The Things They Carried

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Mortality and Death Theme Analysis

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The threat, even expectation, of death hangs over all of the soldiers in The Things They Carried. Even before he reaches Vietnam, Tim O'Brien (both the author of the collection and the frequent first person narrator) meditates on the inevitability of his death after he is drafted in "On The Rainy River," and considers dodging the draft and fleeing to Canada. The collection is haunted by the deaths of O'Brien's comrades—Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon, and Kiowa. The thoughts of the soldiers and the narrative itself circle around and around these soldiers deaths, trying and failing over and over to process and understand what happened, and showing how the deaths impact the thoughts and actions of the soldiers who remain both during and after the war.

The Things They Carried depicts death during the Vietnam War as being completely arbitrary, with the difference between those who survive and those who die being nothing more than luck. Death can come at any time, from any direction, and no manner of precaution (in Ted Lavender's case, it was always carrying an extra magazine of ammo on his gun) and no amount of faith (Kiowa carried the New Testament in his backpack) could keep a man alive. Death came as a random bullet for Lavender, a hidden trap for Lemon, and unexpected mortar fire for Kiowa. The soldiers, unable to either predict when death might come or protect themselves against it, come to anticipate dying at any moment, at every moment, to the point that it drives some of them mad, such as Rat Kiley. From brushes with death (O'Brien being shot twice, nearly dying the second time), the value of life—of still being alive after battle—becomes majestically amplified.

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Mortality and Death Quotes in The Things They Carried

Below you will find the important quotes in The Things They Carried related to the theme of Mortality and Death.
The Things They Carried Quotes

They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the river and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility. Their principles were in their feet.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien describes the monotony of war. Though the common thread of the story is Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's picture of Martha, O'Brien also touches on the death of Ted Lavender and weaves it through these bulky descriptions of the men marching, carrying different items. O'Brien uses this language of hard labor and repetition to simulate the boredom of walking, the tediousness of doing the same thing for hours upon hours while miserable and tired. The men did not march out of any force of will: they were not marching out of patriotism or social obligation or fear, they simply marched. Their bodies became thoughtless and mechanic in action. In becoming like machines, the men could divorce themselves from the reality of war. Machines do not have to think or feel guilt or be afraid of the never-ending threat of death. Instead of marching under the weight of all their pain, they simply become one with the action. Morality is defined by the " their feet." There is no right or wrong in the abstract, just the stop and go of their steps. As they march, the bigger questions of life are of no consequence, and by extension, the crippling answers and their effects aren't a factor either. This way of viewing marching is miserable but also cathartic for O'Brien and the men. It allows them to zone out, to turn their minds off the war entirely. 


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For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn't, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die. In different ways, it happened to all of them.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

No one is immune from reacting in wartime, O'Brien suggests here. The men all displayed these exceptional reactions in their behavior. Reduced to a pure survival instinct, they did things they would otherwise be ashamed of: begging for their lives, discharging weapons without cause, making promises to their parents and God. In war, where mortality is always on the line, the senses are constantly heightened and the men are united by their shared fear. They accept that if one becomes hysterical with fear then they all have or will become hysterical too. The shame one would feel in civilized society for acting this way is not felt in the same magnitude in wartime, given their bond and shared experience. The social rules do not apply in war, and particularly in a war like Vietnam (or so O'Brien implies). No one is safe from the fear of dying. 

Lavender was dead. You couldn't burn the blame.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Ted Lavender
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross burns all of his letters from his sweetheart, Martha, back in the United States. He is riddled with guilt over Ted Lavender's death. He believes that had he not been so distracted by constantly thinking about Martha, then he would have been a better leader and been able to prevent Lavender from being shot and killed. He realizes that burning the letters is a sentimental gesture, and will not change the fact that Lavender is gone. The blame he feels is monstrous and enormous, but there is no way to burn it, to make it disappear.

It's suggested that Cross also knows that the life he remembers with Martha is gone. She does not love him anymore - they are in different worlds. He is resolved to become a better Lieutenant, which he believes to mean accepting this new reality where he is alone and his only responsibility is leading his men and keeping them safe. So, for now, he does the only thing he has control over and burns the symbol of Martha, which was keeping him tethered to the old world outside of Vietnam. It will not make his guilt go away, but it's something he can do to fight it. 

This was not Mount Sebastian, it was another world, where there were no pretty poems or midterm exams, a place where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity. Kiowa was right. Boom-down, and you were dead. Never partly dead.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Kiowa, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross
Page Number: 22-23
Explanation and Analysis:

The rules of life have changed for Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. In his life before the war, big events centered around things like pretty poems and midterm exams. His social obligations were tied to school, family, or finding love. In war, however, the big event is life itself and the constant threat of it being taken away in an instant. In war, the smallest action can get you killed. As O'Brien emphasizes several times, this is a total result: no one gets sort of killed, you are either alive or you aren't. These were not the stakes for Cross back in America where, at worst, he ran the risk of being heartbroken by Martha—there a thoughtless movement could not have absolutely final consequences. In Vietnam, though, every little thing he does not only determines whether he stays alive, but whether his men stay alive. This burden dwarfs the memory (and even the morality) of the old world Cross used to inhabit in Mount Sebastian. His reality is different now, and there is no turning back. 

Love Quotes

For a few moments he considered asking her to his room, but instead he laughed and told her how back in college he'd almost done something very brave. It was after seeing Bonnie and Clyde, he said, and on this same spot he'd almost picked her up and carried her to his room and tied her to the bed and put his hand on her knee and just held it there all night long. It came close, he told her—he'd almost done it. Martha shut her eyes. She crossed her arms at her chest, as if suddenly cold, rocking slightly, then after a time she looked at him and said she was glad he hadn't tried it. She didn't understand how men could do those things. What things? he asked, and Martha said, The things men do. Then he nodded. It began to form. Oh, he said, those things.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Martha
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Lieutenant Cross is visiting with Tim O'Brien many years after the war has ended and they have both returned home. He is telling O'Brien about how since he returned from the war, he saw his old flame Martha again at their class reunion. He maintains that he still loves her, and he discloses that when they saw each other again, he confessed to her that the night he walked her to the same place they were standing near her dorm at the reunion he wanted to take her upstairs, tie her to the bed, "and put his hand on her knee and just [hold] it there all night long." This harkens back to the title story in The Things They Carried where Lieutenant Cross can't stop thinking about touching Martha's knee while they both watch "Bonnie and Clyde" (page 4). 

When Cross tells Martha about wanting to touch her knee all those years ago, she does not react well. She cowers a little, crosses her arms, and appears cold. She tells him that she is glad he did not do that, and can't "understand how men could do those things." She leaves this in the abstract, even when Cross asks her to explain. "The things men do." Yet, he does not push her on the question because the answer makes sense in a way: "[the answer] began to form." Cross learned in the war, as O'Brien did, that the whole truth, the whole answer, is never available. He has come to accept the discomfort of uncertainty for what is true, and on top of that he has witnessed the horrors of war, the horrors of what men to do each other. Martha knows this too after she spent years as a combat nurse on mission trips throughout the world. She is not blind to the world he saw in Vietnam. In their world, men go off to fight one another, men start these wars. What men do, then, is inexplicable to her, and it is inexplicable to Cross as well. They are both caught in this double bind without answers to the big "why" of war and killing and lost love, but she can say she is glad he did not tie her up and touch her knee all night. That is something she can understand and react to, however strange it may be. 

Spin Quotes

The bad stuff never stops happening: it lives in its own dimension, replaying itself over and over.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

The memories of the war never stop replaying for O'Brien. It is like a tape on loop. O'Brien cannot look back on death as an event—instead he lives with the constant recall of the moments before his friends' deaths and then the deaths themselves. The feedback loop is endless and exists in a world of its own, a different "dimension." The title, "Spin," encourages this sensation of recurrence in the story. O'Brien is no longer fighting the war in Vietnam, but he can never escape the memories. Insofar as that is the case, he can never really see the end of war, and thus never see the end of guilt and trauma.

But the thing about remembering is that you don't forget. You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present. The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up on your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets. As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you. That's the real obsession. All those stories.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien often feels guilty for still writing war stories. He is forty-three years old and his daughter, Kathleen, asks him why he won't write stories about getting her a pony. At forty-three, O'Brien is years out of fighting the war and he can't stop writing about it. Writing about it means that he must remember Vietnam, and in remembering something you necessarily must not forget it (as he states rather obviously but also ironically here). For O'Brien, writing anything else is impossible, because writing comes from life experience. Even fantasy stories are informed by the things he has done in reality, and the most affecting reality O'Brien experienced is in wartime. He has become obsessed with writing to make sense of these experiences. His fascination is not with the retelling of facts or events—memories cycle in his head over and over anyway—the "magical" part is when imagination enters that cycle and stories spring forth from the endless spin of recollections. In those stories that are born from experience, O'Brien can find meaning in the amorality of war and revisit the friends and innocence he lost. 

That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 35-36
Explanation and Analysis:

Stories defy life and death—something very important to O'Brien, particularly in the face of the deaths he has witnessed in war. As he claims here, stories exist as entities unto themselves that can be passed from person to person. Without a history, without any memories or a past, a story can still make sense. A story can envelop you when you are lost, with no memory of how you arrived at the present. 

O'Brien finds solace in the escapism of storytelling. He can define his own rules for morality and life and death. In stories, he can absolve himself of guilt, and can converse with friends who are no longer alive. He can relive the brotherhood he felt while he was fighting in the war. There is a safety in the world of stories that is constant and unchanging. It's the creation of something different and separate, where he can hide from the demons of his past. 

On the Rainy River Quotes

I felt myself blush. I couldn't tolerate it. I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn't make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that's all it was. And right then I submitted. I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien is on a boat with Elroy Berdahl, who is housing him near the Canadian border. O'Brien has fled from his town and his job in a panic, to prevent being sent to Vietnam after he's drafted. Elroy seems to know why O'Brien is so afraid, and does not ask him his reasons for being at the empty Tip Top lounge. He takes O'Brien out on his boat, and when they are no more than twenty yards from the Canadian shore, more than close enough to swim across and escape, O'Brien is struck with overwhelming shame. The embarrassment he experiences simply thinking about not going to the war is enough to make him go to Vietnam and potentially die. His reasons for fighting are not to defend America or its ideals, but instead to not be embarrassed. This is an important admission, and emphasizes O'Brien's common claims that war is not only about high ideals or even about constant violence, but just as often it's about petty emotions, drudgery, and shame. It is not very heroic, but it is very human for him to risk his life just to avoid embarrassment.

The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien here fast-forwards through his drive back home from the Canadian border, through the settings of the war itself, and back to America, where he returned after surviving combat. This is not a happy ending, he insists. He is a soldier who fought and he is also a coward. He cannot give himself credit for being a brave soldier, because his reasons for fighting were not noble. He went to the frontline only because he feared embarrassment more than death. In his mind, he cannot be championed as a hero or a patriot because his intent was self-preservation. Indeed, as O'Brien sees it, there might have been something more "heroic" about just going through with his plan for fleeing America and the war altogether.

How to Tell a True War Story Quotes

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

According to O'Brien, war stories do not abide by conventional rules of storytelling, in the sense that the moral and factual truth is not fixed. O'Brien provides a calculus for determining whether a war story is true, and says that if it makes you feel as though there is moral justice, then you have been duped. If it makes you feel like you have learned a lesson about how people should act, you have been duped. True war stories are bound by their absolute "allegiance to obscenity and evil," because they are intended to work out the darkest parts of man's behavior and thinking. War is one of the only occasions where humans are reduced to their basest actions in defense of their lives, which means civilized moral thinking is thrown out the window. Anything to stay alive goes, and that total immorality makes life unlivable and nonsensical to a society that is not at war. The stories about war, then, cannot be in service of proving some fundamental human good or larger lesson about how to live, because this would not be reflective of war itself, where there is no inherent truth or good to be found. 

You're never more alive than when you're almost dead.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien contends that war is fundamentally contradictory, that things are true and false at the same time. One never feels closer to life and death than when they are at war. Death, though, is ultimately an absolute boundary. No one is partially dead. Death is total. At war, it is as though one's close proximity to the constant threat of death makes one feel closer to life. Life is experienced fully: every sense is felt, recorded, noticed. People commit terrible crimes and do horrific things, but they still appreciate nature and want goodness in people in a way that is unique to the theater of war. Being in constant fear for one's life ironically makes those at war more appreciative and mindful of living. 

The Man I Killed Quotes

In the presence of his father and uncles, he pretended to look forward to doing his patriotic duty, which was also a privilege, but at night he prayed with his mother that the war might end soon. Beyond anything else, he was afraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village. But all he could do, he thought, was wait and pray and try not to grow up too fast.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Man O'Brien Killed
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien weaves in episodic reflections about the the Vietnamese youth he killed in the war, as Kiowa tries to comfort him in the battlefield. In reflecting on the man, O'Brien finds himself giving the man a story. He imagines the family the man has left behind, and the things that the man used to enjoy as a boy. He imagines the sense of patriotic duty that the man feels socially obligated to fight for even though he is afraid. The man would not want to embarrass himself by failing to meet this obligation, and even if he no longer cared about embarrassing himself then he has to worry about embarrassing his family and his village.

O'Brien projects his own fears and insecurities about fighting in the war onto the dead man through this invented narrative. There is no need for O'Brien to come out and say this fictional story about the man, because of the way these reflections are situated between the telling of Kiowa's attempts to comfort O'Brien. This mirrors how O'Brien could not believe Kiowa in the moment; he could not even hear him or focus on the present. He was overcome by guilt for killing the man, and kept getting lost in inventing a life for the man - a guilt that pulls him deeper and deeper into new, false details about the man's family, the man's village, the man's education. 

These reflections echo O'Brien's anxiety throughout the book towards the limits of social obligation and the role of blame in war. O'Brien does not want to fight in this war, but if he flees or refuses, he fears the embarrassment this would bring upon himself, his family, and his town. Similar to the man he killed, whom he says "pretended" to care about his patriotic duty, O'Brien feels throughout the war that he is masquerading as a soldier. He is simply trying to survive, but it is fear of humiliation that brought him to combat, not patriotism. He believes he probably shared this anxiety with the young man he killed.

Ambush Quotes

I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty. I crouched and kept my head low. I tried to swallow whatever was rising from my stomach, which tasted like lemonade, something fruity and sour. I was terrified. There were not thoughts about killing. The grenade was to make him go away—just evaporate—and I leaned back and felt my head go empty and then felt it fill up again. I had already thrown the grenade before telling myself to throw it.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Man O'Brien Killed
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien prefaces the story by saying that he lied to his daughter, Kathleen, about not killing a man in Vietnam. He takes this story as an occasion to tell the "adult" version of what really happened. In describing the act of killing, he insists upon how fast it all happened. There was no sustained calculus of political or social obligation that drove him to throw the grenade, and he felt no ill will towards his target - the response was overwhelmingly automatic. The fact that another man's death is the result of a reaction clearly troubles O'Brien, given how absolutely final death is as a result. While he can offer no moral or even superficial justification for throwing the grenade, besides a need to make the man disappear, he nonetheless goes through the list of all of the things he did not think about the man. Thus we see both how O'Brien could blame himself for not thinking more about the man or the reasons for the war in the moment, as well as empathize with how fast these life and death decisions take place. This passage communicates the fleetingness of mortality - how life can become death in an instant without any time to process or understand. War is defined by these indigestible instants that defy explanation or justification - which is why O'Brien is so haunted by their memory. He can't help but feel things in the present and map them onto his recollections of the past. 

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. 

Notes Quotes

By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

After O'Brien receives a letter from Norman Bowker years after the two fought together in Vietnam, he realizes the important role writing has played in his life and development following the war. Bowker is in terrible shape: he sleeps most of the day, plays basketball in the afternoons, and drinks at night as he drives his father's truck around his small town for hours on end. He asks O'Brien to write a story using his story, but changing his name. He says that he wishes he could write it, but he can't go back to that time; he doesn't have the words for it.

O'Brien sees that he's gotten off easily after the war; he even feels a bit of guilt for how quickly he has been able to re-enter society as a functioning individual. Writing has worked as a way to channel all of the memories out of him in a productive way instead of letting the tape loop endlessly in his mind without exit. He has given the stories a world separate from his own lived experience, and this allows him to make sense of those experiences. Whether the stories are entirely true or not is not necessarily of consequence, because their purpose is to search for meaning and reconcile the big questions of life concerning death and morality. 

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. 

Good Form Quotes

"Daddy, tell the truth," Kathleen can say, "did you ever kill anybody?" And I can say honestly, "Of course not." Or I can say, honestly, "Yes."

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Kathleen (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Man O'Brien Killed
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien uses this extremely short story as a direct address to the reader. This is one of the most obvious times that O'Brien writes with awareness of an audience in the book. He spends the pages expressing an ambivalence in regards to historical truth. It is true that he has and hasn't killed someone in the historical sense—but to O'Brien, it is story truth that is more important and affecting. In stories, his feelings can be articulated in the present. The guilt he has about feeling responsible for another man's death and his part in the war can change shape, take new forms. Sometimes the story is that no one died—he absolves himself of that historical event, and he allows himself to be guiltless of another young man's killing in the war. Other times he blames himself. The story shifts with the present feeling. The feelings, therefore, give birth to the story—they actualize as the story's truth, tapping into what was authentically true for O'Brien at the moment of their telling. Storytelling functions as an exercise in fantasy fueled by very true emotions. O'Brien doesn't feel wed to telling the whole truth in the empirical sense because, for him, emotional resonance is what keeps him tethered to the present. Without stories that pull him into the now, he could get completely lost in obsessing over the past. 

Night Life Quotes

He said he'd done his best. He'd tried to be a decent medic. Win some and lose some, he said, but he'd tried hard. Briefly then, rambling a little, he talked about a few of the guys who were gone now, Curt Lemon and Kiowa and Ted Lavender, and how crazy it was that people who were so incredibly alive could get so incredibly dead.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Kiowa, Bob "Rat" Kiley, Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

The evening before Rat Kiley shoots himself in the foot so that he can be taken in a chopper to Japan, he admits to the platoon in near-tears that he is at the end of his rope. The war has driven him to the point of madness, and all of the other men have noticed his quick deterioration. For weeks the platoon has been forced to spend the days trying to sleep, while at night they walk in a straight line through the pitch blackness. All of the men dealt with the impenetrable dark in different ways, but the darkness made it so Rat couldn't escape his vivid recollections of what he had seen in Vietnam. As medic, there were many men he had treated that he could not save, others who suffered from gruesome injuries. When he speaks to the platoon they don't know he will shoot himself the next day, but the moment shows Rat on the precipice of breaking. He tries to redeem himself while acknowledging that he has failed to save everyone. His shock regarding how grotesque and traumatizing wartime can be is manifested via the memory of his dead friends. One moment the men could be joking with one another and the next a member of their crew gets blown up, erased from the earth. The fundamental absurdity of this immediate, profound loss pushed Rat to a breaking point that forced him out of the war entirely.  

The Lives of the Dead Quotes

But this is true too: stories can save us. I'm forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive. And Ted Lavender, too, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon, and a slim young man I killed, and an old man sprawled beside a pigpen, and several others whose bodies I once lifted and dumped into a truck. They're all dead. But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Kiowa, Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon, Linda
Related Symbols: The Man O'Brien Killed
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien opens the story this way following the title "The Lives of the Dead," as a thesis to argue the point of the story itself. The title itself is somewhat ironic, since death is not a lived experience, but O'Brien contends that stories save the dead. As a forty-three-year-old writer, he keeps Linda, Ted Lavender, Kiowa, Curt Lemon, the man he killed, and the scores of anonymous dead he saw in the war alive. He raises them from the dead with words. Stories' imaginative space allows people to come back to life and engage with the still-living. Through writing, O'Brien defies death itself. 

The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 218
Explanation and Analysis:

Tim reflects on his memory of attending the movies with his friend Linda when they were children, and his memories of Ted Lavender popping tranquilizer pills every morning in Vietnam. These figures in O'Brien's life have all died, but in telling stories about them he insists that he cheats mortality. By relaying these stories to scores of readers, he builds up a vast audience in whose minds his friends remain alive. Through stories he builds an illusion of immortality that makes coping with their physical absence less painful.

O'Brien needs this "illusion of aliveness" to combat negative feelings he still has about the war, like the shame and guilt of his behavior on the battlefield, his inability to save his friends from death or injury, the survivor's guilt of being alive when he was no better a soldier than friends who died, and the sadness he continues to feel even now many decades later. These negative feelings can isolate O'Brien from others, which is why he wants to tell these stories to other people. In telling the stories, he gets to keep the dream of his dead friends alive in other people, and connects to those still living.

Well, right now I'm not dead. But when I am, it's like…I don't know, I guess it's like being inside a book that nobody's reading.
A book?
An old one. It's up on a library shelf, so you're safe and everything, but the book hasn't been checked out for a long, long time. All you can do is wait. Just hope somebody'll pick it up and start reading.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Linda (speaker)
Page Number: 231
Explanation and Analysis:

A young Tim begins going to sleep earlier so that he may see his recently deceased friend Linda in his dreams. In those dreams, she appears as a dead girl, and likens her experience of death to being an old library book on a shelf. She can't leave the shelf. She can't move the book to another place. She cannot add pages to the book. Her life is contained in that dusty book where it remains unchanged. She can only live again when someone comes to pick the book up and read it. Mortality, the quote suggests, is relational - her life continues or ends depending on someone else picking up the metaphorical book of her life and flipping through its pages. Until Linda's memory is conjured, she sits on a proverbial dusty shelf where her memory is safe from destruction, but it remains dormant and stuck in the past.

The metaphor of death as a book on a shelf pertains more broadly to explain the relationship O'Brien sees between storytelling and mortality. Stories keep people alive in the only way O'Brien knows how, which is why he is so adamant about telling as many stories he can on the subject of his time in Vietnam and his friends (or even non-friends) that were killed in action. O'Brien's aim is to keep the dust off of the metaphorical books on the shelf. He refuses to let the memory of the dead become lost within the infinite, ever-expanding library of mortality. He wants as many people to read about his dead friends as possible, so he may better keep them alive in our memories.