The Things They Carried By Tim O'Brien Summary and Analysis Field Trip

Summary

O'Brien and his daughter travel to Vietnam and visit the site of Kiowa's death. O'Brien and 10-year-old Kathleen visit the tourist spots, which she enjoys, but it is clear to him that she does not understand the war that had happened 20 years earlier. She wonders "why was everybody so mad at everybody else." She thinks her father is "weird" because he cannot forget the past.

They arrive at the field where Kiowa died, and O'Brien notes how it looks like any farming field now. They walk to where the field meets the river. O'Brien unwraps a cloth bundle that holds Kiowa's old moccasins. With the moccasins, he wades in, swimming out to where Kiowa's rucksack had been recovered, and reaches in and wedges the moccasins into the river bottom. O'Brien holds the glance of an old Vietnamese farmer working nearby, whom Kathleen thinks looks angry. The man holds a shovel over his head like a flag, and O'Brien tells his daughter that the anger that the man would have felt was finished and in the past.

Analysis

The point of this vignette is for O'Brien to attain some closure for the loss of Kiowa. He held an image in his mind for over 20 years of the field where Kiowa had died, but he immediately finds that the reality is nothing like the image in his mind. For example, now the land seems to be at peace, where before every hill and blade of grass made him feel fear at night — the fear of war. Neither his memory nor his field trip were truer than the other — they were simply different truths. O'Brien questions what is Vietnam: Is it a memory, is it a country, is it both, or is it neither?

Not insignificantly, O'Brien brings his daughter, Kathleen, on this trip, for he wants her to understand more about his past. Yet he finds that as attentive and interested as she is, she does not understand much, like the need to trek out into one of a thousand fields in the middle of a foreign country. When she asks about the meaning, all O'Brien can do is give an obscure answer. At first he says that there are three different perspectives, Kathleen's, his own, and those who sent him to this country. In the end, though, he simply answers, "I don't know." It is not that Vietnam has no meaning, but that he cannot understand or explain it to anyone else, even his own daughter.

Kathleen does not see the need to remember; she calls her father "weird" for his inability to forget that past. O'Brien does not see himself as weird, however, and although he never says it, he must regret his daughter's immediate desire to ignore such an important piece of his past. Perhaps this is why when they are in the field, he does not make an exhaustive effort to explain everything to her.

The scene in the field is the climax of the story, where for once the production of meaning comes from O'Brien rather than simply having meaning swarm around him. He describes the field as the locus for his emotional emptiness; he blames it for the man he has become. It is in this field, however, that he is finally able to create meaning for some part of what happened to him. Unlike the dancing girl from "Style" and the unintelligible monks from "Church," this time it is O'Brien, wading out into the marsh, touching the water, who is participating in an action that has a meaning. Conversely, Kathleen is now the observer who can merely look upon her father and not understand what he is doing. So O'Brien the writer creates a cycle where meaning and ignorance move through a generation. Now he as an ex-soldier, a friend, a father, and also a writer will tell stories and give meaning. His audience, however, may not understand him, and maybe be left only to mock his movements rather than participate and communicate with him. O'Brien's battle has shifted from a field in Vietnam to a culture, and rather than a gun or knife he now has a story, a book, and a family with which he must contend.

Glossary

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum Burial place of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnamese leader and first president of North Vietnam (1954-1969). His army was victorious in the French Indochina War (1946-1954), and he later led North Vietnam's struggle to defeat the U.S.-supported government in South Vietnam.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

A form of storytelling within the novel, pretending is




Quiz