The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | Notes | Summary

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Summary

In the spring of 1975, Norman sends the narrator a "long, disjointed letter." He hasn't found a "meaningful use for his life" in peacetime. He runs through part-time jobs and tries to attend junior college but finds it pointless. Norman feels "almost like I got killed in Nam," as if he "sank down into the sewage" with Kiowa. He even seems to feel guilty about feeling guilty.

Norman suggests that the narrator write about "a guy who feels like he got zapped over in that shithole" but can't talk about it. Norman would write this story, but he "can't ever find any words." The letter causes the narrator to regret his "pride in sliding gracefully" from war to peacetime. He uses Norman's idea in the novel he's working on but leaves out Kiowa's death because it doesn't fit the plot. But the narrator also says the story "frightened him," so he "erases its flaws" from his memory, sanitizing it as he turns it into a short story. When Norman reads it, he gripes: "Where's Kiowa? Where's the shit?"

In August 1978 Norman's mother writes to say that Norman hanged himself. Later the narrator publishes the version of "Speaking of Courage" that is in The Things They Carried. It is "hard stuff to write" and forces the narrator to confess that he was the soldier who "experienced the failure of nerve" in the shit field.

Analysis

Even in the reflective sections of The Things They Carried, the narrator and the author are not the same person. How much of Norman's letter is fictional is unclear. Still, this selection examines an important subject powerfully: the transition of Vietnam vets into civilian life after the war.

The narrator, with some guilt, describes his transition to civilian life as "a nice smooth glide"—no "flashbacks or midnight sweats." Norman's letter causes the narrator to realize the important function stories serve in this transition. Though he rarely talks about the war, he writes about it "virtually nonstop" so that people can hear his explanation of how he got "dragged into a wrong war" and of the "terrible things" he saw and did. Without writing, the narrator might have been trapped in a "swirl of memories" that would have caused "paralysis or worse," as they did for Norman.

His recognition that the story of the shit field scared him so much he couldn't write truthfully about it leads him to revise his cleaned-up version so it hopefully "makes good on Norman Bowker's silence." Storytelling allows the narrator to objectify events and gain some distance from them but also to find a way to face wartime experiences more directly over time. The soldier's "simple need to talk" finds its outlet in his writing. Norman's post-war life and eventual suicide demonstrate how important it is for soldiers to find a way to tell their stories.

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