Character Analysis Norman Bowker


Bowker arrives in Vietnam operating within a schema of World War II soldiering. He believes, according to O'Brien, that what marks men as courageous are medals and service awards. Because of and in spite of this belief, Bowker has an active emotional life, an intensity of feeling about the atrocities he experienced in Vietnam, especially Kiowa's death. These feelings are not directed out toward the world as anger, but instead are turned in upon him, and they become self-loathing and extreme survivor guilt. O'Brien describes Bowker as someone who "did not know what to feel." Bowker himself could not find words to describe his feelings, and instead turns to O'Brien to tell his story for him.

Bowker connects "O'Brien" the soldier with O'Brien the writer. He operates as a figment of O'Brien's imagination, allowing him to move between the war and storytelling, providing a purpose and a story for O'Brien to tell. This stands in contrast to Bowker's actions in the novel, and points to what motivated him to take his own life: the lack of an objective.

Bowker embodies the paradox between the need for emotional truth and the pain many feel in expressing it. The Bowker character is most essential to the novel as fodder about which O'Brien creates a fictional story. He asks O'Brien to write his story, and when he reads it, asks him to revise it to reflect more of his feeling of intimate loss. Bowker teaches O'Brien how to articulate pain through storytelling, the particular pain of Kiowa's death to the wastefulness of war. Without this experience of articulating trauma through storytelling, O'Brien asserts that he too could have been trapped in the same emotional paralysis as Bowker. Bowker also helps O'Brien realize how writing helped him to avoid a similar fate.