The Things They Carried

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Norman Bowker Character Analysis

Awarded seven medals in the war. He returns from Vietnam tortured with guilt about the death of Kiowa and feels responsible. He hides this guilt under the regret that he didn't win the Silver Star. He asks O'Brien to write a story about how great of a soldier he was. He hangs himself in his hometown YMCA after the war.

Norman Bowker Quotes in The Things They Carried

The The Things They Carried quotes below are all either spoken by Norman Bowker or refer to Norman Bowker. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Houghton Mifflin edition of The Things They Carried published in 1990.
Speaking of Courage Quotes

Courage was not always a matter of yes or no. Sometimes it came in degrees, like the cold; sometimes you were very brave up to a point and then beyond that point you were not so brave. In certain situations you could do incredible things, you could advance toward enemy fire, but in other situations, which were not nearly so bad, you had trouble keeping your eyes open. Sometimes, like that night in the shit field, the difference between courage and cowardice was something small and stupid.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Norman Bowker
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien tells this story from the perspective of his platoon member Norman Bowker after he has returned to the small town in which he grew up after the war. Norman is still consumed with guilt for not being able to save Kiowa after he was blown up in the "shit fields." In order to not blame himself directly, he keeps the imaginative focus on how he failed to get the Silver Star, but he was close. He imagines riding in the car around town with his father, telling him the story of how close he had been. How even in his imagination his father cannot make him feel guiltless for Kiowa's death.

In describing the shit fields during combat, Norman highlights the fragility of mortality and the unpredictable strength of one's moral compass. The horrors and stresses of war put so much pressure on people that in the moment it's impossible to know how one will react. Courage takes on different forms, then, since no man was one way at all times. There was no guarantee one would be brave in response to danger. On the night Kiowa died, courage and cowardice are measured in minutia—the variables are so small that one's inner turmoil almost seems banal compared to something as final as death. Norman blames his inability to save Kiowa on the fact that the shit fields smelled so terrible that he could not continue to hold onto Kiowa's boot - instead letting him sink below the muck. He insists he could have been able to save him but for the overpowering stench. That small fact, and Norman's reaction to it, plague him at all times. He cannot accept the honors of his other medals or value his survival. Those gestures from the army are meaningless to him because Kiowa is dead. Winning the Silver Star would mean he would have lived, so the medal becomes a symbol of impossible achievement. 

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Notes Quotes

Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Norman Bowker
Page Number: 153-154
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien reflects on writing "Speaking of Courage" about Norman Bowker, and he now wants to go beyond that story to actually change it in hindsight. He feels it necessary to insist upon the fact that Norman did not suffer from a lack of bravery or skill when Kiowa died and he missed the opportunity to win the Silver Star. Instead, O'Brien shoulders the blame himself for Kiowa's death (even though in that actual time and place, he had nothing to do with it). In war, blame is an all-consuming feeling that touches everyone. Blame avoids being assigned a clear agent in war as well, meaning that everyone can come to believe that a certain, immaterial event was their fault. Both Norman and O'Brien can rightfully believe Kiowa's death happened because of them, and they could both be right and wrong at the same time. O'Brien wants to emphasize at the story's end that he is solely responsible for Kiowa's passing. 

O'Brien even blames himself for Norman's death, now, because in the original iteration of the story he didn't include Kiowa, or the shit fields, or Vietnam. He hopes that this new version of the story lives up to what Norman would want to be told about him to the world, and believes that because he failed to do that the first time around perhaps Norman could not bear to live with the truth of his experiences alone. Stories help make it possible for O'Brien to live, and Norman was never able to properly tell his, which contributed to his suicide. 

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Norman Bowker Character Timeline in The Things They Carried

The timeline below shows where the character Norman Bowker appears in The Things They Carried. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Things They Carried
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...floss, and soap. Ted Lavender ("who was scared") carries tranquilizers. Mitchell Sanders carries condoms. Norman Bowker carries a diary. Rat Kiley carries comic books. Kiowa carries a copy of the New... (full context)
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...they carry are determined by superstition: Lieutenant Jimmy Cross' pebble, Dave Jensen's rabbit foot, Norman Bowker carries a dead man's thumb that was a gift from Mitchell Sanders. Mitchell Sanders said... (full context)
Spin
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O'Brien often only remembers fragments. He recalls Norman Bowker one night lying down, watching the stars, and saying to O'Brien if he could have... (full context)
How to Tell a True War Story
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...near a trail leading into the jungle. Mitchell Sanders was playing with his yo-yo, Norman Bowker and Kiowa and Dave Jensen were trying to nap. Except for Rat Kiley and Curt... (full context)
Speaking of Courage
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The war has ended and Norman Bowker has returned home. It's the Fourth of July and he's driving his father's Chevy around... (full context)
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Most of Norman Bowker's friends have moved away. Sally Kramer was now Sally Gustafson. The third day he was... (full context)
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Norman Bowker drives past Slater Park and past Sunset Park. If Sally wasn't married and if his... (full context)
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Norman Bowker enjoys the feel inside the car, as if it were a tour bus, except he... (full context)
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Bowker spots four workmen setting up the fireworks. Bowker whispers whether they want to hear about... (full context)
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Bowker would have told the story of that night with the "exact truth." They took mortar... (full context)
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Bowker parks his father's Chevy at the A&W. A slim waitress passed by, but she didn't... (full context)
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...with fries over the intercom. The voice responded with "Affirmative, copy clear. No rootie-tootie," which Bowker found out meant root beer and ordered a small one. "Roger-dodger. Mama, one fries, one... (full context)
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On the tenth go around the lake, Bowker thinks, "There was nothing to say. He could not talk about it and never would."... (full context)
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On Bowker's twelfth circulation, the fireworks start to go off. He parks, gets out of his car,... (full context)
Notes
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O'Brien notes that he wrote "Speaking of Courage" in 1975 after Norman Bowker asked him to. Three years after that, Bowker hanged himself in the YMCA locker room... (full context)
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Bowker confides in his letter that there's nowhere for his life to go. He says it's... (full context)
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At the end of the letter Bowker says that he read O'Brien's first book, which he mostly liked except for the politics.... (full context)
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O'Brien says that Bowker's letter really affected him. He says that he felt "a certain smugness" after the war... (full context)
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...his writing explicitly like therapy, and he still doesn't. But after receiving the letter from Bowker he realized that the stories he was writing were important because it prevented them from... (full context)
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Bowker's letter haunts O'Brien. A month later O'Brien decided to write Bowker's story. At the time... (full context)
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...his mind. When the story was published in an anthology, he sent a copy to Bowker. Bowker's reply was short and sour, saying it wasn't "terrible" but he asked where the... (full context)
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O'Brien says that it has been a decade since Bowker's death at the time of re-writing "Speaking of Courage." He hopes that it "makes good... (full context)
In the Field
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The search was slow going. Azar, Norman Bowker, and Mitchell Sanders searched along the edge of the field. Azar said Kiowa would find... (full context)
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...of moccasins and a copy of the New Testament. Sanders says Kiowa must be close. Bowker says they should tell Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, but Sanders refuses, claiming it's Cross' fault Kiowa... (full context)
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Azar, Norman Bowker, and Mitchell Sanders are across the field still searching. It's almost noon when Bowker finds... (full context)
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Azar sits next to Bowker and says he doesn't mean anything bad by the jokes he tells. Azar feels like... (full context)
The Ghost Soldiers
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...Alpha Company came to the HQ. Mitchell Sanders, Azar, Henry Dobbins, Dave Jensen, and Norman Bowker all shook O'Brien's hand and he drove them to their quarters. They partied until it... (full context)
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Bowker continues with the story of Morty Phillips. Near My Khe on a scorching day, everyone... (full context)
Night Life
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...Jensen took vitamins high in carotene, Lt. Jimmy Cross took NoDoz, Henry Dobbins and Norman Bowker attached a safety wire between their two belts. (full context)