The Things They Carried

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The Things They Carried Church Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
One afternoon the platoon finds a nearly abandoned pagoda west of the Batangan Peninsula. Two monks live inside who hardly speak any English. They don't seem upset when the soldiers dig foxholes close by—though the younger one made a washing motion with his hands that no one could decipher. The older monk led everyone inside, which was in bad shape. Kiowa says you're not supposed to mess with churches, but they stay the night and use the pagoda as an operation base for the next week or so. On the second day the elder monk gave Lieutenant Jimmy Cross a cane chair and put it near the altar area, then bowed and gestured for him to use it. The old monk seemed proud. Another time, the younger monk gave out four ripe watermelons, and watched until the soldiers had completely eaten them. He made the washing motion with his hands again.
Even though there is a cultural gap, and a war is going on, the respect of a church still remains—particularly for Kiowa who doesn't feel right about using the pagoda as a base because it is a holy place for the monks. Even so, the monks bond with the platoon and show signs of respect in ways they can without language, by recognizing Jimmy Cross as the highest in command and giving him the chair. They feel, in some sense, obligated to show kindness to these soldiers, and the soldiers feel the same way in return.
Themes
Social Obligation Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
The monks were kind to everyone but particularly loved Henry Dobbins. They called him "Soldier Jesus." They helped him clean his gun, and though they never spoke they seemed to share a sense of understanding. Dobbins tells Kiowa that he thinks after the war he'll become a monk. Kiowa remarks he didn't realize Dobbins was a religious man. Dobbins says he isn't; he used to go to church as a kid. But as he got older he saw the material perks in being a minister, how it would be a good life, and though he believed in God what he was more interested in was being nice to people. But Dobbins says he could never be a minister because he's not smart enough for the sermons or answering the hard questions about life, like why God invented illness.
Dobbins thinks he isn't smart enough to be a priest, to understand all the intricacies and rules of religion and answer the hard questions of life. But the story suggests—through his connection to the monks, their love for him, their naming him "Soldier Jesus"—that maybe Dobbins is wrong. Maybe the answer to the hard questions is to be nice to each other. Maybe the answer is not to try to find a moral in the terrible and hard things, because there is no moral, but to react by being nice to each other.
Themes
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Social Obligation Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Dobbins asks after Kiowa's religious aspirations since Kiowa carries his Bible everywhere. Kiowa says it's because that's how he was raised, and he has never considered being a minister. Dobbins jokes he would love to see an Indian preacher (e.g. Kiowa). Kiowa says he likes churches though: it makes you feel good and peaceful to sit in them. Then he says what the soldiers are doing in the pagoda is wrong, they shouldn't be here because it's a church. Dobbins agrees.
Kiowa seems religious, but unlike Dobbins who has a religious teaching to impart—be nice to each other—Kiowa's religion is emptier. He carries the Bible because that was how he was raised. Yet religion seems to provide a kind of universal connection, and they both sense that the connection they are forcing between churches and war is wrong. In a church, it is notable, there is right and wrong.
Themes
Social Obligation Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
While this conversation is going on the monks have been cleaning Dobbins' gun. They finish and Dobbins reassembles it. He gives both monks a can of peaches and chocolate. He tells them to go. The monks bow and walk out. Dobbins makes the washing motion. He tells Kiowa that Kiowa is right about the pagoda, and they shouldn't be there. But he says, "All you can do is be nice. Treat them decent, you know?"
And yet, being nice is a deeper imperative. They shouldn't be in the church, but they have to be there. In the face of those quandaries, those complexities that Dobbins feels no smart enough to answer, being nice and treating people decently does seem like a humble but sufficient answer.
Themes
Social Obligation Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
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