Death in The Things They Carried
Length: 1046 words (3 double-spaced pages)
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In The Things They Carried there are three instances in which the main character and author Tim O’Brien experiences first hand the tragedy of death. During his storytelling O’Brien describes the man he kills, next he describes the first death he witnesses in Vietnam and finally his first experience early in life with the death of Linda. O’Brien tells the reader how he has able to cope and learn with each experience of death. In the book, The Things They Carried O’Brien tells how he copes with death in his own way and how his understanding of death evolves throughout the novel.
The book order is chronologically in reverse; this is significant because as the reader one learns about his first experience with death in the last chapter of the book, "The Lives of the Dead". In this chapter, O’Brien illustrates the genuine love he felt for a girl named Linda. After his first official date with her, O’Brien clarifies to the reader that Linda was sick and eventually the reader learns that she has died from complications from a brain tumor. O’Brien portrays the feelings that he has as a fourth grader and the thoughts of death that he experiences. O’Brien expresses the feeling of disbelief, "It didn’t seem real. A mistake, I thought. The girl lying in the white casket wasn’t Linda. For a second I wondered if someone had made a terrible blunder" (241). O’Brien’s coping mechanism was to dream; he uses his memories to create dreams of real life situations that he and Linda could have easily been involved in. O’Brien uses situations like ice skating to make up elaborate stories to keep her memory alive (244). O’Brien as a child seems remote and solitary, so his mother asks “‘Timmy what wrong?’” and he replies, “‘Nothing I just need to sleep, that’s all’” (244). He understands she is dead but these intricate stories stuck with him, even through the war.
After more time and experience O’Brien never fully gets used to the humor but understands that jokes are other soldiers’ way of coping as dreams and stories are used by O’Brien to cope with his own personal experiences. It wasn’t long into his first days in Vietnam that the memory of Linda would resurface. This memory resurfaces after being with his platoon for just four days. O’Brien and his group encounter a small amount of sniper fire and even though no one was hurt, an air strike was called and soon after O’Brien had his next experience with mortality.
An old man next to a pigpen was the only “confirmed kill” (226). O’Brien remarks upon seeing the man that he “‘felt a moist sickness rise up in my throat’” (226). Dave Jensen told O’Brien to “‘Show a little respect for your elders’” (226). This coming after a few men had high-fived and shook the dead man’s hand. O’Brien avoids the man and cannot bring himself to look at him and refuses to propose a toast or interact with the man at any length. Kiowa then consoles O’Brien and says he’s done the right thing and that, “‘That shaking hands crap, it isn’t decent’” (227). Later on Kiowa asks if this is his first experience with a dead body, and O’Brien recalls the date with Linda and her death, jokingly Kiowa says, “‘Man… that was a bad date’” (228). In this situation O’Brien uses his memories to help comfort himself, and all the men use humor in the same way. As the war progresses he learns other ways to deal with the pain of death.
In the chapter “The Man I Killed” the story is a story about the beauty of life rather than the gruesomeness of death. O’Brien depicts a young man that he kills; even though he knows no factual things about this man, O’Brien informs the reader of this young man’s possible past and future. The boy is described as a “…dainty young man of about twenty” (130) and “his body small and frail” (125). This leads O’Brien to believe he was a scholar who likes math and is only fulfilling his “patriotic duty” (127) much like O’Brien is. O’Brien imagines that the young man began studying at the University in Saigon in 1964, “where he avoided politics and favored calculus” (128). O’Brien tries to distance himself from the events much like the story of Curt Lemon’s death where he focuses on the sunlight. In “The Man I Killed” O’Brien feels responsible for the death and focuses on other surroundings. O’Brien tells the reader that tiny blue flowers bloom next to ragged strips of what is the man’s cheek and a butterfly lands on the fallen man’s face. This shows that O’Brien now understands that life is circular and that life continues on. This is much different from his earlier days were he could not understand that. It is true, though, that O’Brien still puts the center of attention on the death of a person, but over the course of the novel he emphasizes the beauty of life and death.
O’Brien evolves throughout the story in his understanding and the way he copes with death. In the book, The Things They Carried O’Brien tells how he copes with death starting from the latest events of the war going to childhood in the final chapter. The reader is first exposed to the most evolved method of coping with death, which is the circular understanding. Next, the reader is introduced to the coping method of jokes and finally the reader begins to see how O’Brien has been tossed into situations of death and how as a young boy he copes with dreams and memories. Overall, with each instance of death he encounters, O’Brien evolves to a more evolved and emotional form of coping each time. Despite the evolution of his understanding of death, Tim O’Brien sums up his vision of death in two words, the character Mitchell Sanders said, “‘Death Sucks’” (243).
O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.