The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | The Man I Killed | Summary

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Summary

The narrator describes, repeatedly and in minute detail, the body of a young Vietnamese soldier killed by a grenade. The soldier is "slim, dead, almost dainty" and poorly muscled, with a "sunken" chest and "bony legs." He seems young, vulnerable, and, to the narrator, looks like "a scholar, maybe." The narrator imagines what the dead man's life was like, what plans he had for the future, and his fears about having to fight. He imagines that he worried about shaming himself or his family by failing as a soldier. Perhaps the young man wanted to be a teacher of mathematics. Perhaps he was engaged. But the "constellation of possibilities" of the young man's life is shattered now. One eye remained while the other "was a star-shaped hole."

As the narrator examines the body, Kiowa stands nearby, trying to distract him. Kiowa is empathetic; he knows the narrator feels "terrible" because he's had the same feeling. But they have to leave. Kiowa finally covers the body and says to the narrator, "Talk."

Analysis

The young Vietnamese man, the narrator imagines, is very much like him. He is someone who loved to learn, who felt the pressures of his village's and family's expectations about war, who had "no stomach for violence" but felt sure that he would die and then "wake up in the stories of his village."

The narrator knows nothing about the dead man, beyond what the narrator can see. Every detail about the dead man's life, hopes, dreams, and fears is the narrator's invention. He tells a story about a man he might well have befriended and with whom he had much in common, perhaps because he projects his own hopes, dreams, and fears onto the man. That man could be him. The guilt the narrator feels over this death is among the heaviest burdens he carries. The man he kills possibly symbolizes the death of the narrator's own youth, lost to the horrors of combat in the Vietnam War. He is also symbolic of the tantalizing possibility of seeing the humanity of the soldiers he fights rather than viewing them as dehumanized "others" because they represent "the enemy."

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