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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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In The Things They Carried, why does Norman Bowker carry a thumb and its symbolism?

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The opening chapter of Tim O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried is an exhaustive list of the items carried by a small group of American soldiers in Vietnam. Amidst a litany of weapons and equipment, each described with their exact weight in ounces, O'Brien states that some soldiers carry items due to "superstition." Norman Bowker, described as "a very gentle person," carries the thumb of a dead Vietcong guerrilla.

A brief anecdote is attached to this item, and O'Brien shows Mitchell Sanders removing the thumb of the dead "fifteen or sixteen" year old boy and presenting it to Bowker as a gift. Interestingly, Sanders says that there is a definite "moral" to this gift. Examine the text as Bowker receives the present to understand the thematic importance of the thumb fully.

Henry Dobbins asked what the moral was.


"You know. Moral."

Sanders wrapped the thumb in toilet paper and handed it across to Norman Bowker. There was no blood. Smiling, he kicked the boy's head, watched the flies scatter, and said, "It's like with that old TV show—Paladin. Have gun, will travel."

Henry Dobbins thought about it.

"Yeah, well," he finally said. "I don't see no moral."

"There it IS, man."

For Sanders, the man who chopped the thumb from the body, his gift of a severed thumb symbolizes the futility of the war. For O'Brien and his characters, there is no nobility or morality to war. There is only death, violence, and suffering—nothing more.

The fact that the otherwise gentle-hearted Bowker continues to carry this grotesque "dark brown, rubbery to the touch" souvenir is fascinating because it reveals how exposure to extreme violence can dramatically change a person and reminds the audience that there is no "moral" to be found in the war as recorded through O'Brien's stories.

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Norman Bowker carries the thumb of a Viet Cong teenage boy that Mitchell Sanders cut off post mortem and "presented to him as a gift." It is not uncommon in war for soldiers to remove a portion of the enemy's body as a trophy, and some American soldiers in WWII collected and brought home Japanese skulls, leading the US military to ban this behavior. However, the practice persisted during the Vietnam War, as Tim O'Brien observes.

The collection of body parts could symbolize a couple of things. One is that it seeks to dehumanize the enemy, perhaps making it psychologically more acceptable to engage in the act of killing, when it is state-sanctioned. Another thing the act could symbolize is victory over the enemy, a validation of one's prowess as a warrior. It certainly symbolizes the psychological shift a combat soldier must make, for it is a behavior that suggests a deviance considered taboo in non-wartime society.

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The fact that Norman Bowker carried a thumb is one of the most arresting aspects of the first chapter. The thumb was from a dead Viet Cong boy that the soldiers found. Mitchell Sanders, looking at the dead boy's body swarming with flies, claimed that there was a "moral" to the scene they were seeing, a dead boy, body swarming with flies, at the bottom of an irrigation ditch. When Henry Dobbins asked him what the "moral" was, he cut the boy's thumb off and handed it to Bowker. Bowker kept it ever since, though he is described as a "gentle" man. The other thing he carries is a little more normal, and certainly more in keeping with his "gentle" persona. It is a diary. 

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