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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Why does Tim O'Brien, as the writer, "kill" Ted Lavender and not any other character in The Things They Carried? What is significant of his death?

Tim O'Brien "kills" Ted Lavender in The Things They Carried in order to show the profound effect on Lavender's platoon leader, Jimmy Cross, who feels guilty for the death of a man under his command. Lavender's death is significant because it occurs early in the narrative and is used as a chronological marker for other events.

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The death of Ted Lavender serves a structural purpose in the story’s plot. Through relating the killing of one member of the company, author Tim O’Brien shows how all the unit’s other members reacted to it and distinguishes the individual reaction of each member. In addition, O’Brien uses the way that Lavender was killed to make a point about the randomness of war. An unseen enemy shooter hit Lavender as he returned from checking a tunnel; the soldier was not killed in battle. As all the men were rather relaxed at that moment, each of them realizes that they might have been the target of the fatal bullet.

O’Brien identifies Lavender as an anxious person who needed tranquilizers to cope with service. Among the “things” that all the men carry, this soldier carries pills. By emphasizing Lavender’s mental state and his attempts to cope with it, the author demonstrates the psychological effects of combat service. O’Brien also introduces irony by associating the anatomical location of Ted’s fatal injury—his head—with his mental condition.

Among the individual reactions that O’Brien mentions, that of the lieutenant is especially significant. While it does not seem that Lieutenant Cross could have prevented the killing, as the shooter seems to have been hidden some distance away, Cross still feels guilty. The author shows that officers carry different kinds of “things” than the enlisted men, especially the sense of responsibility for the other men’s lives.

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Tim O'Brien in fact kills several of the characters in The Things They Carried. Kiowa and Curt Lemon also die during the course of the book, and so does the author's childhood sweetheart, Linda (though not in Vietnam). Then there are the Vietnamese characters who are not described until they are already dead: the young mathematical scholar in "The Man I Killed" and the old man with whose corpse the soldiers shake hands in the final story, "The Lives of the Dead."

Ted Lavender's death, however, is significant for several reasons. It is the first death to be mentioned in the book. While O'Brien is giving a litany of the things the soldiers carried with them, he casually mentions that Lavender "was shot in the head" in the same breath as he says that Lavender carried tranquilizers. The two facts about Lavender that are constantly reiterated are his death and his drug habit. There is also a sense in which he is more of a landmark than a character, since events are always being placed chronologically in relation to his death.

Lavender's death is also important because of the effect it has on his commanding officer, Jimmy Cross. It is the death of this member of his platoon that wakes Cross up, if only temporarily, to the realities of war and makes him concentrate on being a leader instead of thinking constantly of the girl he left behind.

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I'm not sure what you mean by "kill."  O'Brien doesn't use the...

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active verb "kill."  It's the passive verb phrase "was shot," "was dead," and "was shot and killed."  All of it is in passive voice.

The first mention of Lavender's death is on page 2:

Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.

The death is described matter-of-factly, in passive voice.  O'Brien describes the death as if it were an everyday occurrence, like the rain or a new mission.  It's part of war.  It's something else to carry.

There is no one physically responsible for the death in Alpha Company.  We must assume that a VC sniper took Lavender out with a head shot.  Morally, all the men feel guilty for it, Cross the most.

Later, the third-person omniscient narration says on page 7: Ted Lavender was dead because he lover her so much and could not stop thinking about her.

So, it is Lt. Jimmy Cross who feels the most guilt for Lavender's death, not O'Brien.  He carries the weight of the dead body literally and figuratively (on his conscience):

But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was shot and killed outside Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighted fear.

O'Brien has Lavender killed to serve several purposes: Lavender is a symbol of unweighed fear.  The function of Lavender is to be a doppelganger, a ghostly twin to haunt Cross (a Christ-figure), the one who feels the most guilt for his death.  The novel begins with a death here, much like Hamlet does with the Ghost, and Lavender's death hangs over the story and novel as a whole.  Like the Ghost in Hamlet, Lavender will keep reappearing.  A major motif, as you know, is the ghost in The Things They Carried.  Observe some of the titles of the other stories: "Ghost Soldiers"; "Lives of the Dead"; "The Man I Killed."

The purpose of storytelling, according to O'Brien, is to bring the dead back to life through memory: it is to resurrect ghosts.  That is both the painful and joyous task of a writer: to turn a war story into a love story by honoring the dead.

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