. . . when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story.
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O’Brien has been at war for only four days when the platoon is fired on by a village near the South China Sea. Cross orders an air strike and the platoon watches the village burn. Dave Jensen pokes fun at a dead old man whose right arm has been blown off and encourages O’Brien to do the same, to “show a little respect for your elders.” O’Brien refuses, and Kiowa tells him he’s done the right thing. He asks if the old man was O’Brien’s first experience with a dead body, and O’Brien says no, thinking of his first date, Linda.
During the spring of 1956, O’Brien was in love with nine-year-old Linda, his beautifully fragile schoolmate who had taken to wearing a red cap everywhere. He arranged for his parents to take him and Linda to the movies, to see The Man Who Never Was—a World War II film that contained an image of a corpse falling into the sea. When the movie was over, and the two couples had made a stop at Dairy Queen, they dropped Linda off, and the fourth-grade O’Brien knew then that he was in love.
Linda continued to wear her red cap every day, despite being taunted for it. One day a fellow classmate, Nick Veenhof, pulled off the cap, revealing Linda’s slowly balding head. Linda said nothing. O’Brien later explains that Linda had a brain tumor and soon died. He had known she was sick, but Nick was the one to break the news, saying O’Brien’s girlfriend had “kicked the bucket.” O’Brien went to the funeral home with his father and marveled at how strange and unreal it was to see Linda’s body in a casket. He stared for a while, saying nothing, until his father, unable to address the situation, proposed a trip to the ice cream store. Later, O’Brien became withdrawn and obsessed with falling asleep. In daydreams and night dreams, he could make up stories about Linda, imagine her, and bring her back to life. In those dreams, Linda comforted O’Brien, telling him that it didn’t matter that she was dead.
O’Brien says that in Vietnam, the soldiers devised ways to make the dead seem less dead—they kept them alive with stories, such as the stories of Ted Lavender’s tranquilizer use or Curt Lemon’s trick-or-treating. O’Brien remembers that he saw Linda’s body in the funeral home, but that it upset him because it didn’t seem real. He says that he picked Curt Lemon out of a tree and watched Kiowa sink into the muck of the Song Tra Bong, but that he still dreamed Linda alive in stories and in dreams. In his dreams, when he was young, Linda waited for him and stayed alive, if just sometimes obscured by other things happening. In stories, O’Brien concludes, the dead live.
Though the work’s final statement seems to have little to do with Vietnam, its relevance lies in its addressing of the intimate relationship between death and life. O’Brien uses “The Lives of the Dead” to illustrate that his war narrative has a larger purpose than simply showing readers what it was like to be in a war. Interspersed throughout this story are smaller stories about death in Vietnam that lead back to the story of O’Brien himself—a man who writes in order to make sense of his life, especially in relation to others’ deaths. But at the forefront is the story of O’Brien’s first love and of his first realization that fiction can overcome death.
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The character of Linda, for the narrator, is synonymous with his loss of innocence. With her, he experiences both love and death for the first time, at the same time. In the story, she first represents the promise of childhood—delicate and beautiful, she agrees to go with him and his parents to the movies. When her balding head is revealed, and later her corpse, Linda’s innocence—and O’Brien’s, by association—is lost forever.
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Linda’s death is more profound than the tragedy of the deaths of Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon, and Kiowa. Unlike the soldiers, Linda, innocent, did nothing to provoke the dangers she faced. But once death’s omnipresence and inevitability became clear, first to Linda, and later, when it was too late, to O’Brien, her death became an inevitability and sadness a negotiable feeling for him.
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The way O’Brien looks at Linda’s body in the funeral home and then thinks with detachment that it looks different than he thought it would becomes O’Brien’s method for dealing with death for the rest of his life. Though he is so struck, he doesn’t want to talk about it to his father, who, like his future comrades, tries to distract O’Brien rather than address his son’s thoughts about death. O’Brien’s subconscious then takes charge of helping O’Brien cope with his loss, as Linda begins to visit his dreams and teaches him to address the difficult and unknown through his imagination. Instead of frightening him, her specter brings comfort. The young O’Brien came to enjoy having the ability to talk to Linda so much that he looked forward to going to sleep, finding a comfort in the unreal that the real could no longer offer.
The end of The Things They Carried shows how the illusion of life that O’Brien uses to sustain him through Linda’s death helps him in Vietnam and especially afterward. He compares his own coping strategy of storytelling to the crass coping strategies of the other men, who shake hands with corpses and joke about cleaning up the remains of their friends. Nevertheless, he realizes that these actions do help others deal with death, so he does not condemn his fellow soldiers. While the other soldiers joke or keep silent in regard to Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon, for example, O’Brien remembers their qualities and keeps them alive through the stories of the way they were when they were alive. O’Brien’s confession that even though he is forty-three years old he is still making up stories that keep Linda alive reveals that these stories help keep him alive as well. O’Brien’s worldview is one of acceptance and peace in the face of death, of celebrating the dead by remembering them living. The effect of O’Brien’s seemingly arbitrary step into his distant past makes his war stories not only love stories, but life stories as well.
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