The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Sympathizer: Chapter 18 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Bon and the narrator spend two weeks getting used to the weather and their new comrades—three bearded, long-haired marine lieutenants, the same ones they ran into in an alley in Saigon. The narrator remembers the affectless lieutenant on whom he had once drawn a pistol. They go out on a reconnaissance mission led by a kidnapped Lao farmer and a Hmong scout who serves as his translator. Instead of helmets and bulletproof vests, they’re given a laminated, wallet-sized picture of the Virgin Mary to wear over their hearts. Before departing, they spend days “discussing tactics, preparing rations, and studying the map” of their route through southern Laos. They also listen to Radio Free Vietnam, which airs the admiral’s speeches, along with James Taylor and Donna Summer songs. When the narrator says goodbye to Claude, his mentor reminds him to keep his head down and to leave the fighting to the pros.
The three marine lieutenants again act as foils for the narrator, Man, and Bon. The affectless lieutenant is a direct foil for the narrator, who prides himself on his competence. The picture of the Virgin Mary in the place of bulletproof vests is an indication not only of the army’s sparse resources but also the admiral’s religious fanaticism. He seems to believe that, like Joan of Arc and her army, his guerrilla fighters are on the side of God and will therefore triumph. The soldiers remain connected to American culture through the radio, which also connects them to the Western-inspired values for which they believe they are fighting.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
A few hours into their march, the soldiers arrive at a pool of water, where their grizzled captain calls for a rest. The pool, which has a dead bird floating on its surface, is a bomb crater caused by the Americans. It’s a sign that they’ve entered Laos. They rest on the peak of a hill. They spread their ponchos and cover themselves with “hooded capes of netting into which [they wove] palm fronds.” The narrator has barely fallen asleep when the machine gunner tells him that it’s his turn for sentry duty.
The dead bird in the pool of water is a sign of impending doom, as the crater is also a reminder of the failed American effort in Vietnam. The dead bird could be a symbol of the fate that awaits the guerrillas for pursuing what will be a fruitless effort.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The second night is no different from the first. The narrator looks up at the stars through the branches. He feels like he’s inside of a snow globe being shaken and watched by Sonny and the crapulent major. The narrator wishes that he told the General that he had already had sex with Lana, just to prove that nothing was forbidden to him, not even what belonged to or came from the General. The affectless lieutenant gets up to pee. Bon asks if the narrator is okay and he nods. The lieutenant returns. As he begins to speak, there’s a flash of light and a deafening sound that shakes the earth and loosens the soil.
The narrator’s feeling of being inside of a snow globe comes from the sense of existing in a world over which he believes he has little control. His thoughts about Lana have nothing to do with any tenderness that he may have felt for her—really, there was only lust—but with how she symbolizes the Vietnamese upper-class to which the narrator will never belong.
Themes
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Someone turns on a flashlight and they see that the affectless lieutenant’s leg is missing. Another person puts a hand over his mouth to muffle his screams. After some thrashing, he becomes still and dies. Though he’s dead, the narrator can still hear him screaming. The grizzled captain tells them that they have to move so that they’re far away by morning. The captain slings the lieutenant’s body over his shoulder and the narrator carries his leg, which is only slightly heavier than his AK-47.
The lieutenant is the first casualty of this guerrilla war. He, like Sonny and the crapulent major, continues to live in the narrator’s conscience. This is because he feels indirectly responsible for the lieutenant’s death, just as he’s directly responsible for the others. He has assisted the General in conducting this ill-fated war.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
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The soldiers end their forward march after two hours. They lower the affectless lieutenant’s body into a grave. As the narrator kneels by the grave, he sees Sonny’s ghost squatting beside him and the crapulent major’s head sticking out of the grave. By late evening, after a short march, they reach the banks of the Mekong River. It would take four trips to transport all of them across. When it’s Bon and the narrator’s turn to cross, the narrator can feel the ghosts of Sonny and the crapulent major following them into the raft.
They ensure that the lieutenant gets a proper burial and, when he does, his ghost stops haunting the narrator. The journey across the river will take them into Vietnam, and the crossing is a point of no return in their decision to fight.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
One of the marines takes one step off of the raft when a rocket-propelled grenade strikes him. The marine goes flying into the shallow water, where he lies, not quite dead and screaming. Bon pulls the narrator down. He commands the narrator to shoot. The narrator lifts the gun and squeezes the trigger. After several shots, his shoulder hurts from the gun kicking him. When he pauses to load another magazine, he feels an ache in his ears, too. All of a sudden, their enemies stop shooting and it’s just the narrator and Bon blasting into darkness. The radio telephone operator (RTO), who was shooting beside them, is slumped over, dead. Someone with a northern Vietnamese accent calls out, telling them to give up. The narrator looks at Bon, who has tears in his eyes. Bon says that, if it wasn’t for the narrator, he’d die here. The mission is over. The narrator has saved Bon’s life, but only from death.
The narrator’s incompetence with the gun and his discomfort from holding it are more signs of his inexperience with actual violence. Bon and the narrator continue shooting into the darkness out of desperation to escape. Bon, however, knows that they will be captured. To protect the narrator, in keeping with his oath, he decides to surrender. Bon has tears in his eyes because he has failed at the only purpose that he has left in his life. Bon will live, but he will spend the next year, and perhaps longer, wishing that he were dead. This, for him, feels like his third and final failure in life.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon