Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Although O’Brien is unclear about whether or not he actually threw a grenade and killed a man outside My Khe, his memory of the man’s corpse is strong and recurring, symbolizing humanity’s guilt over war’s horrible acts. In “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien distances himself from the memory by speaking in the third person and constructing fantasies as to what the man must have been like before he was killed. O’Brien marvels at the wreckage of his body, thinking repeatedly of the star-shaped hole that is in the place of his eye and the peeled-back cheek. The description serves to distance O’Brien from the reality of his actions because nowhere in its comprehensive detail are O’Brien’s feelings about the situation mentioned. His guilt is evident, however, in his imagining of a life for the man he killed that includes several aspects that are similar to his own life.
Kathleen represents a reader who has the capability of responding to the author. Like us, O’Brien’s daughter Kathleen is often the recipient of O’Brien’s war stories, but unlike us, she can affect O’Brien as much as O’Brien affects her. O’Brien gains a new perspective on his experiences in Vietnam when he thinks about how he should relay the story of the man he killed to his impressionable young daughter.
Kathleen also stands for the gap in communication between one who tells a story and one who receives a story. When O’Brien takes her to Vietnam to have her better understand what he went through during the war, the only things that resonate to the ten-year-old are the stink of the muck and the strangeness of the land. She has no sense of the field’s emotional significance to O’Brien, and thus does not understand his behavior there, as when he goes for a swim.
Linda represents elements of the past that can be brought back through imagination and storytelling. Linda, a classmate of O’Brien’s who died of a brain tumor in the fifth grade, symbolizes O’Brien’s faith that storytelling is the best way for him to negotiate pain and confusion, especially the sadness that surrounds death. Linda was O’Brien’s first love and also his first experience with death’s senseless arbitrariness. His retreat into his daydreams after her funeral provided him unexpected relief and rationalization. In his dreams, he could see Linda still alive, which suggests that through imagination—which, for O’Brien, later evolves into storytelling—the dead can continue to live.
Linda’s presence in the story makes O’Brien’s earlier stories about Vietnam more universal. The experience he had as a child illuminates the way he deals with death in Vietnam and after; it also explains why he has turned to stories to deal with life’s difficulties. Just like Linda, Norman Bowker and Kiowa are immortalized in O’Brien’s stories. Their commonplace lives become more significant than their dramatic deaths. Through the image of Linda, O’Brien realizes that he continues to save his own life through storytelling.