Summary and Analysis
A Vietnamese girl seems to be dancing among the ruins of a burnt-out hamlet. Her house has burned down and her family killed, yet she continues to move and dance despite the devastation she sees, her face quiet and composed. Later that night, Azar mocks and mimics the girl's gestures. Henry Dobbins disapproves and threatens him to make him stop if he does not dance right.
The central symbol in this vignette is the dance of the young girl. The characters understand dancing as deliberate, purposeful, graceful, and meaningful: everything that the war in Vietnam is not. The repeating theme is that the characters labor to understand why the girl is dancing and the meaning of her dance. All around lies destruction, decay, and death, and yet she dances. Perhaps she dances as an escape from her reality; perhaps she dances to deny her reality; or perhaps, as Azar says, she dances a ritual that gives meaning to what has happened. When she covers her ears with her hands, she may be either blocking out sound or acting out an ornate cultural ritual.
Regardless of the meaning of the dance, O'Brien makes it clear that the American soldiers do not understand either why she dances or what the dance means. To them, this scene is one of destruction and the dancing girl is an abomination. Everything else fits the schema of destruction and war, the dance alone stands out. And yet it is around her dance that the story revolves and the soldiers continually lead their discussion. To them, there must be meaning, and meaning is what they desperately lack.
In fact, the dancing girl is one of the most optimistic symbols O'Brien gives us in the novel, for clearly she symbolizes something, even if we cannot know it. The soldiers cannot ignore her because they are starving for meaning in their campaign; any meaning, even the meaning of a small girl dancing in the middle of dead bodies and ashes. She pays them and their doings no heed, and yet they constantly attend her dance, seeking its meaning.
O'Brien deliberately uses open words when he says that later that night "Azar mocked the girl's dancing." On the one hand, Azar could just have been imitating the dance; on the other hand, he may also have been making light of it, the pejorative meaning of "mock." But this haunting statement is only a smokescreen: O'Brien is tricking us and wondering whether we will catch the main point — that Azar is now dancing. Even after they have left the scene and the girl behind, their minds still dwell on the dance and its elusive meaning. For the soldiers, if they can do the dance properly, they may understand something, anything about where they are and what they are doing there.
In the end, the pseudo-hero of the vignette, Henry Dobbins, proves to be the most deluded. He stops Azar from dancing and warns him that he should dance "right." What Dobbins does not understand, and what is unspeakably beyond the comprehension of the band of soldiers, is that they cannot dance right, for they have no meaning to deliver. All they can do is make large dance-like gestures, mocking what they cannot, but what they desperately want to, understand.