Summary and Analysis
Speaking of Courage
After his service in the Vietnam War, Norman Bowker returns home and has difficulty adjusting to the normalcy of everyday life. In the late afternoon on the Fourth of July holiday, Norman drives around a local lake, passing time and thinking about his life before the war, as well as what he saw and did in Vietnam. He recalls driving around the lake with Sally before the war and remembers how a childhood friend drowned in the lake. He thinks about how his friends have gotten married or moved away to find jobs.
Norman wants to talk about Vietnam, and he imagines how he would tell his father about almost earning a Silver Star, but his father is too busy to listen. Norman wants to talk about nearly saving Kiowa's life and about how he feels he failed in not doing so. He contemplates telling his stories about Vietnam to four railway workers he sees.
As Norman continues to drive around the lake, he listens to the radio and thinks more about bravery. He thinks about how he would explain the incidents that led up to Kiowa's death and recalls the scene with great detail as the memories play again and again in his mind like a movie. Later, he pulls into an A&W drive-in restaurant and tries to place an order with the carhop, who tells him to talk into the intercom. After he finishes eating, he presses the intercom button again and begins to tell his story to the voice at the other end of the intercom, but he changes his mind and resumes his drive around the lake. Later he stops and watches the fireworks show.
Of the characters O'Brien revisits in a post-war story, Norman Bowker is by far the one who has the most difficult time carrying — to draw on the metaphor O'Brien presents in the novel's title — the burden of memory. It is important to note that, like the first chapter, this chapter is told by a third person narrator — the narrator "O'Brien" is largely absent from this chapter as a witness or commentator, though he comments on it in the chapter that follows. Instead, O'Brien employs a stream-of-consciousness technique that allows readers to learn the details of Kiowa's death by "overhearing" Bowker's interior dialogue.
Norman's problem is one of not having an audience to which he can address the stories of Vietnam that weigh heavily on him emotionally. O'Brien underscores Bowker's hesitation to tell others about his experiences in Vietnam, as he believes that they don't want to hear them. He imagines that his former girlfriend Sally's response would be one of horrified disapproval of the vulgarities of war, of the vulgarity of Kiowa's death in the shit field. He imagines that his father will be disinterested, thinking that he has his own World War II stories and that he would call Norman's courage and valor into question. This rejection by his father that he assumes will occur, combined with his sense that the "town seemed remote" and that "he felt invisible," contributes to the extreme alienation Norman feels.
O'Brien demonstrates this sense of disconnectedness and alienation through the pathos of Norman trying to tell his story, which he has a deep need and desire to do, but then becoming quiet again and keeping the story to himself, first with the men working, then with the boys he passes, and finally with the order taker at A&W. Norman's drive around the lake is a metaphor for this cycle of trying to articulate his story; he circles the familiar town where he grew up looking for his place in it, looking for what he should do next with his life, but being unable to discover that answer. Similarly, he needs to tell his story to begin to come to terms with and take meaning from the memories of Vietnam that creep into his thoughts. Norman, then, is searching for meaning. Norman's repetitive drive in circles around the lake recalls the dancing girl that the troop encounters in "Style;" both are acting out a search for meaning.
Before Norman can tell his story or find meaning, he must resolve the conflict between fear and courage that is at the core of his story of Kiowa's death. The elusive Silver Star is a symbol with its meanings in conflict within the context of this chapter: The award is a military recognition of valor, but Norman would have won it for an act that seems somehow incongruous, saving Kiowa from drowning in the muddy field of human excrement. Because of this incongruity, Norman cannot tell the whole story. He imagines that his father, a veteran himself who understands medals as inaccurate measures of heroism ("knowing full well that many brave men do not win medals for their bravery, and that others win medals for doing nothing") might ask him about the Silver Star. In answering his father's inquiry, Norman would first describe in detail the seven medals he had been awarded. Next he would begin to describe the river, though he would omit that they had mistakenly set up camp in the village's area for excrement. Finally he would ask, "You really want to hear this?" and then continue until he remembers the smell, and his ability to tell the story fails. As Norman's narration breaks off, he notices people and activity around the lake, and he starts another turn around the lake. He goes around and around the lake, which also has an offensive and stinking smell, but does not move to it, as he does not get to the shit field in his story as he tells it to his father in his imagination.
This inability to tell the complete story, shit and all, is linked to the conflict between memory and nostalgia in the chapter. O'Brien deliberately chooses to set the story on the Fourth of July, which creates a counterpoint between cliché conceptions of patriotism and heroism and the reality of what war demands from those who participate in it. As Norman continues to play out the scenario in his mind about telling the story of the shit field, it becomes clear to him that he cannot tell the crux of the story, his attempt to save Kiowa from drowning: "He could not describe what happened next, not ever, but he would've tried anyway." This inability recalls "O'Brien's" admission in "On the Rainy River," also a story about courage, that he had never told that story before. Their shared inability is related to a sense of shame and embarrassment that both men carry, O'Brien for going to war and Norman for choosing to live, releasing Kiowa's boot and thinking, "Not here…Not like this."
After his eleventh revolution around the lake, Norman thinks about telling his father that "the truth is that I let [Kiowa] go." His father's response, one dismissive of the death but praising of Norman's other seven medals, indicates that he has missed the entire truth of the story, which is his son's desperate sense of guilt. Norman cannot even get that far in telling his story; he cannot tell the story because survivors and witnesses tell the stories that become history. Through his symbolic wading into the lake and putting his head under and tasting the water, readers understand that Bowker sort of died in Vietnam and cannot recover because he cannot find meaning in his life after the war.
Silver Star A U.S. military decoration in the form of a bronze star with a small silver star at the center, awarded for gallantry in action.
Combat Infantryman's Badge An award designed for enlisted men and below who have served in active combat zones.
Air Medal A U.S. military decoration awarded for meritorious achievement during participation in aerial operations.
Army Commendation Medal Awarded to any member of the Armed Forces of the U.S., other than general officers, who, while serving in any capacity after December 6, 1941, distinguished himself by heroism, meritorious achievement or meritorious service.
Good Conduct Medal A U.S. military decoration awarded for exemplary behavior, efficiency, and fidelity.
Vietnam Campaign Medal Awarded to personnel who meet one of the following requirements: (1) served in Vietnam for six months during the period of March 1, 1961 and March 28, 1973, (2) served outside Vietnam and contributed direct combat support to Vietnam and Armed Forces for six months, or (3) six months service is not required for individuals who were wounded by hostile forces; killed in action or otherwise in line of duty; or captured by hostile forces.
ribbons Strips of cloth, often of many colors, worn on the left breast of a military uniform to indicate an award of a decoration or medal.
bivouacked Encamped in the open, with only tents or improvised shelter.
shrapnel Any fragments scattered by an exploding shell or bomb.
carhop A waiter or, especially, a waitress who serves food to customers in cars at a drive-in restaurant.
the Y Abbreviation for the Young Men's Christian Association. A social center for recreational activities.
seven honeys Seven medals.