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Free Chapter Notes: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - Book Summary

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED: CHAPTER NOTES / BOOK SUMMARY

CHAPTER 21: NIGHT LIFE

Summary

O’Brien wasn’t there when Rat Kiley got injured, but Sanders told him later that Rat had just lost his cool. There had been rumors of an NVA buildup, and so Lt. Cross ordered the platoon to only move at night for two weeks. The strain of sleeping during the day and wandering around in the dark all the night took its toll on Rat. At first he withdrew into himself, not talking to anybody. Then he talked non-stop about all sorts of weird things. He claimed there were bugs with mutant DNA that were personally after him. He couldn’t sleep during the hot daylight hours and he couldn’t cope with the nights. Finally he hit a wall. After all the gore that comes with being the medic, he lost control. He began imagining people as just a collection of organs, without skin. He’d stare at living people and wonder what they looked like dead. He imagined bugs munching holes through his flesh and mongooses knowing on his bones. One morning he doped himself up and put a round through his foot. Nobody blamed him, and Lt. Cross said he’d vouch that it was an accident.

Notes

In the first chapter much of the narrative centers around the idea of shame, and how shame prevented everyone from quitting, just dropping, or shooting one of their toes off. Aside from dying, it was the only way out of the war. No one would take it, however, because the suffering of combat was somehow preferable to the shame of taking the easy way out. In “Night Life” we have an example of someone, Rat Kiley, who takes the easy way out. The blackness, the eerie darkness, the ‘night life’ of Vietnam finally wears him down and he opts instead for the Night Life of Japan.

Rat’s decision has a dubious effect on the rest of the platoon. No one blames him, of course, partly because the idea has crossed most of their minds at one time or another. But they feel ‘bad’ about it, and that bad feeling is largely embarrassment - they’re embarrassed because one of their boys lost his cool and opted out of the war. In effect, Rat has turned his back on them and a new medic will take his place. None of them blame Rat for violating this code of camaraderie, but he has violated it all the same.


CHAPTER 22: THE LIVES OF THE DEAD


Summary

It is also true that stories can save us. Many people died during the war, but in these stories they can sit up and smile at the world again. Like the time Lt. Cross ordered in an air strike on a village, and everything went up in flames. In the wreckage, an old man lay face up with his right arm missing. One by one, the soldiers filed past and shook the old man’s hand. All except O’Brien. It was his fourth day in the war, everything was still to real for him, and he refused to do it no matter how much Jensen teased him. Later, as the rest of the platoon was toasting the old man, Kiowa commended O’Brien on his courage. But this wasn’t the first dead body O’Brien had seen. There had been a girl from his childhood...

Her name was Linda, and when O’Brien was nine years old he was in love with her. In the spring of 1956 they had gone to a movie together in the back seat of his parents car. Linda had worn a red stocking cap, though Timmy barely had the courage to look at her...

Stories give the illusion of being alive - you dream as you tell it and hope others will dream along with you. Like in Vietnam, when Ted Lavender would pop tranquilizers each morning and walk around with a dreamy smile on his face. People would ask how the war was going and he’d reply “Mellow, we got ourselves a nice, mellow war today.” He’s dead now, but stories exist to make the dead talk. Like when Linda said, “Timmy, stop crying” after she was dead...

Even now he can see her in his hometown theatre. They watched a movie about a spy in WWII, and afterwards went to the Dairy Queen. All through the night he could feel his love for her, but it wasn’t until they were standing on her front step that he had the courage to look at her. “Bye,” he said.

Over the next few weeks Linda wore her red cap to school every day. At recess the boys started to try and grab it off her head. Timmy wanted to do something, but there was nothing to be done. He wishes now that he had stepped in. It would have been good practice for Vietnam. One day in class a kid named Nick Veenhof lifted up her hat while walking past Linda’s desk. Underneath was a glossy white scalp, some tufts of hair, some stitches, and a band-aid.

Now O’Brien is forty-three years old, but he’s still the same person he was in the ninth grade. The human life is continuous, whether it’s a nine-year old, a scared teenager, a drill sergeant, or a middle-aged writer. As a writer he knows he can’t save her body, but he wants to preserve her life. He remembers Nick Vorheen telling him one day at recess that Linda kicked the bucket. He went home that day and closed his eyes and willed her alive again. In his dream she was whole again, no scars, no white scalp.

And so it was in Vietnam. Soldiers used language to harden themselves against death. it was easier to deal with a kicked bucket than a dead corpse. Instead, they kept the dead alive with stories. He dreams Linda alive the same way, they are nine years old again and ice-skating together. These dreams signify Tim’s effort to save Timmy with a story.

Notes

This is the denouement of the novel. It explains the power of language and stories to help us deal with tragedy. Looking back, O’Brien now understands how soldiers used language to insulate themselves from the ugliness of death and war. They referred to dead babies as ‘crunchie-munchies’ as part of a refusal to deal with reality. They shook hands with a dead old man and pretended it was tranquilizer that blew Ted Lavender’s mind instead of a land mine.

This attitude provided a temporary relief that helped O’Brien cope in a stressful environment. But decades later, as a middle-aged writer, he realizes that he hasn’t managed the painful memories very well. They keep him awake at night. They stalk him in his dreams. He relates the story of Linda as another example of tragedy that can be dealt with in a story. In his writing, Linda is whole again. Writing stories is a form of dreaming. As a writer he dreams something and asks the world to dream along with him. Linda symbolizes childhood; the way tragedy changes a person and deprives us of our innocence.

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