illustration of the backside of a soldier in full military gear

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Chapter 22 Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581

The last story in The Things They Carried is “The Lives of the Dead.” In it, the narrator Tim O’Brien remembers the dead bodies that he has seen. He explains that stories are like dreams in which the dead can sit up and smile at you. Sometimes, he uses stories to dream about the people that he has lost, people like Ted Lavender, Kiowa, Curt Lemon, and a young girl he once loved named Linda.

O’Brien recalls when he first joined his platoon. They call in an air strike and afterward find a dead old man. Each member of the squad walks up to the old man and shakes his hand. They greet him by saying things like “pleased as punch.” They sit him in a chair and give him orange slices to keep him healthy. O’Brien will not join in with the others. Afterward, Kiowa joins him in a foxhole and explains that O’Brien did the right thing.

O’Brien also recalls a girl named Linda that he loved when he was nine years old. They went on a date together with O’Brien’s parents. Linda showed up wearing an unusual red cap that covered her head, which little Timmy thinks is sophisticated and unusual. They go to see a film called The Man Who Never Was. It is set during the Second World War, and in it the British arrange for a corpse to be parachuted into the ocean. It washes up on the German shore with detailed plans about the British strategy. However, the documents are just a misdirection, and the ploy wins the British the war. Back in school, Linda continues to wear the cap every day. One boy, Nick Veenhof, always tries to take off her cap, and Timmy never acts to stop him. In class, Nick asks permission to sharpen his pencil and when he returns to his desk he manages to finally remove the red cap from Linda’s head. Underneath, she is nearly bald and has a band-aid across her scalp. She dies soon after of a brain tumor. Timmy goes to see the body and is struck by how dead and heavy her body looks. At night, however, he sometimes dreams about Linda, who tells him that it is OK and that once someone lives they can never die.

Now, Tim O’Brien writes stories that are like dreams in which people like Linda can come back and talk to him. He remembers friends like Kiowa and for a moment in his writing they can come back and talk to him like in a dream. Looking back, he realizes that the soldiers in his platoon, who would sometime shake hands with the dead, were doing something similar. They were making the dead seem “not quite so dead.” They are kept alive in stories. When he writes his stories, O’Brien enters a place where

there are no bodies at all. I can see Kiowa, too, and Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon, and sometimes I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I’m young and happy. I’ll never die. 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 dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.

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Chapter 21 Summary