his father to write him a letter saying it’s ok if he doesn’t get any medals, Kiowa teaching a rain dance which didn’t produce rain instantly, Lavender adopting a puppy and feeding it by hand until Azar took it and strapped it on top of a grenade with the pin pulled out. The grenade exploded killing the dog.
Spin is when a journalist highlights certain facts and leaves out others to manipulate the reader into believing whatever they want them to believe. It’s unavoidable because writing is an act of exclusion, as shown by O’Brien in his story “Spin.”
The Things They Carried is a collection of stories about the Vietnam War, and was published at a time when journalism was changing. There were other writers who wrote about this subject matter in new ways that are similar to O’Brien’s work.
The collection of stories is made up of fragments, bits and pieces that hint at what’s to come. For example, Bowker obsesses over medals (see “Speaking of Courage”), Kathleen is the most difficult audience for her father’s war stories (see “Field Trip”), Kiowa’s death is a turning point in the book (see “Notes”), and Azar betrays O’Brien by taking part in his shameful act (see “The Ghost Soldiers”). The most poignant symbol in this story is the checkerboard. It implies that soldiers play it because they can’t find order or peace anywhere else. But war isn’t like a game of checkers–there are no fixed rules.
The author of this story struggles to tell it. He thinks that he is a coward because of what happened in Vietnam.
After graduating from Macalester College in 1968, O’Brien had to decide whether or not he’d go to war.
O’Brien protested the war, but not as much as he should have. He was ashamed that he thought of running away to Canada and leaving his country in a time of need. However, at the same time he felt like everyone expected him to go fight for his country. At work O’Brien was hosing down pig carcasses when he realized how alone and depressed he felt. He smelled like pigs all summer long and no one knew anything about Vietnam or its history except that it was a place where people were fighting each other.
O’Brien remembers that he decided to run away from home and go to Canada. He left a note for his parents, took the car, and drove north. He found a fishing resort called the Tip Top Lodge, where the owner Elroy Berdahl let him stay without asking any questions at all. Berdahl never asked O’Brien questions; instead he played Scrabble with him, gave him odd jobs to do around the lodge, and ate meals with him. However, when O’Brien thought about it later on in life (after getting out of prison), he realized that even though Berdahl seemed like a decent guy who cared about children living in trouble (like himself), O’Brien came up with an alternate explanation for what was going through Berdahl’s mind: maybe Berdahl read newspapers or listened to radio reports of young men avoiding military service by running away across the border into Canada. Maybe it was true that this old man knew exactly why teenage boys were coming up there to hide out!
One day, O’Brien and Berdahl went out fishing. They drove the boat all the way to the border with Canada, but then turned around and came back. Even though O’Brien made a move towards jumping off of the boat, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He imagined that his parents were watching him from somewhere in the mountains, as well as Linda (his ex-wife), his townspeople, and everyone else who had ever known him. The FBI would have come after him if he ran away; therefore he decided not to jump into Canada. He cried before going back home because he was a coward for not running away when given an opportunity by Berdahl.
The story is told from the perspective of a man who is older now. He tells the story in flashback, but sometimes he slips back into his younger self’s voice and tone. The young O’Brien was less mature, more entitled, and less morally complex than the older O’Brien. This tension between two narrative voices—the young and the old O’Brien—gives dramatic intensity to a story that would otherwise just relate an important decision made by a young man.
The story “On the Rainy River” is a classic Freudian scene. In this case, it’s about a boy who wants to jump out of his boat into the water. His id (his authentic desires) and ego (what society orders him to do) are in conflict with each other. He imagines large crowds watching him make his decision on the riverbank; water for Freud often symbolizes unconscious desires or what we don’t want others to know about us.
Ultimately, O’Brien’s own expectations of himself are more powerful than society’s. He caves to his superego and it is his tragic flaw. The tragic heroes in Greek tragedies have a similar flaw: they cave to society.
In “Shooting an Elephant”, the image of O’Brien washing down dead pigs foreshadows his harrowing experience in war. The stench surrounds him and will be present during his service as a soldier, just like death will follow soldiers throughout their time there. However, both the situation at the factory and in war seem surreal. In one part of the short story, O’Brien jokes around with other workers while they wash down dead animals; it seems absurd that he’s joking around with colleagues at such a sober scene and to do so seems out-of-character for him afterwards on when he goes back to civilian life. Both experiences are isolated from others because it is hard to talk about them after each experience ended up conspicuously well (after shooting an elephant) or badly (working at a meatpacking plant).
After a long buildup, the climax of the story occurs on the boat when he decides to go back and fight. The fact that he was afraid made him do something very brave. In his book review, The New York Times titled it “Too Embarrassed Not To Kill.” It turns out that shame and embarrassment are the main themes of this book.
“Enemies, “Friends,” “How to Tell a True War Story,” and “The Dentist”
Summary: One day, two soldiers get into a fist fight over a missing pen knife. One soldier wins the fight and breaks the other’s nose. The first soldier feels that he is in danger of being attacked by the other one for revenge because all of them carry guns with them. He keeps an eye on him and becomes more paranoid about it day after day until he gets crazy enough to fire his gun and yell out the name of the person who broke his nose.
O’Brien uses the word “square” to describe being on good terms, like when a debt is paid off. Strunk and Jensen trust one another now that they’ve dealt with their conflict over the penknife. They’re serious about making sure that if either of them gets seriously hurt or crippled, the other will kill him.
In October, a mortar round explodes near Lee Strunk. Half of his leg is blown off by the explosion and he must have it amputated. A helicopter arrives to take him away for treatment. He wakes up from his faint in terror when he sees Dave Jensen standing over him; thinking that Jensen will kill him, but then finds out that the men are safe in the helicopter.
The book is made up of short profiles. The two main characters, Strunk and Jensen, are analyzed throughout the story. They’re both soldiers in Vietnam who become friends and enemies at different points during their time there. O’Brien shows how they change drastically over time by pointing out that even if someone was your worst enemy one day, he could be your best friend the next day. There’s no way to predict what will happen because war destroys all social norms and codes of conduct between people. Even though there are Biblical laws stating that you should give an eye for an eye (Jensen breaks his own nose), it doesn’t make sense in this situation since there aren’t any rules or guidelines to follow while fighting a war; everyone does whatever they want without thinking about consequences or repercussions.
How to Tell a True Experience
Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon play a game with smoke grenades. One day, the game goes wrong and Lemon is killed. It’s possible that he was standing under a tree in the shade, but stepped out into sunlight to catch the grenade. His death may have been caused by overexposure to sunlight, which would explain why his remains had to be retrieved from a tree. There are many morbid jokes in this book; one of them is about lemon trees (a pun on “lemon” as in lemonade).
After Lemon is killed, Rat Kiley writes his sister a letter about how brave and funny her brother was. The sister never replies. For this, Rat Kiley dismisses her as a “dumb cooze” because she doesn’t reply to his letter. O’Brien says that you can tell if something is true by whether it contains obscenity or evil. This story has both of those things in it, so it must be true because of the phrase “dumb cooze”.
O’Brien explains to the reader how they can tell if a story is true. One way is if it seems too crazy to be believable, or if there’s no end to the story. O’Brien relates a “true” story that was told to him by Mitchell Sanders: A group of soldiers heard what sounded like an orchestra in the mountains and ordered an air strike on them, even though there were no enemy troops in sight. This example shows how one can tell whether something really happened or not from a war story.
Another true story that O’Brien tells is about a water buffalo. The day that Curt Lemon died, the company found a baby water buffalo in the woods. Rat Kiley tortured it. He shot it in all the places in its body where a wound would not be fatal. Kiley had just lost his best friend, O’Brien explains, to help justify the story. He tortured the buffalo and cried when he came home from war because of how much he missed him and other soldiers who were killed or wounded during their time there together. Old women cry listening to this story because they don’t understand how anyone could hurt an animal like that for any reason. They only understand tired generalizations: “war is hell”, etc.
This passage talks about how to tell a story. It says that stories can be told in an authentic or inauthentic way, and it offers guidelines on what is considered “true” and what isn’t. The chapter has a moral message: don’t exaggerate your stories or embellish them with sentimentality. Telling true war stories means telling the kind of story where you are not making up anything; it’s just the facts as they happened without any exaggeration or sentimentalism added to make things sound better than they were.
O’Brien wants to teach his readers how to identify unreliable narrators. He does this by creating a narrator who is an unreliable narrator in the story. In doing so, he also teaches them that there are different ways of telling a story and that it’s important to understand those methods if you want to know what someone is trying to tell you (or not).
Curt Lemon was one of O’Brien’s least favorite soldiers. After he died, O’Brien had a hard time mourning him because he acted like a macho man and took unnecessary risks. He once went trick-or-treating in a Vietnamese village on Halloween to the horror of the villagers.
O’Brien says that it is not a good idea to glorify the dead or become sentimental about them. He tells the story of Lemon’s visit to the dentist, who came by helicopter one day. When Lemon went in for his checkup, he was so afraid that he passed out in the chair. Later, he was so ashamed that he woke up the dentist at night and insisted on having a tooth removed even though all of his teeth were fine.
Lemon provides comic relief to the troops. His swagger and bravado make him a great leader. The men consider his trick-or-treating caper with them a great joke. However, in “The Dentist,” we see that Lemon’s personality will get him killed, which is ironic because he doesn’t know it yet.
O’Brien objects to macho posturing and trite aphorisms. He grants war a special status, by saying that it can only be described in certain ways. (He doesn’t make any pronouncements about love.) “War is hell” isn’t good enough because it has no impact, according to O’Brien. Stories of violence and heroism like Lemon’s have too much impact, so they’re not good either. There are right and wrong ways to tell stories, according to O’Brien.
“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” “Stockings,” and “Church”
A story about a soldier named Rat Kiley is mentioned in the book “If I Die In A Combat Zone”. The author of this passage says that some people might not believe it, but he insists that it’s true.
Kiley was stationed at a medical detachment near the village of Tra Bong. The unit shared the area with a group of Green Berets, and their highest-ranking officer was Eddie Diamond. He talked about bringing in some prostitutes to entertain his troops; however, he never actually followed through on this plan.
A young medic named Mark Fossie was the first to suggest bringing in an American woman as a girlfriend. She arrived on a helicopter and wore culottes and pink sweaters. She had blonde hair, was flirtatious, and helped raise morale among the men. Mary Anne wanted to see what life was like for Vietnamese people living in Vietnam during war time so she visited them with her friends from the village. This made her start wearing less makeup, learning how to use guns, patching up injuries, and no longer acting like an American girl when she saw that they were just human beings who looked like everyone else.
One night, a woman Fossie was dating went missing. He thought she was cheating on him, but it turned out that she had gone out on patrol with the Green Berets. She agreed to stop going out on patrol and put more effort into her appearance for Fossie.
Mary Anne was a woman who had been living in the jungle for some time. She went back to her old army camp, where she saw dead soldiers lying around and smelled terrible odors. She also found a necklace made of human tongues hanging from the roof. Mary Anne told Fossie that he didn’t belong there because she felt like herself for the first time ever at that moment.
Kiley left Song Tra Bong shortly after that. He was in love with Mary Anne, and he heard from some of his friends later on that she only loved Vietnam more as time went by. She finally ran off into the mountains alone, where she could kill anyone who came her way.
In The Things They Carried, women are mostly absent. There are only a few mentions of girlfriends and one story in which the protagonist is female. Even then, her character is portrayed through a man’s point of view.
The lesson from Mary Anne’s story is that women are affected by war just as much as men. Women can go mad, too, and they can also change into something completely different. In this story, she goes from being the innocent Madonna figure to a sexy seductress who becomes a killer.
Mary Anne is a normal, innocent girl. She wears an American outfit that makes her look like a typical girl from the United States. In the beginning of the story, she wants to get married and have kids just like any other young woman in America. The soldiers change during their time at war because they return as killers after killing people on the battlefields overseas.
Mary Anne undergoes a transformation. She stops showering, covers her feminine long hair, and stops wearing makeup. She becomes mannish and enjoys it. The soldiers are horrified but also titillated by her subversion of gender roles and sexual appeal. Even after she has become something almost unrecognizable, she is still sexually desirable even though the men love her as a woman rather than for herself.
According to O’Brien, Henry Dobbins was one of the more likeable soldiers in his platoon. He was overweight and sentimental, but he had a good sense of humor. His only eccentricity was that he kept his girlfriends’ stockings around his neck for good luck. He credited those stockings with keeping him safe from bullets during combat.
Dobbins got a big blow in the form of a letter from his ex-girlfriend. She wrote to end their relationship. All the soldiers were worried about Dobbins’s reaction, but he turned out to be resilient and said, “No sweat.” He continued to wear her stockings around his neck.
In “Church”, the company camps at a pagoda. Kiowa, who was brought up Christian, argues that it’s bad luck to camp at a religious site.
The monks were happy to see the soldiers, though they didn’t seem to mind that the soldiers had guns. They gave them small gifts and seemed especially excited by Henry Dobbins, who told them he wanted to become a monk when he returned home. He said that he always wanted to be a minister but thought that it would take too much brainpower. Instead, he thought that his strength was connecting with others and understanding their needs. He left some chocolate and peaches for the monks as parting gifts since those were his favorite desserts before going off on deployment.
The story “Stockings” is about a woman named Nancy. She’s the object of Dobbins’ affection and he wants to marry her, but she decides not to go with him. The title symbolizes feminine secrets and sexuality, but from Dobbins’ perspective, it also represents protection (from his point-of-view). He uses it as a lucky charm that will protect him while fighting in battle. In this case, the stocking means something different than what it usually means for women: an object used for escapism or comfort or superstition. To soldiers at war, women are pinup girls in movies or chaste Madonna figures who wait at home for their men; they become symbols of home instead of people—like stockings that represent femininity and sexuality to men when they’re on a date together with one another rather than objects for escape or comfort like we see here.
“Stockings” confirms the traditional role of women for these men, after the narrator has just related an exception to the rule. Mary Anne is a character who operates based on her own wants and needs, not merely as a plot device. She has an arc, a spine, and story of her own that sets her apart from many other characters in this book. Her independence highlights that of the soldiers—if only by contrast.
Dobbins’ girlfriend is different from Mary Anne. While she does assert some power, her role as a symbol of home is still the same—she represents stability and comfort in his life.
The pagoda in “Church” is a symbol for the entire country of Vietnam. It’s beautiful and peaceful, but Kiowa doesn’t like it there because he feels that America shouldn’t have invaded the country. This represents the split feelings of soldiers about imperialism. O’Brien seems to agree with Kiowa on this subject.
“The Things They Carried” is a story about the Vietnam War. The main character, Tim O’Brien, deals with the horrors of war by not being religious. He feels that killing for no reason in a mortal lifetime is bad enough; therefore, it can only be worse when people kill for no reason while believing they will go to heaven after death. Some characters who are religious seem to be more at peace because of their faith (Dobbins and Kiowa). Also, if we think of the pagoda as representing Vietnam itself, then invading it—which happens during the story—is even worse since monks live there instead of laypeople.
“The Man I Killed,” “Ambush,” and “Style”
The story begins with a man killed by the narrator. He’s standing in front of the dead body repeating details about it over and over again: one eye is missing, he lies face up on the road, there are strips missing from his cheek, he has thin arched eyebrows like a woman etc. The narrator keeps going back to these details as if they were stuck in his head.
Azar tries to congratulate O’Brien for killing a Vietnamese soldier. Kiowa sees that O’Brien is shocked by the news and tells Azar to leave them alone and let his friend mourn in peace. O’Brien was about to shoot the Viet Cong but he turned out not be carrying any weapons, only pictures of his family. After examining those pictures, they found one of a woman whose name was Thuong Trang (her maiden name).
The man was scared to fight in wars, didn’t think he could be a hero like the other men in his village, avoided politics and loved math. He might have been infatuated with one of his classmates.
Kiowa tells O’Brien to stop staring at the dead man. His friend told him to talk, but he remained silent and stared at the body.
The story “The Man I Killed” is written in the form of a confession. Its title and content are nearly identical, which suggests that it’s an act of self-flagellation. The narrator forces himself to look at the dead man as punishment for what he did. He also writes about him because writing is another way to punish himself by continuing to stare at the corpse. The image of small blue flowers around his mouth and a butterfly fluttering above them are ironic; even in death, Vietnam’s beauty remains intact–but so does its brutality. This contrast makes the mangled face seem even more gruesome and unnatural than it already was. Finally, there’s one-sided conversation between Kiowa trying to get O’Brien to talk about what happened while he stays silent; this illustrates how friendship doesn’t make up for reality or absolve moral responsibility.”
Kathleen, when she was nine years old, asked her father if he had ever killed anyone. O’Brien decided to tell her that he hadn’t. He thought it would be better for her to hear the truth later on in life. Maybe then he would tell her about a man who haunted him and still does even now when reading the newspaper.
O’Brien briefly describes his experience in My Khe. He was on watch one night and saw a young man with a gun emerge from the mist. He grabbed a grenade, threw it at him without thinking twice, and killed him immediately after he threw that grenade. Twenty years later, O’Brien is still living with guilt over what happened that day.
Analysis This section of the book again raises the question of truth in storytelling. O’Brien confesses that he has lied to his own daughter. Again he is drawing attention to the nature of the story as a story that he chooses to tell, rather than something that is necessarily true. This is meant to put the reader on his or her guard against false sources, and unreliable guides to war stories. But O’Brien also disputes the notion that there is a stable truth to be found within an individual’s experience with war. He views a person’s content as mutable—that it can change over time due not only new information but also personal perspective and interpretation.
A difficult moment for O’Brien was when his daughter asked him if he had killed a man. His response was to say no, but that wasn’t the right thing to do. He later found out that it would have been better to explain the situation and tell her what happened. The title is ironic because Kathleen ambushed her father with this question while O’Brien ambushed a soldier with a grenade in Vietnam.
Ambush presents a classic conundrum for soldiers. They killed someone, but that seems unreasonable when they tell the story to their children or innocent people. It’s something they will carry with them and pass down to their children as well.
The company enters a burnt-down compound full of dead bodies. They find only one living person, who is a fourteen year old girl dancing by herself. Azar thinks she’s performing some strange funeral rite, and Dobbins thinks she’s just dancing because it makes her happy. On the way out of the village, Azar imitates her dance pretending that it was erotic, but Dobbins throws him into the river if he doesn’t stop doing that.
The girl is a stand-in for the rest of Vietnamese society. She’s attractive, mysterious, and innocent. The “other” is a literary trope pioneered by French existentialists in connection with France’s former colonies in Northern Africa. Camus’ “The Stranger” is the most famous example of this trope and illustrates that the encounter with “other” isn’t always pleasant. Dobbins understands her no better than Azar does, but he at least shows himself to be an honorable man by trying to stop Azar from misrepresenting or humiliating her.
The author also portrays the Vietnamese girl as a double for Kathleen. By placing the stories side by side, he implies that there is some guilt about what happened to her village and family. “Ambush” and “Style,” which are paired together, show how unfair it was of one family to be preserved while another was destroyed.
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“Speaking of Courage” and “Notes”
Norman Bowker is back home after the war. He spends a day driving his father’s car around the lake, thinking about Sally and Max Arnold. Bowker misses them both very much; he wishes that they were still alive so that he could tell them about his medals and how well he can tell time by the sun now. But Sally is married and Max is dead, so there’s no one to talk to except for his dad. Bowker thinks of all the things that he would like to say to him if only they could have a conversation together again.
A soldier was ordered to set up in a certain location. However, a local woman warned him not to do so because the place had a bad smell. Despite her warning, he still went there and found that it did indeed have an awful odor. He also realized that the place was low-lying and couldn’t be defended easily against enemy attacks. The next night, when his enemies attacked them using mortars, he almost lost his life because of the terrible smell from the shit field where they were located at.
When Bowker got shot in the leg, he fell into a shit field. He held onto Kiowa’s boot and tried to pull him out of the shit field but couldn’t because he was weighed down by Kiowa’s body. Bowker remembers that his courage failed him and he let go of Kiowa’s boot. If it hadn’t been for the smell, Bowker could have saved Kiowa from drowning in the shit field and won the Silver Star instead of being awarded with a Purple Heart.
Bowker thinks about how his father would react if he told him what happened at Khe Sanh: “I can hear my old man now, ‘You shoulda pulled harder on that boy’s foot.’ I guess they’ll give me another medal… or maybe not.”(p129)
The scene shifts back to Bowker’s hometown, and he drives around the lake. He struggles with ordering at a burger joint, but after eating his meal, he considers telling his war story to someone in the restaurant. They have a momentary connection, but Bowker decides not to tell it to anyone else. He continues driving around the lake for another ten times before deciding never to tell anyone about it. His father would say that seven medals are enough and would be proud of him anyways even if he doesn’t get anymore medals. On the twelfth time around the lake, Bowker pulls over and admires the Fourth of July fireworks saying they’re “not bad for a small town”.
This story contrasts with the others in this collection. It is told almost entirely from Bowker’s perspective, and it lacks dialogue. The story is technically third person, but most of it focuses on Bowker’s thoughts as he struggles to adjust after returning home from Vietnam. Many veterans felt dishonored for having fought in the unpopular war, and Kiowa’s death was a symbol of that struggle for many veterans.
Bowker is presented as a foil to O’Brien. There are several doubles in the book, including Kathleen and Jensen and Rat Kiley and Jorgenson. Each pair of characters share some similarities but have opposite characteristics that make them opposites. Bowker was on the same track as O’Brien before they were drafted into the war; however, after returning home their paths diverged greatly. They became complete opposites: one successful man with everything going for him, while another returned from war with nothing left to live for or look forward to. Although it’s clear that these two men are not alike anymore due to their very different lives, there is still a similarity between them because both had horrible experiences during the war that changed their lives forever—O’Brien by losing his friend Kiowa and Bowker by being tortured in captivity.
In the book, the symbol of a shit field is used to represent Vietnam. The war was often called a “quagmire” and Bowker’s experience with it is like being stuck in that pit of muck. Even though O’Brien’s story has been filtered through Bowker’s memory and retold by him, there are many details about the smell and look of the place that make it very grotesque. In this way, water becomes another parallel symbol: immersion into memories of Vietnam represents Bowker’s immersion into his own memories.
“Notes” In “Notes,” O’Brien describes how he came to write the story “Speaking of Courage.” He received a letter from Bowker in 1975 telling him about his time in Vietnam. Bowker said that after being discharged he had trouble finding work, which was hard on him since he didn’t know what else to do with himself. He also mentioned that he hadn’t wanted to sound like some jerkoff vet crying in his beer, but life had been hard for him and it shook O’Brien up a little bit because while reading the book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, by Tim O’Brien, there were parts that made you feel really bad for people who have gone through traumatic experiences during their lives.
Bowker was a Kiowa who had killed himself. O’Brien tried to incorporate his story into the novel he was working on, but Bowker’s perspective didn’t fit with the rest of it. It seemed like Bowker was disappointed with how things turned out as well. Three years later, O’Brien heard from Bowker’s mother that her son had committed suicide by hanging in the locker room of a YMCA using a jump rope because he wanted to avoid bothering anyone else at that time.
The author wrote a story about Bowker failing to save Kiowa and worrying about medals. However that’s not true because he made it up. The rest of the story was actually true, but O’Brien never mentioned what happened to Bowker after he brought Kiowa back to camp.
In “Notes,” the narrator addresses his own narrative tricks. For example, he points out that it is fiction and a constructed narrative. He also worries about why Kiowa was killed off in the book but not in real life (emotional truth vs factual truth). Moreover, he presents himself as an objective observer of what works and what doesn’t work in fiction. Finally, he brings up Argentinian writer Jorge Borges who wrote about himself in mise-en-abime patterns within his stories.
Even though the writer O’Brien is not trying to dishonor his fellow soldier, he still has some emotions. He wants readers to understand that this event wasn’t part of a story, but an actual occurrence. By placing it in a non-fictional chapter with accurate dates, this gives the event more credibility than if it were included at the end of “Speaking of Courage”.
“In the Field,” “Good Form,” and “Field Trip”
Summary of the First Chapter
The day after Kiowa is killed, 18 soldiers begin to search for his body in the shit field. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross leads the search while thinking about how he will tell Kiowa’s father that his son was a great soldier.
Azar tries to make a joke about dying while “eating shit” but the other soldiers ask him to be more sensitive. Some of the men blame Cross for Kiowa’s death, saying he should have had better sense than to camp in such an indefensible location. Cross thinks that he never wanted responsibility for his men’s lives and that writing a different letter might take some of the pressure off himself and help ease Kiowa’s father’s pain.
Cross sees a soldier standing alone and crying. He can’t remember the soldier’s name, even though he was with him the night before Kiowa died. The soldier thinks that maybe if he hadn’t shown his girlfriend’s picture to Kiowa, then Kiowa would still be alive.
Norman Bowker finds Kiowa after he sees the heel of his boot sticking out of the mud. The men work together to pull him out, and they put him in a helicopter. All of them are glad that they’re still alive, even if Kiowa is dead.
Cross wonders if there’s someone else to blame for Kiowa’s death besides himself and the war. The command, Karl Marx, or some old man who forgot to vote could be responsible. Maybe instead of writing a letter to Kiowa’s father he’ll play golf instead. He decides that he doesn’t want responsibility after all.
In “Good Form,” the narrator steps back from war stories and tells the reader about his life. He’s 43 years old, he writes. He’s a writer and a veteran of Vietnam. Everything else is invented, he says. The narrator saw a young man die in Vietnam but didn’t kill him himself; that’s what really happened, or perhaps it was something different—that’s how the story goes.
Because of the difference between story truth and happening truth, O’Brien can tell his daughter that he has killed someone or never killed anyone. Both are honest statements in his eyes.
The titles of both “Field Trip” and “In the Field” play with the word field. Indeed, the shit field becomes a death site in these stories. The Alpha Company loses two soldiers to distraction: Kiowa is killed by an IED while on patrol and Doc Jay is shot during his attempt to save Kiowa.
O’Brien holds Jimmy Cross responsible for the death of Kiowa. The story is a metaphor for Cross’s indecision about whether he wants to take responsibility or not for the death. The narrator suggests that it is this denial of responsibility that is one of the cultural problems created by war.
When a soldier died, there had to be someone to blame. Jimmy Cross understood this. He blamed the war, the people who started it and those who didn’t do anything about it. He blamed Kiowa for getting him into that situation in the first place and himself for being too weak to resist his friend’s request. He also blamed anyone and everyone else he could think of: whole nations, God or fate itself for putting him in that position in the first place.
The omniscient narrative settles in the mind of the soldier, Cross. He is not sure why he was sent to war or who he should blame for it. The list of things that could be blamed is a literary device that draws readers into his perspective and makes them think about what they would do if they were in his situation. Some of these justifications are plausible, but others are comical (the hairy Karl Marx). As more and more items go on the list, the reader can see how much Cross tries to justify what happened without taking responsibility for it himself. Although O’Brien suggests that this is cowardly behavior, we can also see that many other soldiers had trouble coming up with reasons for their involvement in this war as well
A few months after writing “In the Field,” O’Brien returns to Vietnam with his daughter, Kathleen. The trip is intended as a birthday present, but Kathleen doesn’t understand what the trip is really about; she thinks her father’s obsession with war is weird and doesn’t know why people were fighting in the first place.
After visiting tourist sites around the country, a father and daughter visit a field of shit. The daughter complains that it stinks. Her father almost does not recognize it because it is smaller than he remembers. She stays in the car with an interpreter who keeps her laughing by telling jokes to her. Her father wades into the shit field and goes for a swim, grossing out his daughter who threatens to tell their mother about what he did if she sees him doing anything like that again. The texture of the field brings memories rushing back for him as well as disgusts him at how much people complain about things they have never experienced themselves or seen before (such as this). He buries some moccasins where his friend died and says he cannot think of words to say goodbye properly since there are no right words for something so tragic yet beautiful at the same time (like life). A farmer across from them stops working on his farm to stare at them instead which makes O’Brien feel uncomfortable but also curious about why they were staring at each other in such way; perhaps seeing two different worlds collide? When they get back into their car, Kathleen asks if the farmer was mad at them for being there and O’Brien responds that he wasn’t mad after all; perhaps knowing what really matters in life even though we may not agree with one another?
Kathleen appeals to the reader’s rationality in her essay “Field Trip.” She demonstrates that she feels more connected to people who have experienced war firsthand because they can understand it. O’Brien uses his daughter as a stand-in for all readers who haven’t been through war themselves. He implies that people who didn’t experience the Vietnam War will never be able to fully comprehend what happened there.
The title of the story is a pun. The kids’ trip to the field isn’t really fun, as it’s their father’s pilgrimage. However, Kathleen treats it like a fun field trip and asks innocent questions about what they’re doing there.
“The Ghost Soldiers,” “Night Life,” and “The Lives of the Dead”
During the war, O’Brien was injured. He was shot in the side and it wasn’t a serious wound. Rat Kiley checked up on him even though they were still being shot at. Kiley joked that if O’Brien had been pregnant, he would have been in trouble because of his injury.
Kiley helped O’Brien recover from his injury. However, when he returned to the Alpha company, Kiley was no longer there and a new medic had taken over. That medic took too long to help him after he was shot in the rear end by an enemy sniper. The infection that set in because of this wound made it hard for O’Brien to walk and caused him great pain.
O’Brien was taken to a hospital after he got injured. He had to lie on his stomach and apply ointment on his backside. O’Brien felt that he didn’t fit in with the group anymore, because of what happened when Jorgenson took over. One soldier died from disease while swimming in a river, and another one seemed like he was accepted by all the others as part of their group now.
Jorgenson apologized to O’Brien for freezing up when he was shot. However, O’Brien still wanted revenge on Jorgenson and enlisted Azar’s help in getting it.
Azar and O’Brien decided to scare Jorgenson by playing on his fear of the Viet Cong. They filled ammunition cans with rattling ammo, placed them outside his hootch (a small hut or shelter) and then drank beer until midnight.
At midnight, the two men started to make noise by pulling on cans. When Jorgenson yelped in pain, they realized that it was working. They continued to scare him for three hours and even after O’Brien wanted them to stop, Azar didn’t want to let up. The next day, he apologized and said that he had gotten his revenge because they scared each other equally.
In the final chapter, O’Brien is a protagonist. He’s driven by revenge against Jorgenson and takes action to achieve his goal. This makes him more of a rounded character because he has clear goals that we can relate to as readers. It also helps us sympathize with him as a victim in other parts of the book, like “On the Rainy River.” By this point, we’ve grown used to seeing O’Brien as somewhat weak-minded (see “On the Rainy River”) or even pathetic (see “Christmas on Lake Winnipeg”). In this chapter, he becomes an aggressor instead of merely acting out passively; here he’s a perpetrator rather than just being acted upon. The author himself recognizes these changes — but doesn’t like them:
The night was dark and still. We dragged the ammo cans closer to Bobby Jorgenson’s bunker, which made it feel more dangerous because we could see our surroundings a little better.
The narrator compares himself to pure evil as he and O’Brien sneak up on the bunker. He implies that war has poisoned even him. This story extends a distinctly spooky tone, one associated only with foreign troops and the war, to the narrator himself.
The story also illustrates one of the central themes of the book, that no matter how terrible war is, it provides something wonderful: camaraderie. The narrator weighs abstract questions such as the moral justifications for going to war and observes that soldiers help each other with humor and medical aid. He notes that these relationships are a social contract which can be broken if someone fails in his duty to the group.
Overview of “Night Life”
The Alpha Company had been on the move at night because of increased enemy activity. Some soldiers were using drugs and Rat Kiley was going crazy. He started to imagine what it would be like for a dead body, how hard it would be to carry them into rescue helicopters, etc. After a few days, he imagined himself as one of these bodies and couldn’t take it anymore so he shot himself in the foot. The last anyone heard from him was when he got on an evacuation helicopter with his foot injury. Soldiers said goodbye and promised to say that the bullet wound was an accident so that Kiley could get out of service honorably without shame or dishonor (i.e., “without losing face”).
The author of this passage writes about a character in the book who is morally conflicted. He’s not heroic, but he also doesn’t fit into the anti-hero category either. He has moral conflicts because he went to war even though he knew it was wrong for him to do so, and yet when given an opportunity to betray his comrades by doing something cowardly, he took that opportunity instead of going against his own morals.
The narrator of the story, O’Brien, tells us about his friend’s decision to go out and have fun. This is done in a matter-of-fact way that distances the reader from what he’s saying. The author doesn’t express any opinion on this decision; it seems like he just wants to tell us what happened. Language is simple and detached, which shows how much influence Ernest Hemingway had on him while writing this book.
After joining the Alpha Company, O’Brien is confronted with a dead body for the first time. Cross orders an air strike on a Vietnamese village, and after it’s destroyed, they find some bodies.
Kiowa follows him to his tent and tells him he thinks O’Brien is a decent person. Kiowa gives him some cookies that were sent from home. This conversation marks the beginning of their friendship. O’Brien decides to tell Kiowa about his first love, Linda.
Linda and O’Brien were classmates in the fourth grade. They went on a date together, accompanied by O’Brien’s parents. Linda wore a new red cap, which she kept on during their movie outing. Afterward, they had ice cream for dessert. While at school, Nick Veenhof pulled her hat off and everyone saw that she had lost all of her hair after chemotherapy treatments for cancer.
Linda was undergoing chemotherapy for a brain tumor. She died a few days later, and her father took the boy to see her body in a funeral home. The young man thought she didn’t look real because she had swollen up too much from the cancer treatments. He continued to dream about Linda after that, but he stopped asking her what it was like to be dead because he thought it was a stupid question. All she could say is that it felt like being in an unread book.
The main theme of The Things They Carried is death. Death is a major part of the book because it’s so prevalent in war and O’Brien has to deal with it constantly. Therefore, he writes this story as a way to make his dead friends live again, by telling their stories through his own eyes. He also uses these stories to help him cope with the loss of Linda, one of his closest friends who died in Vietnam.
Dreams and sleep are similar to death. Poets have made this observation before, and it’s true in many ways. You can’t know what you’re going to dream about or when you’ll wake up from a dream. In the last story of this collection, O’Brien explores the image of transforming one into the other. As a child, he transforms Linda into something alive through his dreams; as an adult, he imagines her back in life with stories that bring her to life again—in different ways than she was before. Fiction is more powerful than reality for him because it allows him to control everything about his fictional world—including whether Linda lives or dies.