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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien
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What is the theme of "The Lives of the Dead" in The Things They Carried?

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The primary themes of “The Lives of the Dead” are humor, resurrection, and storytelling.

When O’Brien encounters the old man, dead in a pigpen, he “hadn’t yet developed a sense of humor” about the war. A sense of humor, it seems, is not something one loses as the horrors of war blight out a soldier’s humanity; rather, humor develops the longer a soldier is in Vietnam. The men in O’Brien’s platoon greet the body. They shake its hand and set it up against a fence, legs crossed. O’Brien has only been in-country for four days. He isn’t yet acquainted with death to the point they can share jokes.

The body makes him think of the first dead person he ever saw: Linda, a girl he loved at nine years old. She died of cancer not long after their date to see The Man Who Never Was, a war movie whose main character is a corpse. He remembers the way Linda watched the screen, smiling, while he looked away. She too had spent more time than O’Brien in the company of death. She seemed pleased to watch a dead man live on.

The heavily self-tranquilized Ted Lavender also deals calmly with the sight of death before he is shot in the head. “We got ourselves a nice mellow war today,” Lavender says after taking a few too many pills. While loading his body onto the helicopter, the men joke, talking to their dead friend and responding for him. “Mellow—a nice smooth war today,” his body tells the platoon. Like the old man in the pigpen, like O’Brien’s dreams where he and Linda skate under yellow floodlights, Ted Lavender is resurrected by memory. “That’s what a story does. The bodies are animated. You make the dead talk. They sometimes say things like, ‘Roger that.’ Or they say, ‘Timmy, stop crying, which is what Linda said to me after she was dead.”

“And as a writer now,” O’Brien later continues, “I want to save Linda’s life. Not her body—her life.” (164) He accomplishes this through memory mixed with imagination, just as he did the day he learned Linda had died:

And then I concentrated. I willed her alive. It was a dream, I suppose, or a daydream, but I made it happen. I saw her coming down the middle of Main Street, all alone. It was nearly dark and the street was deserted, no cars or people, and Linda wore a pink dress and shiny black shoes. I remember sitting down on the curb to watch. All her hair had grown back. The scars and stitches were gone.

O’Brien comes to know death. Like the others, he uses humor to slight it, to dehumanize his friends and adversaries and make the dead “seem not quite so dead.” The guys in the platoon tell stories; they make them up or recite them from the bible, “bringing body and soul back together, or … making new bodies for the souls to inhabit.” They add detail; they add jokes. Through their stories, the dead are resurrected: the corpse in the movie, Linda and Lavender, the past selves of living men sent to war.

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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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