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The Things They Carried

Tim O’Brien

“Style”

“Ambush”

“Speaking of Courage”

Summary

Though most of her village has burned to the ground and her family has been burned to death by the American soldiers, a Vietnamese girl of fourteen dances through the wreckage. The men of the platoon cannot understand why she is dancing. Azar contends that the dance is a strange ritual, but Dobbins insists that the girl probably just likes to dance.

Later that night, Azar mocks the girl’s dancing by jumping and spinning, putting his hands against his ears and then making an erotic motion with his hips. Dobbins grabs Azar from behind, carries him over to the mouth of a well, and threatens to dump him in if he doesn’t dance properly.

Analysis

“Style,” like “Church,” concerns the contrast and ambiguity of good intentions and ill intentions. In this story, Henry Dobbins rebukes Azar for his insensitivity by hanging him over the mouth of a well. Yet the moral ambiguity of the story remains—a few moments earlier, Dobbins helps destroy an entire village. He is hardly occupying a moral high ground. Even so, Dobbins, more than Azar, retains some moral beliefs. In this case, he thinks it cruel to mock those who have been tortured—even though he is partly responsible for this torture.

The Vietnamese girl’s dancing despite the lack of music makes clear an innate human ability to find pleasure even during moments of abject horror. Henry Dobbins, like many soldiers, and like the “typical American” to whom O’Brien compares him in “Church,” doesn’t want to explore the human side of the Vietnamese because he doesn’t want to confront the guilt of inflicting pain on them. Their plight seems irrelevant to his mission, and by keeping the girl at enough of a distance that she remains a phenomenon rather than a real person profoundly affected by their actions, the soldiers can continue on their mission with a relatively clear conscience. Nevertheless, when Azar mocks the girl’s dancing and wonders at her attempt to find joy or distraction from the horrors surrounding her, Dobbins discourages him. He may think the girl’s dancing a strange reaction to such horror, but he also thinks the soldiers owe some small respect to the people they have so irrevocably harmed.

All of the men are too caught up in the situation to realize that the girl’s dancing is similar to Dobbins’s carrying his girlfriend’s stockings around his neck—both seemingly nonsensical actions serve as a salve to the wounds of the war. But just as Dobbins’s stockings cannot actually deflect a bullet or a round of mortar, the girl’s dancing cannot bring back her family, her village, or life as she knew it before the war.

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showing not telling

by TheDuckOffender, August 08, 2012

The secret O'Brien claimed to have kept may also have been depicted in that reoccurring emotional/fictional truth that we know oh so well from this story. Perhaps he even showed it in the first chapter, rather than telling it.

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5 out of 11 people found this helpful

Literary period

by vickie12, September 04, 2012

What literary period was the things they carried written in?

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20 out of 71 people found this helpful

Correction

by MendicantBias, October 21, 2012

Azar kicked O'Brein in the head not Jorgensen.

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22 out of 24 people found this helpful

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