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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Student Question

What additional comparisons and contrasts can be drawn from "War" by Pirandello and a chapter from O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" regarding death's impact?

I am currently writing a compare and contrast essay in comp II for "War" by Luigi Pirandello and a chapter from "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. I am doing it on how death affects people. There are many differences to how soldiers are affected and how their families are affected when someone dies in battle.

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In The Things They Carried, I would choose "The Man I Killed," "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," and "The Lives of the Dead."  All of these stories are connected to Tim's view of death and how he is actually writing to women, his ideal readers, as part of a coping process.  He knows that if he can get a woman (his daughter, Linda, Lemon's sister, the "dumb cooze," or Martha) to understand war and death, then he has succeeded as a man, a soldier, and storyteller.

Most of the men, after they have killed, internalize their feelings, whether it be guilt, anger, depression, or loneliness.  Bowker's the best example: no one in his hometown listens to him, not his dad, not his ex-girlfried.  And so he kills himself because of a lack of communication.  For O'Brien, the best way to deal with death is to talk about it and, better yet, write about it.  Not only should one write about it, but he should write to someone who might even hate him for ever being a solider and killing in the first place: a woman (like Martha or Kathleen or Lemon's sister).

You have to decide why O'Brien does this: why are women his ideal audience for dealing with death?  Are women better listeners?  Does the wife, mother, and daughter comfort and forgive better than the male equivalents?  Are women able to give soldiers who've experienced death a better sense of purpose?  Is the female community at home, ironically, stronger than the male one that goes to war?

When a soldier dies, all the soldiers in the company loose something.  After O'Brien killed "the man I killed" he seems to have taken on the guilty feelings that Cross took on with Lavender's death.  The part of O'Brien that was killed with him, whether it be innocence or inexperience, was not replaced with something, like courage or guilt. O'Brien's point is that war first leads to a death of one's identity, and the lack of identity that follows is a vacuum that may be filled with guilt (Cross), fear (Lavender), an overdependence on camaraderie (Kiley), a rebellious spirit (Bell), or nothing at all (Azar).

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If you have the freedom to choose any story from The Things They Carried, I would suggest "In the Field" because of its focus on so many of the different characters' reaction to Kiowa's death.  Some make jokes about "a redskin biting the dust" to deal with their grief.  Some blame themselves--young Billy believes that his turning on his flashlight causes Kiowa's death--and simply zone out.  Lt. Jimmy Cross tries to escape mentally to the peaceful golf course back home rather than the swampy rice paddies of Vietnam.  He considers what he will write to Kiowa's father even as he thinks of just falling backward into the mud and letting it swallow him.

You could make comparisons between how the American soldiers in "In the Field" struggle to make meaning out of Kiowa's death while searching for his body just as the father in "War" tries to vocalize a justification for his son's death.  The father cannot really fathom the finality of his son's death just as the men in "In the Field" find various ways of psychologically escaping the reality of their comrade's demise.

In addition to comparing the differences in the characters' reaction to death, you might also compare/contrast how death affects a civilian versus a soldier and how the setting of each story affects the story's theme.

By the way, thanks for your service!  My husband's in the army.

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What chapter did you have in mind from The Things They Carried? If you are going to compare and contrast it with the short story by Pirandello, perhaps a good chapter might be the one entitled "The Lives of the Dead." In this chapter, O'Brien thinks back about the girl with whom he was in love in the 4th grade, a girl named Linda. Linda died of a brain tumor but O'Brien has kept her alive in his dreams, over the years. He understands that dealing with her death has determined the way he has dealt with death ever since, especially in Viet Nam, where death is everywhere. He also realizes that the stories that his men tell are also ways of keeping people alive even after they are dead. In learning how to deal with Linda's loss, O'Brien realizes that there are also ways of confronting the reality of death without becoming destoryed by it.

The short story by Pirandello deals with a man who also has experienced a death, that of his son, in the war. He has a conversation about his son, what he died for, etc., that on the surface sounds very philosophical and profound. However, when a woman asks him, "Then, is your son really dead?" the man breaks out into uncontrollable sobs. This shows, I believe, that while he can talk about his son's death in abstract terms, about the nobility of dying for one's country, the realization that his son is really dead is something altogether different.

I am in Blue Star Mothers - a group for moms whose kids are in the military. A blue star banner is hung in the window with a blue star for every child in the military. This practice began in World War I. Part of my job is acting as blue-to-gold liaison. This means that I visit families who have lost a child in the current wars (they are called gold star families - their blue star has turned to gold). Each of these families grieves in different ways and it is heartbreaking to share in their stories when someone dies in battle or in service to their country. Part of my job involves reporting on the various gold star banner presentations I make. Many of the other members in our group do not want to hear these reports and do not want to look at the memory books I prepare. For them, it is too real. They know, intellectually, that on any day, one of our kids could be killed, but facing the reality of what the gold star families actually ARE facing is bringing the war too close. It brings the deaths into reality, just like in this book and in the short story. We all know death is possible, but it is something that happens to someone else. Gold Star Mothers is a club that none of us Blue Star Mothers wants to be in.

Hope this helps.

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