The Things They Carried

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The Things They Carried Field Trip Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
A few months after Tim O'Brien finished writing "In the Field" he brings his daughter, Kathleen, with him to Vietnam to visit the field where Kiowa died. He's looking for "forgiveness or personal grace or whatever else the land might offer."
O'Brien feels obligated to show his daughter his history in addition to feeling an obligation to returning to the place that changed him, hoping it will offer him relief.
Themes
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Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
The field is not as O'Brien remembers it: smaller, not as scary, and mostly dry. He thinks the place is peaceful now. He sees two farmers along the river repairing the same dike Kiowa's body had rested on after five men pulled him out of the muck. A farmer looks up at O'Brien, but then goes back to work. O'Brien feels amazed by the fact that twenty years have passed.
The moment strikes a stark contrast between the vast and hopeless feeling we experience when reading about the night Kiowa died compared to this place where farmers are working in order to cultivate land that, to O'Brien and his platoon, was just a shit field.
Themes
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Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
Kathleen is in a jeep with a government interpreter. O'Brien doesn't think either knows why he insisted on making the two-hour journey from Quang Ngai City in the August heat to that particular field. Kathleen gets out of the car and tells O'Brien she thinks the field smells terrible. O'Brien agrees. She asks if they can leave, and he promises they will soon.
O'Brien keeps secret from his daughter and the interpreter his motives for going to the field because while he feels like it is something he has to do, he thinks that they won't understand.
Themes
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Social Obligation Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
O'Brien conceived of the trip as a birthday present for Kathleen, who had just turned ten. He wanted to show her the world and some of his history. One morning Kathleen asked O'Brien what the purpose of the war had been, and why everyone had been so angry. O'Brien says people weren't mad, "some people wanted one thing, other people wanted another thing." Kathleen asks what O'Brien wanted and he says, "To stay alive." She continues by asking why O'Brien was in Vietnam, and he says he didn't have a choice. She still questions why, and he resolved, "it's a mystery." Kathleen was quiet the rest of the day, but that night she approached O'Brien and accused him of being weird—how some "dumb thing happens a long time ago and you can't ever forget it." O'Brien asks if that's a bad thing, and she says it isn't—it's just weird.
O'Brien's answer to his daughter regarding the purpose of the war shows that after twenty years he still hasn't found a purpose or meaning in why he was sent to Vietnam—it's still a mystery to him too. Kathleen can't qualify her father's inability to move on as bad or good, just weird. It's not a moral question, rather it's a part of O'Brien's personality she doesn't understand.
Themes
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O'Brien wonders, as he looks out over the field, whether they made a mistake and went to the wrong place because it seems too calm and quiet. He tries to remember Kiowa's face. He thought of how the field had swallowed Kiowa as well as O'Brien's pride, his ability to believe in himself as a courageous, dignified man. Even though he thought of the field that way, O'Brien couldn't find emotion to accompany it, and blamed his inability to feel on the conditions of the night Kiowa died. O'Brien thinks of how he's struggled to show empathy and passion throughout his life and how he has blamed the field and what happened there for this emotional block.
There's a cruelty in the peace of the field to O'Brien because he believes it already took so much from him—so for it to be at peace is an affront to what he feels is a lack of personal progress. O'Brien has always blamed the field for his emotional shortcomings, and it exists as a calm and peaceful part of the Vietnamese countryside, with no physical markers of the war while he is still haunted by it every day.
Themes
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
O'Brien wanders along the river and watches the two farmers' work, takes more photos, and waves. Kathleen asks if they can leave, and he promises they will soon. O'Brien retrieves a bundle from the back of the car that he'd brought from home. Kathleen asks what it is, but he doesn't say—so she follows him out of the jeep while he walks back to the field. O'Brien walks to a point where the field merges into shallow water. O'Brien tells Kathleen he's going for a swim. She watches O'Brien unwrap the bundle, and Kiowa's old moccasins are inside.
O'Brien is here to bury Kiowa's moccasins into the marsh, a task he'd kept secret from Kathleen during their trip. He brought the moccasins because O'Brien wanted to bury part of Kiowa where he died, and he thinks if he's the one to do it, it will help assuage some of his guilt over his friend's death.
Themes
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Social Obligation Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
O'Brien strips down to his underwear and wades in. Kathleen says what O'Brien is doing is stupid. O'Brien got to where the water reached his knees and decided that was where Mitchell Sanders found Kiowa's rucksack. O'Brien sits into the muck and then wedges the moccasins into the bottom of the marsh. He tries to think of something to say, but can't. He eventually says, "Well…There it is." He wanted to confess to Kiowa how great of a friend he'd been.
O'Brien is at a loss for words because he has twenty years worth of things to say, but they are an unspeakable mixture of love and sadness and guilt. And so he says "There it is." And that does capture his feelings, because in that moment for him this field is all there is, Kiowa's death is all there is—in that moment. And the moccasins are all he has to offer as apology.
Themes
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Morality Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
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O'Brien thinks that maybe he went under with Kiowa, and after twenty years he's getting closer to emerging. One of the old farmers is watching O'Brien, and O'Brien stares back. O'Brien "felt something go shut in [his] heart while something else swung open." He wondered whether the old farmer would come over to exchange war stories, but he goes back to work after saying something to the other working farmer. He lifts his shovel up over his head "grimly, like a flag." O'Brien gets out of the water.
O'Brien thinks that maybe he's close to finally getting out from under the muck, because a part of him died the night Kiowa did. He thinks maybe he's healing The comparison of the old farmer raising his shovel like a flag shows the boundaries between these men still based on nationality, but they're not raising guns, they're raising tools to work on cultivating their land.
Themes
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Kathleen says her father looks like a mess, and threatens to tell O'Brien's wife. O'Brien agrees, and says Kathleen shouldn't tell her mother what he did. Kathleen looks back over the field when they get to the car. She asks if the old farmer is mad at O'Brien. O'Brien says he hopes not. Kathleen says the old farmer looks mad, but O'Brien assures her he's not. "All that's finished."
O'Brien's insistence that the old farmer isn't mad is important because it shows that the war is over in the happening-sense. It just exists for O'Brien in the realm of the story. The water that once took Kiowa is now the water that sustains crops; the positive and negative forces have flipped.
Themes
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Social Obligation Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon