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Free Study Guide: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - Free BookNotes

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED: FREE CHAPTER SUMMARY

CHAPTER 15: SPEAKING OF COURAGE

Summary

Now that the war was over, Norman Bowker felt like there was nowhere else to go. He drove his fatherís Chevy on a seven-mile loop around the lake in his hometown. It was the same lake where he swam as a kid, where his friend Max Arnold had drowned. The town was the same, but different. Sally Gustafson, a girl whose picture he carried in his wallet during the war, was now married. The whole town seemed remote to him as he started another loop around the lake. More than anything he wanted someone to talk to - Max, his father, Sally Gustafson, anyone. He wanted to show them how he could tell time just by looking at the sun, or how heíd almost won the Silver Star for bravery.

Heíd start by describing the slow, flat, muddy Song Tra Bong river. How it overflowed during Monsoon season and turned the ground into a deep thick muck for half a mile on either side. You couldnít even sleep because your body would just sink into the ooze. He could have won the Silver Star, but he couldnít take the smell. Thatís what he would tell them, anybody who would listen. But nobody in his town wanted to listen; they had no memory of the war therefore no guilt. They didnít know shit and didnít care to know.


But Norman Bowker knew about shit. He could have given a seminar on the subject at the Kiwanis club. One night his platoon camped in a field beside the Song Tra Bong River. As the rain fell, the field started to turn into soup and they started to sink in it. The smell was overpowering. Finally, someone realized that the field was the village toilet. They had camped in the village toilet - a shit field. Norman imagined how Sally probably wouldnít like that word. He watched the mud hens out on the lake as he started on his eighth revolution around town.

There was so much to say. How the rain never stopped, how the cold worked into your bones as you say in the muck. Courage came in degrees, like the cold. Sometimes the difference between courage and cowardice was something little, like the smell of that field. Later that night they took some mortar fire. The field exploded with shrapnel and slime. The field was boiling and he started to see weird things, like bodies floating by. Suddenly, he heard someone screaming followed by a strange gurgling noise. When he got there Kiowa was almost completely under. He could not really describe what happened next, but he would have tried anyway. He grabbed a boot and began to pull, but the smell was overwhelming. He had shit in his nose, in his eyes. He could no longer tolerate it. He let go of the boot and hoisted himself out of the slime.

If it hadnít been for that smell he could have won the Silver Star. It was a good story, but not a war story people in his town wanted to hear. It was a brisk, polite town that wanted good intentions and good deeds. He could not talk about it and never would. As he turned on his headlights and drove slowly, he wished heíd been braver. He had been braver than he ever thought possible, but not as brave as he wanted to be - the distinction was an important one. After his twelfth revolution he stopped by the lake, waded in with his clothes on and watched the town fireworks.

Notes

Normanís sense of isolation from his family and the rest of the town is a major theme of this story. He experiences a profound need to talk to someone about his experiences, if only to keep them from backing up on him. He imagines himself talking to his father and a girl he knew in high school, but feels neither would understand. Like most American girls, Sally Gustafson is too pure, too innocent to listen to a story about a shit field. She couldnít understand. His father only wants to hear about how many medals he won. The town itself wants stories of bravery and heroism, not the messy ambiguity of a story about wallowing around in a shit field.

The lake provides an extended metaphor for the muck of Vietnam. Both bodies of water represent killing power. A boyhood friend drowned in the town lake just as Kiowa sank into the sewage of Song Tra Bong. It is significant that the lake has taken away the one person Norman feels like he could have talked with about the war - his best friend Max. As Norman cruises the loop staring at the boats and fishermen, he sees only the shit field where Kiowa died. The field swallowed up both of them that night. Norman made it out, but the memory of the stench and sense of failure never leave him. He feels there is nothing left to do, nowhere to go now that the war is over. At the end he immerses himself in the lake, hoping it will swallow him up as well.

From the chapter title, we know the story is mainly about courage. There are degrees of bravery. Norman had been braver than he ever thought possible, but still not brave enough to save Kiowa. Sometimes, the difference between courage and cowardice is small. Little things, like an odor, can stop us when bullets could not. At the warís end, medals are of no comfort to Norman. He is haunted by the memory of opportunities lost.


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