What is the theme of "The Lives of the Dead" in The Things They Carried?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I actually found this story, out of all of the stories contained in this excellent collection of short stories, the most moving, personally. Although apparently the focus of this story on the death of O'Brien's first girlfriend whilst he was still at school seems curioiusly removed from the rest of the short stories, if we think carefully, we can see that it establishes a number of themes that are key to understanding the collection of stories as a whole.

Its central importance lies in the way that the inextricable relationship between life and death is explored. This short story indicates that the collection of stories that we read in this volume is not simply about the realities of war. O'Brien writes and remembers to help make sense of his life and the experiences he has endured, and part of that is how he relates to those who have died. As the story begins by saying, "stories can save us." Note how the story ends. Even though Linda died when she was nine, he can still remember her:

And yet, right here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can still see her as if throguh ice, as if I'm gazing into some other world, a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all... I'm skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the air and come down thirty years later, I realise it is as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story.

O'Brien creates an illusion of life that sustains and protects him from death and despair during his time in Vietnam and beyond. To cope with death and tragedy, O'Brien writes stories, just as his fellow soldiers have their own methods, such as shaking hands with corpses. For O'Brien, tellling stories to keep such figures as Lavender and Linda and Kiowa alive keeps himself alive.

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The Things They Carried

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