In "The Things They Carried", why does O'Brien relate his experience as a pig declotter?

Expert Answers
kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the section of his book The Things They Carried titled “On the Rainy River,” Tim O’Brien describes the period of his life when he was inducted into the army to fight in war the purpose of which he found uncertain and the shedding of blood within which he found nonsensical.  After this discussion of his political opposition to the war and the somewhat ambivalent approach he had taken to express that opposition, O’Brien pauses to relate the story of when he worked at a meatpacking plant in his hometown in Minnesota.  His job was removing blood clots from the necks of the dead pigs, a position for which he labeled himself “Declotter.”  O’Brien provides a detailed description of the process by which the pigs are slaughtered and gutted as part of the process by which their remains are processed into food for human consumption.  In relating this story of a position he held prior to his induction into the armed forces, O’Brien is drawing a parallel between the slaughterhouse and the slaughter to which he would soon become an integral part: the war in Vietnam.  Describing the sensations that accompanied his work in the meatpacking plant, the author writes the following:

 “At night I'd go home smelling of pig. It wouldn't go away. Even after a hot bath, scrubbing hard, the stink was always there—like old bacon, or sausage, a dense greasy pig-stink that soaked deep into my skin and hair. Among other things, I remember, it was tough getting dates that summer. I felt isolated; I spent a lot of time alone. And there was also that draft notice tucked away in my wallet.”

O’Brien is indicating that he is transitioning from one slaughterhouse to another, and that, just as he could never quite cleanse himself of the stench of the meat plant, he will be unable to ever fully rinse from his body and mind the stench of the bloodletting he will witness in Vietnam.

mr-robitaille eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For one thing, O'Brien describes his job as a pig declotter in the most gory manner possible. This is because he wants the reader to know why he does not want to go to Vietnam. It is not because he is afraid of blood. Blood is something he works with every day. Also, because of his summer job, he comes home every day smelling like a pig. Therefore, his reason for not wanting to go to the war is also not because he is afraid to get his hands dirty, despite the fact that he has described himself as a scholar. This helps to drive home the point that he wants to stay out of the war because of his principles, which is really the point of this chapter.

Read the study guide:
The Things They Carried

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question