"A dark theater, he remembered, and the movie was Bonnie and Clyde, and Martha wore a tweed skirt, and during the final scene, when he touched her knee, she turned and looked at him in a sad, sober way that made him pull his hand back..."
Lt. Jimmy Cross is obsessed by memories of Martha, who writes him letters but is not exactly his sweetheart. This is physically the closest he ever gets to her, although he dreams about her the whole time he is in Vietnam, and possibly it is his laxity that gets Lavender killed. Tweed is an appropriate fabric for Martha, who was always very proper. The sadness has to do with a "secret" that Martha keeps, possibly that she has been raped. She always holds herself distant, physically and emotionally.
"I tried to will myself overboard.
I gripped the edge of the boat and leaned forward and thought, now."
I did try. It just wasn't possible."
This is the climactic point of the story in which Tim O'Brien has decided to flee the war and run away to Canada. A friendly man has rowed him all the way across the river at the border, but O'Brien just cannot get out of the boat and swim the rest of the way. He imagines the FBI after him, he imagines the disappointment of his parents and of his girlfriends. And he succumbs to embarrassment. This is why he goes to war, and it is the book's signature moment of cowardice. O'Brien always regrets the decision.
"Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.
O'Brien constantly questions what it is to be a writer, a teller of war stories. He worries about honesty, about what happened as opposed to what makes a good, true story. His daughter, Kathleen, implores him to give up the topic of the war, to find something else to fixate on. She wants him to find a happy story. But O'Brien thinks that stories have the power to help people escape from repeating the past. Or at the very least to ease his own troubled conscience.
"He lay face-up in the center of the trail, a slim, dead, almost dainty young man. He had bony legs, a narrow waist, long shapely fingers. His chest was sunken and poorly muscled -- a scholar, maybe. His wrists were the wrists of a child."
This is the description of the man Tim O'Brien killed with a hand grenade. The details all mark the observer as a humane man, a man who recognizes the humanity in others. The dead Vietnamese man is not a casualty, but another human being who had a story that can be imagined. The details of his child-like figure show O'Brien's guilt. Although the soldier finds ammunition on the dead man, he still feels he shouldn't have killed him.
"She had crossed to the other side. She was part of the land. She was wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues. She was dangerous. She was ready for the kill."
Mary Anne was the girlfriend of a soldier who he had shipped over to Vietnam to accompany him. She started out as an innocent blonde, wearing culottes and a pink sweater. She was visibly feminine. But she soon became fascinated with killing, fell in with a group of Green Berets, and vanished into the countryside. She is a symbol of what Vietnam could do to a person. It could completely change their mind about everything. She abandoned her boyfriend for the country, for killing.
"A while later, when we moved out of the hamlet, she was still dancing. 'Probably some weird ritual,' Azar said, but Henry Dobbins looked back and said no, the girl just liked to dance."
For one soldier, Azar, the dancing girl symbolizes the unknowability and otherness of the Vietnamese. Her village was just burned, her family was killed, and she is dancing. Azar finds it strange, exotic. But Dobbins, who is the more sympathetic character, sees the girls' innate humanness and tries to understand her as he would understand an American, as someone with a will and tastes.
"Kathleen had just turned ten, and this trip was a kind of birthday present, showing her the world, offering a small piece of her father's history."
In this ironically titled story -- a trip to Vietnam is hardly as innocuous as a day out at the natural history museum -- O'Brien returns to Vietnam with his daughter. It feels like the return to the scene of a crime. The trip does not help ease the author's obsession, but it does help Kathleen to understand. Her father wants her to be more worldly than he was when he shipped out to Vietnam.
"'Easy does it,' he told me, 'just a side wound, no problem unless you're pregnant.' He ripped off the compress, applied a fresh one, and told me to clamp it in place with my fingers. 'Press hard,' he said. 'Don't worry about the baby.'
O'Brien gets shot and wounded, and Rat Kiley, his best friend the medic, takes care of him in this quotation. It is representative of the soldiers' attitude to death. They are both terrified and try not to take it too seriously. Kiley uses humor to try to help his friend deal with the scare.
"Before the chopper came, there was time for goodbyes. Lieutenant Cross went over and said he'd vouch that it was an accident. Henry Dobbins and Azar gave him a stack of comic books for hospital reading. Everybody stood in a little circle, feeling bad about it, trying to cheer him up with bullshit about the great night life in Japan.
After a while, the war gets to Rat Kiley and drives him crazy enough to shoot himself so he will get shipped to a hospital in Japan. Cross' attitude represents the solidarity of the soldiers: they will do anything for one another. The soldiers always joke about the cute nurses in Japan, but what Kiley has done is actually the ultimate transgression in his circle: He has given into fear, and everyone can feel his shame.
"But in a story I can steal her soul. I can revive, at least briefly, that which is absolute and unchanging. It's not the surface that matters, it's the identity that lives inside. In a story, miracles can happen. Linda can smile and sit up. She can reach out, touch my wrist, and say 'Timmy, stop crying.'"
Throughout the book, O'Brien returns to the story of Linda, his elementary school sweetheart who died of a brain tumor. She, like those who died in Vietnam, died a senseless death. By remembering her and by telling stories, O'Brien tries to revive the dead and to impose some order and sense onto his own life.
The Things They Carried Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Things They Carried is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The reference to checkers is O'Brien's way of explaining what can be understood and what cannot be understood. Checkers is a game. There are strategies, there's a winner, and there are definite rules. The men, Norman and Henry, embraced the...