The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | Field Trip | Summary



The narrator and his daughter Kathleen travel to the places in Vietnam where he was deployed. Kathleen is only 10 and can't grasp the field's significance, though she notices its "rotten" smell. She can't understand why the war happened and why her father had to fight. People wanted different things, the narrator explains, but he wanted only to "stay alive." She thinks he's "weird" because he can't forget "some dumb thing" from long ago.

Standing in the field, which now looks ordinary and uneventful, the narrator thinks of the "relics" under his feet—"canteens and bandoliers and mess kits." The field "swallowed" the narrator's courage and his closest friend, yet now he feels no "real emotion." As Kathleen watches anxiously, her father dives into the Song Tra Bong and presses Kiowa's moccasins into the river's mushy bottom. Surfacing, he can only think to repeat Mitchell's words: "There it is." An old farmer raises his shovel at the narrator in some sort of gesture, and Kathleen worries that the man is angry. "All that's finished," her father assures her.


This story highlights the narrator's sense of disconnection after he returns to Vietnam, years after the war. The narrator travels to Vietnam ostensibly to show his daughter "something of the world" for her birthday. She does enjoy the "exotic food and animals," but she can't grasp what the trip means for him or why he wants her to see "the Vietnam that kept me awake at night." His daughter's inability to do so emphasizes how isolated the narrator is regarding his war experiences and how hard it is to communicate their meaning to another person.

In the field by the river, the narrator hopes the land will offer "signs of forgiveness or personal grace," but he's disappointed. The field is smaller than he remembers it and is peaceful, showing no signs of its terrible place in the narrator's past. The day is balmy, with blue skies and butterflies, too commonplace to evoke anything but the "awkwardness of remembering." This also contributes to the narrator's sense of disconnection. The place bears no traces of the terrible events he remembers, so the land fails to communicate the "signs of forgiveness or grace" he needs to resolve psychologically what happened there.

The narrator admits that his illusions about life sank into the mud with Kiowa, leaving him feeling "cold inside." He blames the field for "taking away the person I had once been," but now he feels that, over 20 years, he has "mostly worked [his] way out" of the field's muddy grip. The writer of war stories finds himself at a loss for words, wanting to tell Kiowa that he was "the very best" friend but unable to say so.

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