The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | Church | Summary

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Summary

Alpha Company camps near an "abandoned pagoda" tended by two monks. The monks barely react when the soldiers dig in, although one makes a gesture of washing his hands. The pagoda is "dark and cool" and battered by shelling. Kiowa is alarmed because "you don't mess with churches."

The week the company spends near the pagoda is a peaceful time; the men rest, bathe, and maintain their gear. The monks speak little English but listen as though to "important matters." Henry and Kiowa, both kind men beloved by the soldiers, are at the story's center as they discuss what religion and moral behavior mean to them. Henry believes in God but admits that he doesn't have the "brains" to "explain some hard stuff" such as"why God invented pneumonia and all that" as ministers do. As a child church bored him, and he "still hate[s] church," but he likes helping people. To him that's what it means to be religious, and perhaps the monks agree, because they call Henry, who treats them kindly, "good soldier Jesus." But to Kiowa religion is sacred, deserving of respect. He feels at peace when he's in church and is disturbed when he feels its holiness has been violated.

The monks clean and oil the platoon's machine gun. Suddenly Kiowa breaks off the conversation, disturbed that monks are cleaning weapons in a temple. Henry gives the monks canned peaches and chocolate bars and shoos them away, repeating his belief that "all you can do is be nice" to people.

Analysis

"Church" provides a welcome break after the intense story of Mary Anne Bell's transformation. Its point is conveyed through mostly dialogue. Though Henry and Kiowa approach religion differently, the men agree: Monks shouldn't clean weapons; troops shouldn't camp by temples; and religion should be peaceful and helpful and kept separate from the work of war.

The narrator, uncharacteristically, makes no comment on the story; he withholds his thoughts about the conversation, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.

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