The Things They Carried

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The Things They Carried Night Life Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
O'Brien notes that he wasn't there when Rat Kiley was wounded, but he got the story later from Mitchell Sanders. The platoon had been west of Quang Ngai City and had received intelligence about a likely enemy attack, which fueled a number of more outrageous rumors involving the Russians. The soldiers didn't take the rumors seriously, but they still only walked at night and stayed off of the main trails for two weeks. The troops began to call it "the night life." It made the task seem more bearable to them to play this linguistic trick when they would ask the other how the night life was going.
This deliberate play on words makes the task of walking through the nights more bearable. They used "night life," a term with a fun and rambunctious connotation, to describe a miserable task. O'Brien notes that this story was told to him secondhand by Mitchell Sanders, again re-iterating the importance of storytelling and how it is inevitable that stories are passed on, and important to say who passed them on to you.
Themes
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Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Sanders told O'Brien everyone was tense, but Rat Kiley took it the worst and it ended up with him in Japan. During the two weeks the routine was the same: sleep during the day (or try to) and then start marching single file at night. Sanders claimed it was the darkest dark he'd ever experienced. It was so dark it made you jittery and nervous, and you'd worry about being separated from the group. Different soldiers coped in different ways: Dave Jensen took vitamins high in carotene, Lt. Jimmy Cross took NoDoz, Henry Dobbins and Norman Bowker attached a safety wire between their two belts.
Everyone had difficulty coping with the darkness. The laundry list of coping mechanisms is reminiscent of the first story of the collection "The Things They Carried" with itemized lists of how different soldiers acted to deal with the risk of their own death.
Themes
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Rat Kiley, though, was different than all the rest. Perhaps it had been that he had seen too many dead bodies put into bags, and too much gore. Initially, Kiley was completely quiet and didn't talk for five or six days. Then he was incapable of not talking, but on odd subjects like how the worst thing in the war were the bugs—that they were mutant bugs who were out to get him. He believed they were whispering his name. Kiley started to scratch himself constantly on his bug bites, and he developed giant scabs, which he ripped off where he'd then scratch the open wounds. "It was a sad thing to watch," because it wasn't the old Rat Kiley.
Rat Kiley has finally had too much—he's seen so much death in the war and now, in the darkness, he can't escape it. Everyone knew that Rat Kiley was going off the rails, and it was sad to see because they knew it was the war that was doing it to him, and they were just as susceptible to falling prey to madness as Rat Kiley. It was sad because there was nothing they could do, and because they all knew it could happen to them, too.
Themes
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Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
To a degree, everyone was feeling off, though. Moving only at night was disorienting and often felt like they were chasing ghosts. Around midnight things always seemed to become "wild," and you could hear "a strange hum in your ears" that you couldn't identify. It was like you were walking through Vietnam's body, "some kind of protoplasm…the blood and the flesh."
The aimlessness that the soldiers feels parallels the meaninglessness that many feel about the war itself, and the purpose of life after the war. Notice the similarity between the description of walking at night and the description of Mary Anne's transformation in Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.
Themes
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Rat Kiley finally lost it. He no longer slept, and the nights were too much for him. One afternoon, before the platoon started to march again, he cracked in front of Mitchell Sanders. He wasn't crying, but he was close. Maybe he'd been in Vietnam too long, or maybe he wasn't fit to be a medic. He stared at the ones who would survive and picture them dead or without limbs. He couldn't make the images stop. Kiley said the days weren't terrible but the nights were, because that's when he started to see images of himself: "chunks," his own organs. The darkness was a kind of crystal ball. He couldn't take it anymore.
Rat Kiley has seen so much death that he can only see the living in terms of death. He can no longer see the life in anything. The darkness has driven him to the point of madness because he is only left with his thoughts, and when he can't see another soldier he can only picture himself dead.
Themes
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Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
Sanders didn't know how to react and they sat for a while in silence. Rat Kiley shook Sanders' hand and said he'd done the best he could. He rambled for a while about some of the guys they'd lost: Curt Lemon, Kiowa, and Ted Lavender. Kiley said he couldn't wrap his head around how people who "were so incredibly alive could get so incredibly dead." Kiley nearly laughed, and then said the war was a giant banquet for the bugs.
Rat Kiley essentially admits that he's bowing out of the war here. Even after all the death he has seen, he still can't understand the nature and immediacy of death—how it happens so instantaneously and with such permanence. He compares the war to a banquet for bugs—the bugs are the only ones that actually benefit from the war.
Themes
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Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
The next morning Rat Kiley shot himself through the foot. He'd doped himself up with items from his medical kit first. Sanders said that no one blamed him for what he did. When the chopper came to take Kiley away, there was some time to say goodbye. Lt. Jimmy Cross vouched that the shooting had been an accident. Henry Dobbins and Azar gave Kiley comic books to read in the hospital. Everyone stood in a circle around him, and tried to cheer him up "with bullshit about the great night life in Japan."
No-one tries to claim that Rat Kiley purposefully shot himself because everyone in the platoon understood what he was experiencing. They all know he's been pushed over the edge, so the "bullshit" about Japan and the night life is sad because it recognizes the effect the war has had on Kiley but also on the remaining men who can hardly see the joy in "night life" in the conventional sense of the word.
Themes
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Morality Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon