Salvation, storytelling, and pilgrimage in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried

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Author: Alex Vernon
Date: Dec. 2003
Publisher: University of Manitoba, Mosaic
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,673 words

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Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried participates in a tradition of literary revision unique to twentieth-century American war literature, joining e.e. cummings's World War I novel The Enormous Room and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s World War II novel Slaughterhouse-Five in their evocation of John Bunyan's seventeenth-century spiritual tract The Pilgrim's Progress as a mechanism for questioning the possibility of spiritual gain through waging modern war.

The three novels share other characteristics. All three purposefully and explicitly blur the distinctions among author, narrator, and protagonist, and between fact and fiction. Cummings's and O'Brien's first-person narrator-characters bear their authors' names, Edward E. Cummings and Tim O'Brien. We never learn the name of Vonnegut's first-person fictional narrator, but certain facts of his biography, like O'Brien's narrator-character's, match his creator's. Early in O'Brien's text, Tim the narrator receives a visit to his home from Jimmy Cross; early in Vonnegut's text, the narrator visits the home of his old war buddy, Bernard V. O'Hare. And the first lines of Slaughterhouse-Five sound very much like something out of The Things They Carried: "All of this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true" (1). The first American edition of The Enormous Room begins with an introduction by cummings's father composed of explanatory narrative and two actual letters he had written, to President Woodrow Wilson and to a staff officer from the Judge Advocate General's office in Paris, concerning the imprisonment and release of his son, who of course has the name of both the text's author and its first-person narrator. All three novels also tell their stories recursively, more-or-less following a storyline but doing so in a non-continuous, episodic, and fragmented manner.

The three novels also, given their evocation of The Pilgrim's Progress, concern themselves with the subject of salvation. In The Enormous Room, within the context of the Bunyan text, cummings writes about salvation in terms of happiness: "To leave [ ... ] [the prison] with the knowledge, and worse than that the feeling, that some of the finest people in the world are doomed to remain prisoners thereof for no one knows how long--are doomed to continue, possibly for years and tens of years and all the years which terribly are between them and their deaths, the grey and indivisible Non-existence which without apology you are quitting for Reality--cannot by any stretch of the imagination be conceived as constituting a Happy Ending to a great and personal adventure" (238). The narrator was, he tells us, "happier" in prison "than the very keenest words can pretend to express" (238). Yet in prison he still possessed the same knowledge that precludes happiness, and his declarations while in prison--written when cummings was out of prison--of his happiness and mastery of his own life must be read as tongue-in-cheek. The novel's dominant tone is sarcasm; its historical context is a cultural ideology portraying war as a path for cultures and individuals to attain spiritual progress. Cummings's ideal contemporaneous reader, upon finishing the text, would not by any stretch of the imagination seriously have felt that anything redemptive had occurred or might occur in this all-too-human world.

In 1969, Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five invoked The Pilgrim's Progress to forever obliterate the idea of attaining any spiritual grace through the absurd inhumanity of modern warfare. It is hard to imagine a more nihilistic note in war fiction than the novel's final "word," the bird call that, like divine judgement, hangs in the air after the firebombing of Dresden, the question itself (much less the non-existent answer) beyond human articulation: "Po-tee-wheet?" (215).

The Things They Carried does not even bother to ask after the possibility of spiritual progress through war. The story "Church" is the book's comic vignette on the conjoining of the spiritual and the martial in the American war in Vietnam. The unit on extended patrol has set up for the night in a church, and, in a perverse moment of reverence, "the older monk carried in a cane chair for the use of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, placing it near the altar area, bowing and gesturing for him to sit down" (Things 120). Jimmy Cross, the military leader with the telling initials and last name, is here nicely juxtaposed against the real cross that O'Brien neglects to mention but that must be near the altar too. "The old monk seemed proud of the chair, and proud that such a man as Lieutenant Cross should be sitting in it." The two monks take "a special liking for Henry Dobbins" (120), the man who ritually wore his girlfriend's pantyhose to make him invulnerable. They call him "good soldier Jesus" (120). They clean and oil his machine gun. Dobbins relates his religious feelings to Kiowa. He believes in God but has never cared for "the religious part" or the intellectual part. For him, what matters is "just being nice to people" (121), and maybe someday he will "find a monastery somewhere" and "wear a robe and be nice to people. [...] All you can do is be nice. Treat them decent, you know?" (123). The moment for spiritual reckoning passes. In the morning the unit moves out, their bodies bathed in the church water and fed from the church garden, their guns cleaned by monks, their newly vitalized selves ready to waste gooks once again.

Instead, O'Brien asks a different question, perhaps every war writer's essential question: Can one achieve moral or spiritual redemption through storytelling? In this essay, I hope to provide O'Brien's answer to the question. The connections with cummings's and Vonnegut's novels are significant and informing, but my chief concern is with O'Brien's novel and the question it poses. Because The Things They Carried never directly alludes to The Pilgrim's Progress or otherwise discusses spiritual matters, in the first part of the essay, I attempt to establish the text as a quest for salvation and redemption through the narrator-character's composing process. And, because the essay speculates on the novel as a form of religious pilgrimage, it next turns to Victor Turner's anthropological studies of pilgrimage to explore what Turner might reveal about O'Brien's text. The essay concludes by returning to the initial question: Can we revisit our wars in writing stories--can we make imaginative pilgrimages back in time and space--and find some solace, some meaning, some salvation?

The Things They Carried repeatedly attests to the power of storytelling to transform events and to affirm a new kind of truth, one more spiritual than factual, while somehow in the process redeeming us and resurrecting the dead. Such language comes most strongly in the "The Lives of the Dead," the book's final story. "But this too is true," O'Brien's story begins. "Stories can save us. [...] In a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world" (225). O'Brien's narrator Tim recalls conversations he had as a child with a dead friend, the nine-year old Linda. He recalls a movie they had seen, The Man Who Never Was, about a corpse used by the Allies in World War II for delivering false operational plans to deceive the Germans and win the war; about, in other words, a dead man whose death and figurative resurrection saved the world from the evils of Nazi Germany. He recalls the stories told and retold about the dead soldiers from Vietnam, stories always slightly different with each telling, often elaborated beyond the limits of factual, earthly truth, yet true to the spirit of using language to keep the dead alive. "But in a story," Tim the narrator writes, "which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world" (225). Such he calls a "miracle" (236), and Tim tells these stories "trying to save Timmy's life with a story" (246)--trying to save the child that he was, his pre-adult, innocent, prelapsarian self.

The message O'Brien imparts is one we have heard before. By faithfully retelling the story of Christ in its several variations, by allowing themselves to believe against all fact in his death and resurrection, Christians animate him and in the process save their prelapsarian souls. His, the maxim goes, is the greatest story ever told. O'Brien seems to want us to read The Things They Carried as a literary analogue of the New Testament. The infantry platoon is led by the lieutenant, with the significant last name and initials. With stories commenting on each other and confusing the facts while achieving a greater truth, with two stories ("Spin" and "How to Tell a True War Story") composed of Psalm-like fragments, the book's episodic structure does not wander far from the structural spirit of the Bible--a structure that Maggie Dunn and Ann Morris, in their study of the composite novel, call "the sacred composite" (qtd. in O'Gorman 303). And, despite O'Brien's attestations in "How to Tell a True War Story" that war stories have no morals, The Things They Carried offers a number of them, primarily the conspicuous moral of the stories surrounding Kiowa's death: that every citizen, even the old man in Omaha who didn't vote, is responsible for the war and for everything in the war, from Kiowa's death to My Lai.

The opening and title story in The Things They Carried details the burdens, physical and emotional, carried by infantrymen in Vietnam. By immediately inviting the reader to join the characters in this journey, a journey that has moral dimensions and the potential for spiritual salvation, The Things They Carried echoes Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. The very title of O'Brien's book and lead story strongly suggests the burden carried by Bunyan's Christian; indeed, this may be the reason O'Brien selected this story as lead and title instead of, say, "How to Tell a True War Story." Paul Fussell, whose The Great War and Modern Memory is a seminal work of literary and cultural criticism on the war, writes of a reference to Bunyan by a World War I British Daily Express columnist, that the troops overseas "who had named one of the support trenches of the Hohenzollern Redout 'Pilgrim's Progress,' [...] would not fail to notice the similarity between a fully loaded soldier, marching to and from the line with haversack, ground-sheet, blanket, rifle, and ammunition, and the image of Christian at the outset of his adventures" (138). Likewise do O'Brien's soldiers at the very outset of their narrative adventure hump can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, C rations, water, steel helmets, boots, extra socks, flak jackets, bandages, ponchos, poncho liners, mosquito netting, machetes, and arms and ammunition.

Fussell traces a number of references and similarities in Great War British memoirs to Bunyan's parable and other less popular romance quests: the carried burdens, the ghostliness of the experience, the "action of moving physically through some terrible topographical nightmare" (142), and the incalculable allusions to Bunyan's Slough of Despond and his Valley of the Shadow of Death, all of which O'Brien's book recreates, with twists. In this collection of stories patched together from previously published and new pieces, Christian isn't just the aptly named Jimmy Cross. He is also, and perhaps more directly, Tim, on his narrative quest for salvation. The Slough of Despond, in which Christian finds himself mired in muck, becomes O'Brien's shit field. If the character Help provides the helping hand that pulls Christian from the muck, Norman Bowker (or Tim the narrator?) fails to reach his hand out to save Kiowa--who always carries a New Testament and "had been raised to believe in the promise of salvation under Jesus Christ" (164)--from the sucking field of mud and shit. The disparate fates of Christian and Kiowa aside, Bunyan's and O'Brien's messages are startlingly similar: we are all responsible to one another, we are in this all-too-earthly life together. The ambiguity of whose actions led to Kiowa's death, and who failed to pull him out of the shit field, underscores the fact that one person is not to blame. All are responsible.

Even the three stages of Christian's experience in Bunyan--The Manner of his Setting Out, His Dangerous Journey, and Safe Arrival at the Desired Country--work their way into O'Brien's structure, which, though less linear, includes descriptions of Tim's pre-war self and the manner of his submission to the war, his war-time journey, and his post-war self's arrival home. That the fragmented and recursive nature of The Things They Carried has the linearity implied by a journey motif might not accord with many readers' experience of reading the novel, as the novel certainly flirts with the suicidal repetition of Norman Bowker's self-destructive, Dantesque circling of the lake and his own veteran soul in "Speaking of Courage." Indeed, we can read the success of O'Brien's writing career through The Things They Carried and the 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods and the essay "The Vietnam in Me" (also 1994) as an extended flirtation with this very dangerous, seductive world of his own memory. Depression and thoughts of suicide plague the author in the essay "The Vietnam in Me," published after his first (and only) return trip to Vietnam twenty-five years later, after his tour of duty there while, at the end of In the Lake of the Woods, the shades of Vietnam in John Wade's life create the situation that amounts to a kind of suicide when he is driven to get in his boat and motor out of the text and out of society permanently. Norman Bowker and his story very much belong to Tim O'Brien and his own narrative. Thus the question of whether the narrative journey in The Things They Carried delivers us--delivers Tim--to a place analogous to Christian's Celestial City (as Fussell finds World War I memoirs attempting to do) persists. The novel's recursive form signifies its status not as war story at all but as a post-war story of a veteran struggling with his demons.

I do not mean to suggest that O'Brien or Tim actually hopes to resurrect the dead or save lives destroyed by the war. The text's language of saving lives works metaphorically. Tim the narrator-character returns to war in his fiction desperately seeking some positive meaning in his and his comrades' experiences. He wants to discover a way to alleviate his guilt and burden such that he can return to the war in his memory, emotionally survive the trip, and perhaps even gain from it. It had to mean something, didn't it? For all that suffering? He hopes to recover a little of his pre-war innocence, his faith in himself, everyone else, and the future. He tries to create a religion of writing fiction as a means of transcending the horrible "happening truth" of war. Even if writing affords only fleeting moments of transcendence, perhaps those moments can suffice to carry the soul along. The war itself offered him nothing but darkness; maybe, in writing about it, he can find a ray of light.

Writing for Tim the narrator thus becomes a ritual act, experienced as a dream state. Much of O'Brien's own aesthetic, in this novel and even more manifestly in Going after Cacciato, renders the narrator as in a dream state. Milton J. Bates finds Going after Cacciato more akin to "the medieval dream-vision" than "either naturalism or 'magical realism'" (275 n.7), more akin to a work like Bunyan's. The Things They Carried is a dreamscape novel in its composition process and in Tim the character-narrator's mimicking of O'Brien the author's composition process. O'Brien's writing process is "a mixture of the subconscious and the directed [...]: I'm half living in a rational world and half living in a kind of trance, imagining" (Naparsteck 11). Tim the character-narrator submits himself to the same process in The Things They Carried, as he describes one of his conversations with the dead Linda: "It was a kind of self-hypnosis. Partly willpower, partly faith, which is how stories arrive" (244).

O'Brien's 1991 essay "The Magic Show" on the art of storytelling, published only a year after The Things They Carried, connects this writing trance to the spiritual state in which the religious shaman operates, "watching the spirits beyond" (178). The essay also explicitly connects O'Brien's artistic credo with the essential Christian one. The piece begins with a memory of his childhood hobby, magic. Its hold on him came from the sense of "the abiding mystery at its heart. Mystery everywhere--permeating mystery--even in the most ordinary objects of the world." Through magic he could imagine a universe "both infinite and inexplicable" where "anything was possible," where "the old rules were no longer binding," where, if he could restore an apparently cleaved necktie, he ought to be able to use his "wand to wake up the dead" (176). O'Brien then reminds us of the dual role in many cultures of magician and storyteller performed by the same person, most commonly in a religious context. In Christianity, Jesus functions as storyteller, miracle worker, and revealer of truth, as O'Brien the writer ideally functions (177-79).

The Things They Carried assigns this shamanistic role to Tim the narrator, who has preserved his childhood sweetheart Linda "in the spell of memory and imagination" in the same way he has preserved the soldiers he knew who died in Vietnam, and in the same way O'Brien writes, and for the same reasons: to happen onto epiphany or understanding or enlightenment; to transcend the ordinary and the actual, to work miracles, to find spiritual relief. Thus the actual Chip becomes the novel's Curt Lemon, whose death Tim reinvents for his own peace of mind.

   Twenty years later, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon's face.
   I can see him turning, looking
   back at Rat Kiley, then he laughed and took that curious helf step
   from shade into sunlight,
   his face suddenly brown and shining, and when his foot touched
   down, in that
   instant, he must've thought it was the sunlight that was killing
   him. It was not the sunlight.
   It was a rigged 105 round. But if I could ever get the story right,
   how the sun seemed to
   gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree,
   if I could somehow recreate
   the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious
   cause and effect, then
   you would believe that the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which
   for him must've been the
   final truth. (84)

In "The Lives of the Dead," the book's final story, Timmy, while dreaming, talks to the dead Linda, and in this same spirit of dreaming he reanimates his dead buddies. My point is that, to read it as a journey or pilgrimage, we must read The Things They Carried not as a war story but as a post-war story, the story of the writer at his desk, not the soldier in the jungle, his childhood wand a pencil now, on an entirely different kind of journey. Indeed, O'Brien omitted the story "Speaking of Courage" from Going after Cacciato--the story initially featured Going after Cacciato's Paul Berlin instead of Norman Bowker--because "Cacciato was a war story" but "Speaking of Courage" was "a postwar story" (Naparsteck 7), and so belongs in the post-war book The Things They Carried.

Viewing O'Brien's The Things They Carried in relation to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, O'Brien's declared faith in the transcendent power of storytelling, and the trancelike state of its composition, suggests another interpretive perspective. Victor Turner's anthropological study of religious pilgrimage--found chiefly in "Pilgrimages as Social Processes" and Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (with Edith Turner)--combines Arnold Van Gennep's theory about the liminality of initiatory rites de passage with his own theory of spiritual communitas, of group member identification through an understanding of an essential sameness and universality. The United States military circumstances of combat in Vietnam conform closely enough to Turner's and Van Gennep's structural models to afford O'Brien a convenient juxtaposition of his military journey's absence of a spiritual component and his writing journey's quest for one.

The first major connection between Van Gennep and the military experience, for the purpose of cultural and literary studies, is Eric J. Leed's No Man's Land: Combat and Identity in World War I. According to Leed, the soldier going to war "undergoes rituals of passage, the rites described initially by Arnold Van Gennep. Van Gennep divided rites of passage into three phases: rites of separation, which remove the individual or group of individuals from his or their accustomed place; liminal rites, which symbolically fix the character of the 'passenger' as one who is between states, places, or conditions; and finally rites of incorporation (postliminal rites), which welcome the individual back into the [social] group" (14). Religious pilgrimages and Van Gennep's rites of passage also share geographic liminality. "In many tribal societies" Turner and Turner write, "initiands are secluded in a sacralized enclosure, or temenos, clearly set apart from the villages, markets, pastures, and gardens of everyday usage and trafficking." Most Christian ceremonies take place in churches and cathedrals, which are often located in the centre of a town, hardly far from daily life. But pilgrims achieve this liminality by travelling "to a sacred site or holy shrine located at some distance from the pilgrim's place of residence and daily labor" (4). For initiands and pilgrims, this physical movement to the social periphery removes them from daily concerns, responsibilities, obligations, and relationships, freeing them to experience inner spiritual happenings. Daily social life's complicated web of relational identity is radically transformed and simplified so that the individual can discover or assert a more autonomous or purified self, can deal with the journey on his or her own terms.

American soldiers deployed overseas to combat very much escape normal social bonds; they journey, as it were, to the periphery. Turner notes that "the Pali form of the Sanskrit word for pilgrimage" literally means "'retirement from the world'" (182), which nicely contrasts with the phrase that United States soldiers in Vietnam used to refer to the States: back in the world. Yet few if any would argue that the United States went to and fought in Vietnam for spiritual reasons. On the other hand, O'Brien's narrative journey to Vietnam, his writing process, and that of Tim the character-narrator do suggest that a pilgrimage is under way. If "pilgrimage is exteriorized mysticism," Turner and Turner write, "mysticism is an interior pilgrimage" (7). The daydreaming trance that brings Linda back to life in "The Lives of the Dead"; the daydreaming trance that O'Brien describes as his writing process and that attempts to create a kind of life after death (in fiction) for his characters, his friends, and himself; the moral accounting that seems to have sent O'Brien the author and Tim the narrator-character to the writing desk in the first place; and the very mystic language he uses to describe his artistic vision in "The Magic Show" all reveal the extent to which writing in general and writing The Things They Carried in particular are, for author and narrator-character, an interior pilgrimage. Leed further asserts that returned veterans continue to linger in a liminal zone (194). As Farrell O'Gorman has argued, in The Things They Carried, Vietnam is "a region of the psyche rather than of Southeast Asia" (295); or, as O'Brien himself has written, "you don't have to be in Nam to be in Nam" ("Vietnam" 55). His personal moral struggle over his participation in the war sends him back again and again.

One of Turner's most interesting and complex observations about religious pilgrimage concerns its volitional nature. In "Pilgrimages as Social Processes" he first notes how "in ancient Judea, and in modern Islam," the pilgrimage obligation did not apply to everyone. Moreover, "even for those on whom obligation rested[,] the obligation was a moral one; there were no sanctions behind it" because it obtains significance only when "voluntarily undertaken," when it is "regarded as desirable" (174). In other words, because the purpose of pilgrimage is to effect an internal spiritual transformation, one can't just go through the motions. Christian pilgrimage, on the other hand, "tended at first to stress the voluntary aspect and to consider sacred travel to Palestine or Rome as acts of supererogatory devotion"; yet, as the Church intervened to assert some control over what had initially been a tradition outside official structure, "a strong element of obligation came in with the organization of the penitential systems" whereby "pilgrimages were set down as adequate [and authorized] punishments [and penance] for certain crimes." Thus pilgrimages that begin as obligatory obtain a strong element of volition and vice-versa, an apparently inevitable ambiguity reflecting "the liminality of the pilgrimage situation itself" (175) more generally, as simultaneously an act of social duty and individual agency, a social event and an individual experience. Turner concludes that, in pilgrimage,

   we see clearly displayed this tension and ambiguity between
   status and contract and an
   attempt to reconcile them in the notion that it is meritorious
   to choose one's duty. Enough
   room is left to the individual to distance himself briefly from
   inherited social constraint
   and duty, but only enough room so as to constitute, as it were,
   a public platform in which
   he must make by word or deed a formal public acknowledgement of
   allegiance to the overarching
   religious, political, and economic orders. Yet even here appears
   the thin edge of the
   contractual wedge that will lead eventually to a major loosening
   up of the structure of
   society. Pilgrimages represent, so to speak, an amplified symbol
   of the dilemma of choice
   versus obligation in the midst of a social order where status
   prevails. (177, emph. Turner's)

Viewing pilgrimage as "an amplified symbol of the dilemma of choice versus obligation" brings us to O'Brien and his own decisions, first to go to Vietnam and then to write about it (and write about it and write about it). O'Brien the author and Tim the narrator-character of The Things They Carried could have avoided combat duty in Vietnam but ultimately chose to go, as his memoir's epigraph from Dante's Paradise underscores: "[T]he greatest gift that God in his bounty / made in creation ... / ... was the freedom of the will" (qtd. in Heberle 58).

That the epigraph from O'Brien's first book, his war memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, comes from Dante's Paradiso also suggests the spiritual salvation motivating this embarking moment of his writing career. O'Brien voluntarily returns to Vietnam in his writing to perform an interior pilgrimage. Unlike initiation rites of passage, pilgrimages are repeatable, and while most pilgrims undergo only one in a lifetime--the way most war memoirs are the only book written by the veteran--O'Brien the novelist seems to be a professional pilgrim. For Christian pilgrims, Turner and Turner write, "the mystery of choice resides in the individual" because what matters "is the inward movement of the heart" and "the moral unit is the individual" with the "goal of salvation" (8). Pilgrims go to resolve guilt, to hazard dangers, and pay proper penance for their sins. Pilgrimages represent both the path to miracles and the path through purgatory. They provide coherence, meaning, and direction.

Mark Heberle's study of Tim O'Brien as a "trauma artist" cites Kali Tal's three criteria for trauma literature: "the experience of trauma, the urge to bear witness, and a sense of community" (qtd. in Heberle 16). The first two elements clearly obtain in O'Briens texts; the last item, the sense of community, significantly connects with the Turner and Turner pilgrimage model. Turner characterizes the pilgrim group as forming a normative communitas, which is a group that is bound by a kind of social contract and that has, as its primary goal, the maintenance, by way of social structure, of the possibility of the group's achieving a spirit of universal fellowship. Pilgrims ideally experience a suspension of social casting "in bonding together, however transiently, at a certain level of social life, large numbers [...] who would otherwise never have come into contact" (178) in a manner that again encourages the spirit of communitas, which "presses always to universality and ever greater unity" (179). Turner quotes Malcolm X's reflection on his pilgrimage to Mecca and how it fostered in him the "reality of the Oneness of Man" beyond colour or other differences (169, emph. Turner's).

The sense of community involved in trauma literature as a condition of healing and the communitas sought by pilgrims as a fimdamental condition of spiritual development come together in O'Brien the author's and Tim the narrator-character's narrative quests for spiritual healing. The Things They Carried constantly reinforces the universalizing spirit engendered by sharing the combat experience and by achieving identification not only with the members of one's unit but also with the enemy and with the reader, even--and especially--those with no military or war experience whatsoever.

The major episode of universalizing identification to the enemy revolves around the man whom Tim the narrator did or didn't kill in "The Man I Killed," "Ambush", and "Good Form." In these stories, Tim the narrator-character identifies with the dead Viet Cong soldier, a man who as he imagines "had been born, maybe, in 1946," the same year as both character-narrator and author. All three come from farm country. The Vietnamese soldier "from his earliest boyhood [...] would have listened to stories about the heroic Trung sisters and Tran Hung Dao's famous rout of the Mongols and Le Loi's final victory against the Chinese at Tot Dong," just as Tim O'Brien spent his boyhood listening to tales of World War II from his parents' generation and World War I from his grandparents'. Publicly a supporter of the cause, the man whom Tim did or didn't kill was secretly frightened: "He was not a fighter. [...] He liked books. [ ... ] At night, lying on his mat, he could not picture himself doing the brave things his father had done, or his uncles, or the heroes of the stories. He hoped in his heart that he would never be tested. He hoped the Americans would go away. Soon, he hoped. He kept hoping and hoping, always, even when he was asleep" (Things 125). All of which describe Tim the narrator-character (and O'Brien the author).

O'Brien's language also feminizes the corpse, as its "eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman's," and as the narrator imagines the soldiers as a youth he see "at school the boys sometimes teased him about how pretty he was, the arched eyebrows and long shapely fingers, and on the playground they mimicked a woman's walk and made fun of his smooth skin" (Things 127). Read in the context of the rest of Tim's identification, this passage suggests that Tim sees himself, too, as slender and womanly, that he is recalling a boyhood fraught with such teasing. This feminization of the corpse helps dichotomize the young man's war-fearing sensitive nature from the masculine business of war-making. It also symbolizes the emasculating quality of war, that which renders soldiers passive and powerless; and, rightly or wrongly, readers associate passivity with the feminine. And, if we also accept the conventional thinking (again rightly or wrongly) described by Paul John Eakin in How Our Lives become Stories: Making Selves whereby we understand women to define themselves relationally and men to define themselves autonomously, the feminized corpse embodies the narrator's act of relational, "feminine" identification with another person. We never discover whether Tim the narrator killed the man. If he did, then the survivor's guilt he expresses in these stories further reflects a communitas spirit extending beyond his fellow United States soldiers, beyond military, national, racial, and even gender distinctions. If he did not kill the man, then the narrator's imaginative act of killing him and rendering him the narrator's own Doppelganger signifies O'Brien's writing aesthetic of using fiction to achieve moments of identification. Every time Tim recounts or re-imagines the death of a fellow soldier, he plays this identification game. His linking in the book's final story of the little girl Linda, his childhood friend who died when she was nine, with his fellow soldiers who died in Vietnam, reinforces the "feminized" position of the soldier.

O'Brien even takes pains, as all trauma artists do, to communicate his traumas incommunicability. Why else, finally, would he write about the war if he found it fundamentally incommunicable? Several incidents in the The Things They Carried reveal moments when the male soldiers cannot communicate with one another, such as Mitchell Sanders's story in "How to Tell a True War Story" about the patrol that heads into the mountains on a listening-post mission and whose bizarre, hallucinatory experience they refuse to tell their colonel when they get back--refuse to tell him, the reader senses, because it cannot be communicated. Later in the book, Tim the narrator finds himself assigned to a desk job at battalion headquarters, away from his line unit, out of the jungle, and such an assignment makes him feel "like a civilian" (Things 194). When his old buddies return from a mission, he can no longer connect with them: "They were soldiers," he bemoans; "I wasn't" (198). Paradoxically, this separation from his former comrades creates a communitas identification with the reader as O'Brien here connects his narrator's alienation with that of his reader: civilian or veteran, man or woman.

The final instance of connecting the soldier's life with the civilian's appears in the last story of The Things They Carried, "The Lives of the Dead." In that story, Tim the narrator directly and positively relates the death of his childhood friend Linda to the deaths of his fellow soldier. His response in both cases is identical: he daydreams about them and tries to preserve them with stories. The death of Linda demonstrates O'Brien's efforts to achieve a moment of communitas with his readers beyond the confines of the text. By ending with a story about coping with a little girl's death from circumstances beyond her control, O'Brien reaches out to readers who never went to war. Anyone can relate to Timmy's grief and response to Linda's death; thus anyone should be able to relate to Tim's grief and response to the deaths of his fellow soldiers. Communicating the war experience in a meaningful way to people who have never been in combat is O'Brien's primary purpose. O'Brien's joy as a writer derives from his touching those who haven't lived what he has lived (e.g., McNerney 24-25).

The Things They Carried thus achieves--at the very least aspires to achieve--the communitas of pilgrimage among the soldiers in the unit, between the narrator-character and the enemy, and between the narrator-character, author, and the reader. If this novel's narrative journey holds any promise of redemption, it would be in whether it succeeds in meeting O'Brien moral imperative of imaginative identification, the moral imperative that just might prevent the next bad war from ever occurring. Yet, for Tim the narrator and O'Brien the author, we still must ask whether this communication of the war experience to others is sufficient for quieting his own demons, for alleviating his spiritual turmoil. Is this novel's pilgrimage a success for its narrator and its author?

If "at the end of a story you feel uplifted," the narrator of "How to Tell a True War Story" argues, "or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie" (69). Here is the way the book ends, with the story "The Lives of the Dead," narrated by Tim:

   And then it becomes 1990. I'm forty-three years old, and a writer
   now, still dreaming Linda
   alive in exactly the same way. She's not the embodied Linda; she's
   mostly made up, with a
   new identity and a new name, like the man who never was. Her real
   name doesn't matter.
   She was nine years old. I loved her and she died. And yet right
   here, in the spell of memory
   and imagination, I can still see her as if through ice, as if I'm
   gazing into some other
   world, a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral
   homes, where there are no
   bodies at all. I can see Kiowa, too, and Ted Lavender and Curt
   Lemon, and sometimes I can
   even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights.
   I'm young and happy. I'll
   never die. I'm skimming across the surface of my own history,
   moving fast, riding the melt
   beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and 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.

Can imagination save us, uplift us, provide some small bit of rectitude, if only temporarily, or is it the very perpetrator of that old and terrible lie? The lie, of course, is the illusion of meaning, of spiritual gain, of recovery of innocence, in the act of creating or receiving a war story.

Metaphorically, Linda's death during Timmy's childhood in the collection's final story can be viewed as Tim's loss of innocence in Vietnam, and in this way it connects with his obsessive insistence on Martha's virginity in the book's first and title story--as truly an obsessive clinging to his own innocence and a refusal to acknowledge its loss in Vietnam. Concluding this novel with the childhood memory returns the veteran to his pre-war self, as so many veteran narratives try to do, but it also knows the impossibility of such a return. Even the death of a little girl can't but be seen through the lens of the war experience. The possible achievement of communitas notwithstanding, the prospect of saving Timmy's life with a story, the possibility of Tim's complete moral cleansing and his return to the innocence of his youthful pre-war self, strikes me as bleak. Tim wants desperately to believe in the power of the imagination to save Timmy's life by leaping high and landing on some epiphany or understanding or enlightenment, but eventually imagination's "high leap in the dark" comes to an end, and it is thirty years later: the dead are still dead, we cannot believe that Curt Lemon's final thoughts were of sunlight, and Tim and O'Brien are neither young nor happy.

O'Brien's other work provides context for the bleakness belying the hope in the transforming power of story-truth in The Things They Carried. The role call of the dead that begins both his early Vietnam novels, Going after Cacciato and The Things They Carried, has an echo in "The Violent Vet," his early non-fiction piece from 1979: "Out of more than 2.5 million men who actually served in Southeast Asia, some 57,000 died and another 300,000 were wounded, 150,000 of them seriously enough to require hospitalization. Of those wounded, some 75,000 came home with serious handicaps, while about 25,000 returned totally disabled; 5,283 men came home with one missing limb; 61 came home as triple amputees" (103). And in "The Vietnam in Me," O'Brien tells us about being shown scars on the bodies of Vietnamese women and "what's left of a man named Nguyen Van Ngu. They balance this wreckage on a low chair. Both legs are gone at the upper-upper thigh" (56). The references to scars and amputees are especially telling. It's easy enough to re-animate the non-present dead through the imagination. It's impossible to restore a limb imaginatively to a person sitting in front of you.

Northern Lights, O'Brien's first novel, treats apocalypse "as the startling fact of modern life," as he told Larry McCaffrey in an interview (141). His third novel, The Nuclear Age, explores one man's response to the threat of nuclear apocalypse as a metaphor for the man's fear of both his own death and the death of all things, "not only human mortality," O'Brien says, "but the mortality of the universe as well: the sun is going to flare up and roast the earth and then die out" (qtd. in McNerney 11). As an adult, the novel's protagonist, William Cowling, imagines the end of it all. "In the attic, a warhead no doubt burns. Everything is combustible. Faith burns. Trust burns. Everything burns to nothing and even nothing burns. [...] And when there is nothing, there is nothing worth dying for and when there is nothing worth dying for, there is only nothing" (Nuclear 303). As a twelve-year-old boy in the 1950s, Cowling protected himself from radioactive fallout by hording lead pencils in his basement ping-pong-table bomb shelter--as if pencils could ever save anyone, O'Brien the writer included. O'Brien's spiritual metaphor of salvation through storytelling, against such an apocalyptic and secular outlook, seems based upon an empty hope. The power of language to mollify the soul's pain is a trick, an illusion, like O'Brien's repeated insistence in several works that by changing the language of death he and his fellow soldiers could make it less real: "It's easier to cope with a kicked bucket than a corpse; if it isn't human, it doesn't matter much if it's dead" (238).

Because in the end O'Brien doesn't trust language. In 1994, during his return trip to Vietnam, O'Brien stands in front of a ditch at My Lai, "where maybe 50, maybe 80, maybe 100 innocent human beings perished." He focusses on the facts: 504 dead--"women, infants, teenagers, old men"--in an area that saw civilian casualties "approaching 50,000 a year" (52). Words fail him. Words can't express the misery, words can't make a difference: "I want a miracle. That's the final emotion. The terror at this ditch, the certain doom, the need for God's intervention," and the unstated fear that it will never come ("Vietnam" 53). O'Brien's response, the response of the woman with him, the response of the Vietnamese survivors with him, is silence. Language can do nothing. It cannot adequately express, it cannot change the facts, it cannot redeem anything. There is no saving of these dead souls, or of anyone's living soul. As crucial and powerful as imagination and language are, O'Brien's writing, in the end, reveals their limitations. Like the childhood magic tricks to which he compares his writing, "what seemed to happen became a happening in itself" only "for a time. [...] It was an illusion, of course--the creating of a new and improved reality" ("Magic" 175). At the end of the private show, one must come up from the basement and face the world. We all leave the show knowing that none of it was real, knowing that none of it meant anything at all.

Revisiting Vietnam in his memory has sent O'Brien to the edge of suicide, yet he has gone back, seeking always somehow "to save Timmy's life with a story." That he has kept going back, that he has circled around that part of his life like Norman Bowker circling the lake, suggests the success of each narrative pilgrimage. "You can tell a true war story," O'Brien tells us, "if you just keep on telling it" (Things 85). As I think "The Vietnam in Me" expresses, the more O'Brien has gone back, the more he has realized the futility of finding redemptive dignity or moral grounding. He can't save himself, or Kiowa, or O'Brien's real buddy Chip. The actual site of his journey, the war in Vietnam, holds no solid moral framework, religious or political, upon which he can hang his individual value system. "In a destabilized system," Turner and Turner write, "life has become one long pilgrimage, without map or sacred goal" (237). O'Brien's problem, then, has been that his narrative pilgrimages have lacked the necessary institutionalized and internalized sources of meaning.

Somehow, however, O'Brien has survived. The years around 1994, the year of "The Vietnam in Me" and his darkest novel, In the Lake of the Woods, were by all accounts his personal nadir. His two novels since that period, Tomcat in Love and July, July, show a marked turn of spirits. Tomcat in Love is a comedy that pokes fun at--among other things--a Vietnam veteran, Thomas Chippering, with an exaggerated paranoia of the ghosts of his war-time past and with a habit of spinning language to deceive himself. "Although the [Vietnam] war is uncovered as a traumatic experience for Chippering," Heberle writes, "his own self-representation, his unreliability as a narrator, and even the persuasiveness of his traumatization subvert the conventional solemnity of the subject" (Lake 282). Thus O'Brien uses the novel to parody himself, both his endless writing on the subject of Vietnam, on his chaotic love life, and on the relation between the two, as he pokes fun of his mantra from"The Vietnam in Me" of that his "inexhaustible need for affection" and love has led him to war and other inexcusable acts (Tomcat 158). After the emotional nightmare of writing In the Lake of the Woods, writing Tomcat in Love helped O'Brien recover by permitting him to laugh at himself and "lighten up a bit." The result, in Heberle's estimation, is "his most original revision of his previous work and of himself" (289).

In July, July, O'Brien for the first time has imagined a character able to escape the war. Billy McMann flees to Canada and, at his high school reunion thirty-one years later, begins a new future with a woman who just happens to be a former minister. The other characters in the novel also have arrived at contentment, and, despite the class reunion as the frame story, the novel looks forward, propelling the reader and the characters to whatever happens after the last page, instead of back into the past, back into the book, into the war, as the earlier novels did. We might speculate that O'Brien has realized the futility of transcending war's meaningless through writing and has relieved himself of the burden of salvaging any personal meaning from his Vietnam experiences beyond the simple act of sharing them with others. Which he has already done several times. Relieved of the past, his writing has begun to imagine the future.


Bates, Milton J. The Wars We Took to Vietnam: Cultural Conflict and Storytelling. Berkeley: U of California P, 1996.

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim's Progress. 1907. Intro. and notes by G.B. Harrison. Everyman's Library. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1954.

cummings, e.e. The Enormous Room. 1922. Ed. and intro. Samuel Hynes. Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Dunn, Maggie, and Ann Morris. The Composite Novel: The Short Story Cycle in Transition. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Eakin, Paul John. How Our Lives become Stories: Making Selves. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1999.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. London: Oxford UP, 1975.

Heberle, Mark A. A Trauma Artist: Tim O'Brien and the Fiction of Vietnam. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2001.

Leed, Eric J. No Man's Land: Combat and Identity in World War I Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1979.

McCaffrey, Larry. Interview with Tim O'Brien. Chicago Review 33.2 (1982): 129-49.

McNerney, Brian C. "Responsibly Inventing History: An Interview with Tim O'Brien." War, Literature, and the Arts 6.2 (Fall-Winter 1994): 1-26.

Naparsteck, Martin. Interview with Tim O'Brien. Contemporary Literature 32.1 (Spring 1991): 1-11.

O'Brien, Tim. Going after Cacciato. New York: Broadway Books, 1978.

--. If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, New York: Broadway Books, 1973.

--. In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Penguin, 1994.

--. July, July. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

--. "The Magic Show." Writers on Writing. Ed. Robert Pack and Jay Parini. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1991. 175&83.

--. Northern Lights. New York: Broadway Books, 1975.

--. The Nuclear Age. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

--. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books, 1990.

--. Tomcat in Love. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.

--. "The Vietnam in Me." New York Times Magazine (2 October 1994): 48-57.

--. "The Violent Vet." Esquire (December 1979): 96-97, 99-100, 103-04.

O'Gorman, Farrell. "The Things They Carried as Composite Novel." War, Literature and the Arts 10.2 (Fall-Winter 1998): 289-309.

Turner, Victor. "Pilgrimages as Social Processes." Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1974.

Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives. New York: Columbia UP, 1978.

Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell, 1969.

This essay examines The Things They Carried in relation to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and Victor Turner's investigations of religious pilgrimages, suggesting that O'Brien's novel asks every war writer's essential question: Can a veteran achieve moral or spiritual redemption storytelling?

ALEX VERNON is an assistant professor of English at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, where he teaches American literature and writing. His literary criticism has appeared in South Atlantic Review; JNT: The Journal of Narrative Theory; a/b: Auto/Biography Studies; and The Hemingway Review.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A111695828