The Things They Carried

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The Things They Carried The Man I Killed Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The story begins with a description of the dead man: jaw in his throat, one eye shot the other forming a star-shaped hole, thin womanly eyebrows, undamaged nose, neck open to see his spine--this was the wound that killed him. He lay on his back, dead, in the middle of the trail. He was thin and bony with a sunken chest, not many muscles, "a scholar maybe." He was maybe born in 1946 in My Khe with farmer parents where some of his family and neighbors fought back against the French for independence. He wasn't a Communist, but a soldier and citizen. From youth, "the man I killed" would have listened to stories about heroic fighters for his country and how this was of the highest duty and privilege for a soldier. The man accepted, but he secretly was scared because he wasn't a fighter. He enjoyed books, wanted to teach math. At night he tried to picture himself as a brave soldier, like his father and uncles had been, or the men in the stories. He kept hoping the war would end.
It becomes clear that this is the description of the man that O'Brien killed—if not already evident from the title. O'Brien, in writing out this history of the man he doesn't even know the name of, gives the man a way to live on eternally in his story. The parallels he draws to the man he killed and himself before the war show the guilt O'Brien feels for this man's death, because he sees himself in the young, dead man. The man was raised to believe he should be courageous and fight, just as O'Brien felt he was obligated to do. O'Brien mirrors himself in the man he killed, how they both felt obligated to fight. But through story O'Brien hopes to absolve some of this guilt, to give the man some kind of life.
Themes
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Social Obligation Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
Azar eggs O'Brien on, saying he "trashed that fucker." Kiowa steps in and tells Azar to go away. Kiowa tells O'Brien there's nothing else O'Brien could have done. He keeps repeating this, and urges O'Brien to stop staring at the corpse of the man he killed. Kiowa asks O'Brien if he'd prefer to be in the dead man's shoes. O'Brien keeps staring at the star-shaped hole. Kiowa comes back later tells O'Brien it's a war and he had no choice.
Kiowa acts as a calming presence for O'Brien. He tries to remind O'Brien that it's not like he killed a man for no reason on the street, war changes the moral definition of murder. The fact that Kiowa keeps returning to O'Brien shows that he's not just trying to help, but he's unsettled by the death as well.
Themes
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
O'Brien describes the man's face again, repeats the same details: the undamaged nose, the frail figure. He notes the man had feared being a bad soldier—didn't want to be a soldier—he had worried about it even as a boy growing up. He loved math and was teased at school for his feminine eyebrows. The man could never fight his bullies, though he wanted to, and this made him feel ashamed. If he couldn't do this on the playground, how could he fight the Americans? Around his family he pretended to be brave and that he looked forward to fulfilling his patriotic duty, but he prayed with his mother every night that the war would end. Most of all, he was afraid of being a disgrace to himself, his family, and his village.
O'Brien's inventions of the dead man's history continue to show O'Brien's grief at killing him. The strength of similarities he sees between the dead man and himself are amplified: they both felt obligated to fight in a war they didn't want to fight in, and what they feared most was the shame of letting the people they loved around them down. O'Brien's reiteration of these invented qualities gives the man he killed an eternal space in the world of the story. In this way, he's not completely dead.
Themes
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Social Obligation Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
Kiowa tells O'Brien he knows that O'Brien feels awful, and then says maybe he doesn't know. O'Brien keeps staring at the body and describes the wounds on the dead man's corpse, he notes a gold ring on his right hand. Kiowa tells O'Brien again to stop staring. O'Brien notes how clean the dead man's fingernails were, notes again he was maybe a scholar. O'Brien describes how even though the man came from poverty, he would have continued his education as a math scholar attending the University of Saigon in 1964. The man spent all his time working and a lot of time alone. The man knew the war would kill him, but he refused to think about it as he studied. In his last year at university he fell in love with a girl who liked him back. Maybe they exchanged gold rings. But now the man was dead.
The guilt keeps growing for O'Brien as he continues to stare at the body. Kiowa is unnerved by O'Brien's fixation on the corpse, but O'Brien continues to build a life for this dead man with his imagination to quell his guilt. The man's social obligation to fight matches O'Brien's. In this vignette, though, O'Brien gives the man romantic love, and speculates that the gold ring signified that the young man got to experience it in his life. But ultimately, he can't use the power of his imagination to absolve himself, because the man is dead.
Themes
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Social Obligation Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
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Kiowa covers the corpse with a poncho. Kiowa tells O'Brien that he seems like he's looking better. He tells O'Brien he just needed "some mental R&R." Then he says he's sorry, then asks O'Brien to talk about it. He keeps asking O'Brien to talk. The young dead man was about twenty, and he lay with a leg beneath him, his jaw in his throat, an inexpressive face, and a star-shaped hole in one eye. Kiowa tells O'Brien to "Talk."
All of O'Brien's efforts to create this new history, by the story's end, arrive at the blunt description of the dead young man. His guilt overpowers the need to write a new history. Kiowa is still unnerved, and thinks the only way to cure this is by talking. The next story, "Ambush", is O'Brien talking.
Themes
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon