Although the work is supposedly about the Vietnam war, the final story focuses not on the war but on an episode from O’Brien’s childhood.      Discuss how this story relates to the stories...

Although the work is supposedly about the Vietnam war, the final story focuses not on the war but on an episode from O’Brien’s childhood.




Discuss how this story relates to the stories of the war. What is O’Brien’s purpose in ending his collection of stories this way?

Expert Answers
teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

O'Brien's final story is called "The Lives of the Dead." In this story, O'Brien remembers the past and reclaims his humanity. He remembers each of the dead and how he related to them when they were alive. 

The rawness of war is juxtaposed with the ridiculous, the mundane, and the romantic. Every fractured image is part of the kaleidoscope of experiences that make up the sum total of who O'Brien is. In "The Lives of the Dead," O'Brien remembers the only casualty of an air strike on a remote village: an old man. He remembers how he and his fellow soldiers held a ritualistic, almost surreal funeral for the old man. They shook his hand, talked to him, and toasted him. One of the soldiers, Mitchell Sanders, even placed a can of orange slices in the dead man's lap.

The anecdote about the old man is followed by O'Brien's story of the romance he shared with Linda when they were both nine years old. O'Brien recalls his first date with Linda and all the emotions he felt during that date. The story is followed almost immediately by a story about Ted Lavender, how he had behaved when he was alive and how he had looked after he died from a head wound.

O'Brien talks about how words and the stories one weaves in the imagination can help one cope with trauma. Thus, a corpse is referred to as a "kicked bucket." Meanwhile, a dead, napalm-wasted VC nurse is a "crispy critter." The references may seem disrespectful to us, but to many like O'Brien, it is one way to cope with unimaginable horror.

Essentially, "The Lives of the Dead" consists of a series of nonlinear stories. The disturbing lack of literary form is symbolic of the horror, confusion, and ugliness of war. This last story is a fitting finale for the book because it reiterates the thesis of the previous stories: that war is a terribly dehumanizing experience and the only way to cope is to fall back on defense mechanisms that help retain one's sanity.

Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The last story within The Things They Carried is actually an integral part of the work because O'Brien illustrates in the story about Linda and his younger self a point he has been making all along.

Throughout the novel, O'Brien weaves stories into the narrative about the living and the dead, but he especially focuses on stories about soldiers who have been killed and how they are remembered by the other troops.  For example, even in such a generally depressing section as "How To Tell A True War Story," which includes the brutal, horrific death of a baby buffalo at the hands of Rat Kiley, the section is really a reminiscence written about Curt Lemon.  The soldiers tell stories about the dead in part to keep them alive and present in their lives--it's as if the story itself brings them back to life because the memory focuses on what the dead were like when alive.  This is a way of lessening the finality of death by remembering how these soldiers lived.

Even though the last story may seem like an unconnected digression, we are meant to see that O'Brien is doing the same thing with his memory of Linda that he showed soldiers doing with memories of their dead friends.  Linda is, in essence, just like another fallen soldier who can be brought back to life, if only temporarily by remembering the details of her life, in this case her love of the red hat.

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The Things They Carried

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