The Commandant accuses the narrator of being unwilling to sacrifice himself to save the Communist agent, though she was willing to sacrifice her life to save the Commissar’s. The narrator admits that he’s a man who’s guilty of the crime of doing nothing. The Commandant says that the injuries that the crapulent major and that Sonny suffered are not equal to those suffered by the Communist agent. She couldn’t walk when they liberated her. They found the policemen and made them pay “the price.” The Commandant wonders if the narrator should pay the same price.
The Commandant’s accusation underscores the sense that the narrator has a poor level of commitment to the Communist cause. The Commandant thinks that Sonny and the major suffered less because they were shot, which ended their pain relatively quickly, while the agent was tortured. The Commandant strongly implies that he also tortured the policemen in revenge.
The narrator says that he wishes he were dead. He figures that Man will finally release him “from this small world with its small minded people,” who treat “a man with two minds and two faces as a freak.” Man puts his gun down on the floor and kneels by the narrator’s side. He unties the sack from around his right hand and then unties the rope binding it. The narrator holds his hand before his eyes, looking at his scar. Man places the pistol—a Soviet gun called the Tokarev, whose design is based on the American Colt—in the narrator’s hand. Man leans forward, pressing the muzzle between his eyes and steadying the narrator’s hand. “Why are you doing this?” the narrator asks. Man says he thinks that this is the only way in which he can save the narrator.
Both the narrator and Man wish that they were dead so that they can escape from their mutual burdens. The narrator has the burden of having to define himself as one thing when he knows himself to be two things. Man has the burden of playing the role of a commissar, which disrupts his ability to be a good friend to the narrator. They both struggle with dual moral burdens. They both also struggle with the inability of other people to see them for who they really are.
Man says that they’re in an impossible situation. The Commandant will only let the narrator leave after he redeems himself. That leaves the matter of what will happen to Bon. The narrator says that he won’t leave without Bon. Man surmises that the narrator will die in prison then. He presses the barrel of the gun against his head even harder. Man asks the narrator to shoot him. He wonders how “a teacher” can teach something that he doesn’t believe. He wonders how he can continue to live in his condition. He asks the narrator to pull the trigger.
Man admits that he instructs others in an ideology that he no longer wholeheartedly believes—that is, if he ever was a total believer. The narrator may be guilty of duplicity, but Man seems to be guilty, too, of being inauthentic. He has claimed loyalty to the Vietnamese Communist cause, but he no longer has total faith in it, perhaps due to its abuses of the populace.
The narrator tries to pull the gun away from Man’s head and put it toward his own, but he doesn’t have the strength. He sees the ghosts of Sonny and the crapulent major behind Man. They stare with longing at the gun, wanting to shoot the narrator. Man apologizes for being selfish in wishing for death. If he dies, then the narrator and Bon will surely die too. The Commandant can’t wait to drag Bon out to a firing squad. Still, Man won’t release the narrator from the prison until he can answer his question about freedom, though the Commandant is willing to let the narrator go for admitting that he wanted his father dead. Man gets up, raises his hand in farewell, and exits the room.
Man realizes that he cannot yet die because that would require him to break his oath to Bon and the narrator. The narrator’s conscience conjures up the images of Sonny and the major wishing for his death because the narrator thinks that this would be just retribution for his participation in their murders. The Commandant’s satisfaction with the narrator’s admission comes from the latter’s denial of half of himself in favor of his Vietnamese identity.
The overhead speakers click on in the narrator’s room and release the sound of a screaming baby. The narrator finds it impossible to think. A clicking sound makes him realize that he’s listening to a tape. He wonders if he screamed like this at his mother when he was an infant. The narrator wonders who’s screaming. The sound transports him back to the lost memory of his birth. Finally, he realizes that the “somebody” who is screaming is him. He’s screaming his answer to Man’s question: “Nothing!” This time, however, the narrator believes his answer. He has embraced nothingness as the only true state. He is enlightened.
The sound of the screaming baby is a cue for the narrator to return to his original state, to become the blank slate that he was at his birth. It is impossible for him to become “nobody” because everyone who is born is “somebody.” He can return to a newborn state, however, by accepting that everything that he has learned and every purpose that he has embraced means nothing inherently. None of it gives life any essential meaning.