The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | The Lives of the Dead | Summary



The narrator claims that "stories can save us." In a story, "a kind of dream," the dead live again in the writer's or reader's mind. The narrator recalls the first body he saw in Vietnam, that of an old Vietnamese man. Each soldier greets the corpse by shaking its hand. The narrator feels sick, though Dave Jensen says there's "nothing to be afraid about, just a nice old man."

But the dead man reminds the narrator of Linda. When they were nine, he and Linda were in love. They went on a date to the movies together, chaperoned by his parents.

The narrator thinks about how the soldiers dealt with Ted Lavender's death: They conversed with his body about the "mellow" war and the "once in a lifetime" trip he was about to take on the chopper. By recalling Ted's unique way of dealing with the war, they made him into a story.

The narrator remembers that there was a dead soldier in the movie he and Linda saw on their date. Linda wore a red knit cap every day at school and "took some teasing," especially from Nick Veenhof, who lifted the cap off during class one day, as a prank, revealing that Linda is almost bald and has stitches on her scalp.

As a 43-year-old writer, the narrator wants to "save Linda's life." She died of brain cancer at nine, but in a story the narrator can "revive, at least briefly, that which is absolute and unchanging" about Linda. He struggled as a child to understand her death. Afterward he "willed her alive" in imagined conversations during which she comforted him. The soldiers in Vietnam told stories, too, to make "the dead not quite so dead." The stories might be "blatant lies," but they give the dead "new bodies for the souls to inhabit."

The narrator's father took him to view Linda's body, but the narrator couldn't align the body with the girl he knew. He recalls a day when he and five other soldiers had to gather enemy remains—many bodies, collapsed in odd positions. He and Mitchell Sanders load the heavy, smelly bodies in the truck as Mitchell pronounces the moral: "Death sucks."

After Linda's death the narrator told himself "elaborate stories" so that he would see Linda in his dreams. He was "practic[ing] the magic of stories" and it felt like a "miracle." Now 43 the narrator still dreams Linda back into life—Kiowa, Ted, and Curt too. Under "the spell of memory and imagination," he is "young and happy" and realizes that his stories have saved his own life.


The structure of "The Lives of the Dead" weaves together the distant past (the narrator's childhood), recent past (Vietnam), and present (the writer at 43). The selection offers an example of how stories from one period of a person's life can affect events in another period: it is startling that a book that has focused on stories of war ends with a story that focuses largely on the narrator's childhood. By connecting the narrator's adult and childhood experiences, the story shows that death is not an isolated or unique occurrence but has a larger place in the overall story of the narrator's life.

The narrator says he wanted to stop Nick's cruel behavior toward Linda. But, instead of stopping the bullying, he thought of his reputation and pride. Perhaps he feared Nick too. The narrator still regrets his inaction. If the story had been different, and he had stopped the teasing, he could draw on that story later in life when he needed to be brave, because of the power of his storytelling.

Throughout the book the narrator tells the stories he needs to hear in order to stay out of the deadly muck of the latrine field, to grieve the dead that he could hardly bear to look at, and to keep the coldness from creeping in. The stories are "Tim trying to save Timmy's life." They may not always be accurate. They may have "flourishes" like Rat Kiley's stories do or even "blatant lies," but if they convey story-truth—the feelings that surround events, the "essence" of the people involved—they do their work.

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