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The Things They Carried | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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Describe how Kiowa, Norman Bowker, and Mitchell Sanders react to Ted Lavender's death in the title story from The Things They Carried. What do these reactions reveal about the men?

The soldiers "carried all the emotional baggage," each in his own way, "of men who might die." Kiowa reacts first, astonished at how sudden and permanent Ted's death is. He repeats, "The guy's dead," as if to convince himself, and describes how Ted fell like "cement." He's appalled at the idea that Ted hadn't even gotten his zipper up after relieving himself. He was "zapped while zipping." That night Kiowa is profoundly aware of the world around him. He feels "pleased to be alive" and vaguely guilty about his reaction. While Kiowa muses over the seeming impossibility of Ted's death, Norman Bowker listens with terse patience and finally tells him, "Do me a favor. ... Shut up." Norman himself reacts less emotionally to Ted's death; he notes it and is ready to move on. When Kiowa describes the way Ted fell, Norman says, "I've heard this." Norman, who carries his diary, keeps his thoughts mainly to himself. But he grudgingly lets Kiowa keep talking. He seems to sense that Kiowa needs a listener. Mitchell Sanders, always looking for the meaning in events, finds a "pretty obvious" moral in Ted's death: "Stay away from drugs," a reference to Ted's use of tranquilizers and marijuana to keep the war "mellow." "There it is," Mitchell says, and the others repeat the words, seeking a little meaning in the death of a man who had only stepped away to relieve himself when he was shot.

In the title story from The Things They Carried, in what ways is Martha uninvolved in Jimmy's life and how does this affect him?

Jimmy realizes that Martha is not a part of his life in two ways. First, in her letters, she never mentions the war, beyond asking him to be careful. She belongs to another world, where "pretty poems" take up her time, not to his world of real violence and death. Jimmy decides that, at least while he is deployed, it's damaging to imagine that their worlds could overlap. Second, Martha is apparently not involved romantically with Jimmy—or anyone else. When she sends the pebble to Jimmy, she writes that it has a "separate-but-together quality" that represents "her truest feelings for him." At first Jimmy thinks she merely means that they are apart geographically for a while. But, given how distant Martha acted on their dates, how when he kissed her she allowed it but didn't kiss him back, Jimmy realizes that she doesn't love him as he thinks he loves her. Readers see Jimmy's feelings turn to "a hard, hating kind of love."

Other than telling stories, what are some ways the soldiers deal with the constant threat of death in The Things They Carried?

The soldiers use coarse, sarcastic, or humorous language to deal with the threat of death. They develop a "hard vocabulary" to hide their fears, saying that soldiers were greased, offed, or lit up. This "grunt lingo" becomes a "script" that they memorize and use to "destroy . . . the reality of death." The soldiers also fantasize to deal with the threat of death. Readers see Jimmy escape repeatedly into his fantasies about Martha, though he stops this behavior when he decides that his fantasies endanger his men by distracting him too much. The selection describes other fantasies too. Ted uses tranquilizers and "premium dope" to sustain the drug-induced fantasy that the war is "mellow." Soldiers fantasize about wounding themselves to get to a hospital with "warm beds and cute geisha nurses," and they "dream about freedom birds," jumbo jets in which they speed away, thinking, "It's over, I'm gone!" These ways of dealing with the fear of death help the soldiers maintain their "masks of composure" so that they can pretend to be brave.

In "Love" from The Things They Carried, Jimmy asks the narrator to leave something out of the story. Based on his role in other stories, why might Jimmy ask this?

Based on "Love," "The Things They Carried," and "In the Field," Jimmy takes his leadership responsibilities seriously; when a soldier dies, Jimmy reviews the events, looking for how he might have failed. Long after the war is over, he still carries guilt for Ted Lavender's and Kiowa's deaths. For this reason he may not want the narrator to include these incidents or Jimmy's reactions to them in the story. Jimmy may also refer to his description of his reunion with Martha. It would be in keeping with Jimmy's protective nature to want to shield Martha from further pain, although he may be trying to protect himself from the exposure of his own pain as well. In any case, readers may wonder whether the narrator will keep his promise.

"Spin" from The Things They Carried describes the "monotony" of war. What was this monotony like and how does it affect the soldiers?

The narrator describes how much waiting the soldiers do. The war is "nakedly and aggressively boring" and yet produces deep anxiety in the soldiers. A sameness pervades many days, and merely waiting for something to happen or change becomes a burden. Mundane tasks, for example, become monotonous burdens: "Digging foxholes. Slapping mosquitoes." The land around them reinforces the boredom, with a humid, bright heat and "endless paddies." Even when a soldier's surroundings seem "calm" and "utterly vacant," the anxious boredom is like a slow drip of "acid ... eating away at important organs." Soldiers might try to persuade themselves that "this isn't so bad," but just as they manage to relax a bit, they hear gunfire nearby and are jerked back into the constant realization that they could "die any number of ways." It is "that kind of boredom," the narrator says—the kind where nothing changes and yet soldiers can never let their guard down.

In "On the Rainy River" in The Things They Carried, how does the catalog of people the narrator imagines cheering for him develop the theme of storytelling?

As the narrator tries to decide whether to swim for Canada or report for duty, he imagines a crowd "rooting" for him. It makes sense for some people in the crowd to be there: the narrator's parents, for example, and siblings would be in a crowd cheering him on. Townspeople, former teachers, old girlfriends, and even younger versions of the narrator could be there. But the high school marching band, playing fight songs, and the cheerleaders seem excessive. Huckleberry Finn, who fled to the Oklahoma Territory rather than conform to social norms, is there. A "million ferocious citizens," actors identified with military roles (Gary Cooper) and military protest (Jane Fonda), and popes join in the cheering. Then come people whose presence violates the time frame: the narrator's wife, his daughter, the "slim young man" he will kill in Vietnam, Jimmy Cross, and others. These characters can't logically be part of the cheering crowd, considering the narrator hasn't met them yet. As the narrator has noted before, storytelling conveys how the narrator felt during events, not what actually happened during those events. As the narrator chooses his future, he thinks of people whom he admires, who have influenced him, who may pass judgment on him, and whose future lives depend, for better or worse, on his decision.

In "On the Rainy River" from The Things They Carried, why is Ellroy able to help the narrator as the narrator struggles with his decision about going to war?

Elroy is wise and patient, perhaps the result of his long life. He is a quiet but active man who respects the narrator's privacy. Elroy is aware of the trickle of young men slipping into Canada but refrains from asking questions that would elicit "lies or denials." At 81 Elroy has seen two world wars; he would have been around 27 during World War I and perhaps have served. He seems to grasp not only the narrator's struggle but also the fact that "words were insufficient" to resolve the narrator's inner conflict. Instead, the practical Elroy offers the narrator: time to think and decide work to distract him from his struggle good food and companionship funds to flee, if he so chooses Most importantly, Elroy withholds condemnation, which the narrator fears, and acts as a patient, impartial witness to the narrator's painful decision during their fishing trip on the river.

How does the narrator's ultimate choice in "On the Rainy River" from The Things They Carried define the theme of courage?

The narrator clearly thinks that evading the draft is the moral and courageous choice. His "conscience" urges him to flee, yet he is "ashamed to be doing the right thing." To cross into Canada and accept life in exile requires courage, which the narrator admires in the fictional heroes of his youth but lacks in real life. He can't even muster the daring to get out of the boat, despite being on the Rainy River, so near the Canadian shore. The narrator thinks about getting caught, about people shouting his name, calling him "Traitor! ... Turncoat! Pussy!" These names question not only his love of country but also his manhood and bravery. He sobs in the boat because "hot, stupid shame" drives his final decision, not courage or patriotism or any other noble motivation—only cowardly shame.

How does the setting contribute to the fight between Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk in "Enemies" from The Things They Carried?

Setting—the details of time and place—contributes to the tense atmosphere in which the fight breaks out. The company's movement on patrol through unsafe territory has the men in survival mode, ready to act, if only as an outlet for nervous energy. But readers can also fill in the details of the setting. July in Vietnam is a hot season, and the atmosphere is steamy and oppressive. The men, as always, are carrying the heavy gear the narrator has described in such detail. Night brings little relief, especially for Dave, who can no longer tell "front" from "rear" and senses threats all around him. Under these circumstances, Dave's "quick, nervous eyes" and dramatic mood shifts don't strike the soldiers as bizarre but as expected.

Describe the dilemma Dave Jensen faces in "Friends" from The Things They Carried. How is the dilemma resolved?

Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk agree—in writing, before witnesses—that if either gets a crippling wound, the other will "find a way to end it." The young soldiers think they would rather die than live with a "wheelchair wound." So, when Lee is wounded in just this way—losing his leg at the knee—he assumes that Dave will honor the agreement. Facing the situation he thought was worse than death, Lee suddenly changes his mind. Readers might think that Dave and Lee's agreement was made to be broken, but Dave's reaction to word of Lee's death suggests otherwise. The narrator observes that the news of Lee's death "seem[s] to relieve" Dave, as if a burden is taken from him. Dave, readers infer, doesn't want to live with the knowledge that he failed as a man of his word, despite the circumstances. When Lee dies that dilemma is resolved: Dave no longer has to carry the responsibility of Lee living with a "wheelchair wound." The pact the men make is based on their fear of what they perceive as an unbearable situation in the form of a disability, a "wheelchair wound." Through their pact the men share the common cultural stereotype of disability as a sign of weakness and vulnerability, a fate worse than death. Their pact cements a masculine bond between them based on the one killing the other if such a situation occurs. But the men have misunderstood the nature of vulnerability and disability, and possibly the nature of their own friendship. When he receives just such a wound, Lee realizes he wants to live, and Dave is relieved that he is not asked to kill him. The real bond between them comes to the fore when Lee makes Dave promise not to kill him and Dave is later relieved that he doesn't have to take his friend's life.

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