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The Things They Carried | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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How does the narrator characterize the United States by comparing it to Henry Dobbins in "Stockings" from The Things They Carried?

According to the narrator, both Harry and the United States are uncomplicated and "drawn toward sentimentality" rather than worldly or sophisticated. These details hint at a somewhat condescending view of the United States, but, based on previous stories in the book, the narrator is actually fond of Henry. He uses the comparison to praise Henry and the United States as well. Both are "strong, full of good intentions," and around when they're needed. Both value "simplicity and directness and hard labor." The nation that doggedly fought to win World War II and the soldier who ably carries the machine gun both achieve important goals. Henry and the nation have the narrator's admiration and affection.

According to the stories "Church," "Stockings," and "Style" from The Things They Carried, what traits set Henry Dobbins apart from most of the other soldiers?

Henry is simply a sweet man; war is clearly antithetical to his nature. He is forgiving—he doesn't hold his girlfriend's breakup against her and continues to value her gift, the protective pantyhose. He wants to help people he comes across, including monks who can't talk to him but recognize his gentle nature, nicknaming him "good soldier Jesus," and the little girl who dances in "Style." Her family is "dead and badly burned," her home is "smoke," and her strange dance and "dreamy look" perplex the soldiers. But when Azar, always up for a prank, "mock[s]" the girl by dancing stupidly, Henry threatens to dump him in a well. Readers can infer that war, or any harmful activity, is painful for Henry. Yet, while he is deployed, Henry further demonstrates his kind nature by participating dutifully in the platoon's work. He carries the heavy machine gun and ammo and is a "superb soldier," perhaps because that's how he helps his comrades.

What conclusions can you draw from the story "Church" from The Things They Carried about how the monks view the Americans fighting in the monks' home country?

The monks welcome the soldiers as guests and don't complain when the men mar the yard around the pagoda with foxholes. They bring water for the men to bathe each morning and watermelons from their garden. The monks are happy when the soldiers appreciate these actions, "giggling" and smiling. The monks appreciate Henry Dobbins's kindness. The monks bring in a "cane chair" for Lieutenant Cross and seem "proud that such a man" is using the chair. Though they are men of peace, they even clean and oil the unit's machine gun. The monks' behavior may lead readers to conclude that the monks appreciate the soldiers' presence and willingness to risk their lives for another nation's cause. Some critics have argued, in fact, that the monks represent South Vietnam and its reaction to the U.S. military presence and that Kiowa's bad feelings about using the pagoda are a subtle critique of the moral grounds of America's intervention in Vietnam.

In what ways does the narrator's description of the dead man in "The Man I Killed" from The Things They Carried reveal more about him than about the dead man?

Most of what the narrator knows about the dead man is how he looks and what he carries. The man is young, "dainty," and "bony." He wears simple black clothing, rubber sandals, and a ring. He is lightly armed. The narrator infers that the man comes from a nearby village, which suggests some details about his upbringing. Beyond these facts the narrator's lengthy description of the young man's life is, as Rat would say, "pure speculation" and reveals his own concerns. Readers learn in "On the Rainy River" that the narrator had just finished college, had plans for graduate school, and was "too smart" to be wasted on war. He's "Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude" and has "a full-ride scholarship." He believes his draft notice must have been a paperwork error. By imagining the dead man as a scholar who won't get to complete his studies, the narrator expresses his own fears about what may happen to him. Also, the narrator reported for duty out of shame, and he imagines that "in his heart" the dead man feared "disgracing himself" in battle. The man's death forces the narrator to confront the fears again that paralyzed him when he was drafted.

How do Azar's and Kiowa's differing reactions to the dead man affect the narrator in "The Man I Killed" from The Things They Carried?

Azar reacts as readers expect, with over-the-top language and a callous attitude. He congratulates the narrator on the kill: "You scrambled his sorry self." He compares the torn body to "Shredded fuckin' Wheat." When Kiowa tells Azar to "go away," Azar corrects himself: The body is more like "Rice Krispies." Azar shrugs and walks off. The narrator doesn't react at the time, but Azar's words sear into his memory, still burning when he tells the story decades later. Kiowa's reaction is also in keeping with his character, kind but practical. "What else could you do?" he asks. In war soldiers kill, and this was a "good kill." Kiowa only "glance[s]" at the body and tells the narrator to "stop staring" at it; it's disrespectful. Kiowa is patient, giving the narrator a few more minutes to recover and urging him to talk. Later the narrator writes about his deep grief over Kiowa's death, which springs in part from Kiowa's kindness during these events.

In "The Man I Killed" from The Things They Carried, how do details of the natural world contribute to the description of the dead man's body?

Life, light, and beauty mingle with the blood, torn skin, and ruptured flesh of the body lying on a wooded trail in these descriptions. Life and death are juxtaposed memorably, even painfully, as is appropriate to the narrator's experience and memory of the events. Details of the natural world used to describe the dead man's body are often associated with beauty and vitality. A butterfly, often a symbol of renewed life and transformation, rests on the dead man's chin. Thoughtful readers might infer that the fluids—sweat, blood—have drawn it there. Gnats quickly find the dead man's damp mouth. Growing by the trail are "small blue flowers shaped like bells"—the explosion wrenched the head around as if the man were looking toward the flowers. A "single blade of sunlight" pierces the tree cover and reflects off the dead man's ammunition belt. Pollen, the mechanism by which plants reproduce, settles on the dead man's nose.

Why do the words Kiowa says to the narrator after the young Vietnamese soldier dies in "Ambush" from The Things They Carried fail to comfort the narrator?

Kiowa knows the right, accepted words to say—that "it was a good kill," that soldiers have to kill during war, that the dead soldier would have killed the narrator or other platoon members "if things were reversed." He also says, less logically, that the young man "would've died anyway," something he can't know. Kiowa scolds the narrator, too, telling him to "shape up." Everything Kiowa says, other than when he predicts that the young man would have died regardless, is expected in a combat situation, and what he says is likely true. Yet "none of it mattered" to the narrator, at that moment or in the years to come. All the words were silenced by "the fact of the young man's dead body" and the narrator's remorse.

How does the narrator convey the idea that the young man in "Ambush" from The Things They Carried was probably not a threat to the narrator or the platoon?

The narrator mentions the young man's "slightly stooped" shoulders twice and describes him as "short" and "slender"; these details emphasize that the man wasn't physically threatening. The young man is armed, though he carries his gun almost casually and isn't on alert, and his clothing is not military. Rather than heavy boots, he wears "rubber sandals." So his gear is not intimidating either. He's alone and seems "at ease," not ready to engage in combat. Also, the young man's response to the grenade is ineffective and somehow sad. He can't decide which way to move, he pauses, and he raises his hands to protect his head, as if that will work. These details dispose the narrator to see the young man more as victim than as dreaded enemy. Yet, as Kiowa says, "this was a war," and the man was armed. Threat is the assumed state in such a situation.

How do the details of the aftermath of the village's destruction affect the mood in "Style" from The Things They Carried?

The reason for the story's first line, "There was no music," isn't clear at first; why would there be music in a bombed village? Then readers learn that a girl is dancing among the ruins after her entire family has perished there. The soldiers turn up only a chicken in the wreckage of the tiny village. "Dead pigs" lie among the ruins, perhaps reminiscent for the narrator of the pig carcasses he once washed. Smoke is on the air like "faint ripples of fog," a symbol of confusion and loss of communication in other selections. These details create a mood of grim futility. Given the references to fog and to Lieutenant Cross contacting the "gunships" to tell them to "go away," it is possible that this village was mistakenly targeted. Perhaps a miscommunication or false information led to the airstrike. The villagers had very little, and now, nearly nothing remains. Yet the girl—who is most likely in shock— dances with a "quiet and composed" look on her face, adding a surreal overlay to the grim mood.

In "Speaking of Courage" from The Things They Carried, what qualities define a good listener, and why are these qualities important?

The war is often horrifying and beyond comprehension. Speaking about their experiences may be a means of mental survival for many of the soldiers during and after the war, which is why good listeners are especially important. There are a few characteristics that good listeners under these circumstances share. Listeners are sympathetic. They give speakers the benefit of the doubt and try to enter their world. Norman's father would understand, for example, about medals and those who deserve them. Listeners coax. "Go ahead, try me," the voice on the intercom at the A&W says, aware that Norman needs to talk. Good listeners encourage speakers to go on, add details, and explain themselves. "So tell me," Norman's father would say; "Slow and sweet, take your time." Listeners respect boundaries. When Norman pauses at a painful detail, he imagines his father saying, "If you don't want to say more—." Sally serves as a counterexample. Norman assumes that she would get hung up on the word shit and miss the point of his story or even refuse to listen. Good listeners would help Norman bear the burdens of his war experience by hearing the truths in his stories, even if the story included painful details or questionable language.

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