In the novel The Things They Carried, written by Tim O’Brien, the author paints a portrait in the readers mind of all the realities of the war atrocities. O’Brien tells a different short story each chapter about characters and all the struggles and difficult encounters they face. Each character carries three things during the war. The first thing the soldiers carry is the physical items necessary for survival: M-16, M-60, grenades, ammo, etc. The second thing they carry are personal items such as pebbles, comic books, girlfriend’s pantyhose, etc.
The final thing each soldier carries are the mental burdens of the war, figuratively the heaviest and worst thing to carry. Tim Cyprian uses the character Norman Booker to display the emotional weight that the war puts on soldiers and soldier’s inability to accept the past. In the chapter “Speaking of Courage,” Norman Booker grieves over how he did not win the Silver Star medal. It’s not the physical medal that Norman is upset about not winning because he has won seven other medals prior to that. Norman is upset because of what the medal shows what Norman failed to do, save
Kiowa. This guilt deteriorates Norman in a way that he can’t express or tell anyone. Norman repeatedly drives around the lake in the town thinking about who would listen to his stories. He makes attempts to tell numerous people but never can. “There was nothing to say. He could not talk about it, and never would” (O’Brien 167). When Norman goes to an A restaurant the person on the intercom is finally willing to listen to what ever Norman has to say. Norman can’t sum up the courage to tell the person though. Booker says the war conquered his courage.
Even if anyone listens to Booker, they would not of been able to understand the reality of war because, “In many cases a true war Story cannot be believed” (O’Brien 80). On Normal’s eleventh time around the lake, he imagines himself talking to his father about the Silver Star he should have earned. Normal’s father was very accepting in the fact that Norman let Kiowa go in to the field of “chit” but he will never understand the significance of not earning that medal. After the war is over, Booker is still grieving and is having a hard time facing reality.
When Norman returns home, the real war against reality is just beginning. Booker is a perfect illustration of how most soldiers feel when they go back home. They feel like a needle in a haystack. Some people thought the war was a horrible idea so these people felt a specific hatred to soldiers who fought in it, even if fighting wasn’t their choice. Also, soldiers saw and did things that can’t be taken back. They have the guilt of killing people on their shoulders, they have seen death of close friends and they have been through the worst conditions f their lives.
Soldiers get mentally and physically destroyed when they are in the field. Norman is symbolic of the isolation that soldiers feel when they go back home. ‘The thing is there’s no place to go. Not just in this lousy town. In general. My life, mean. It’s almost like I got killed over in Name… Hard to describe. That night when Kiowa got wasted, I sort of sank down into the sewage with him… Feels like I’m still in deep chit” (O’Brien 170). Norman just could not adjust to reality after what had happened in Name. Eight months later, Norman Booker hanged himself at a YMCA.
One thing that O’Brien would say about how he got over the war was by writing. He also says that the best way to get over the past is to retell it so you can learn to accept the harshness and severity of it. Normal’s inability to tell people about the war is one of the key factors to why he was suffering so bad when he returned home. Norman suffered severe trauma and because he kept all of his thoughts to himself and couldn’t adjust to society, he ended up taking his fife away from all the anxiety and regret and isolation that the war caused.
Time’s use of Norman Booker shows the reader how hard it is for soldiers to adjust to society when they return home. Norman Booker is a perfect example Of when soldiers return to their homes, they fight a bigger war with in themselves than the one the just fought. In order to face your past, you must talk about it and be strong. If you don’t want to face your past you can try to just forget about it or you will end up as Norman, emotionally unstable with an unhappy ending.
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His father is silent, his ex-girlfriend (now happily married to another man) would just totally not understand, and his hometown seems indifferent in general, but thats not why he cant talk. He just cant. Hell never be able to talk about his harrowing experience in Vietnam, and when he tries to communicate through OBrien as a last-ditch effort, OBrien fails him. Shortly thereafter, Bowker kills himself.
Once he gets home from the war, though, we learn a lot more. Bowker is unable to leave the war behind, but hes also unable to talk about it:
The town could not talk, and would not listen. “Howd you like to hear about the war?” he might have asked, but the place could only blink and shrug. (Speaking of Courage.32)
We know more about Bowker at peace than we do about him at war. At war, we know that hes gentle, but carries a thumb that Mitchell Sanders cut off a VC soldier and gave to him. The only other personal thing he carries is a diary. He keeps telling Kiowa to shut up when Kiowa wants to talk about Ted Lavenders death, but eventually hes okay with listening. We know, vaguely, that he feels pressure from his father to win medals in Vietnam.
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Probably the most important thing to know about Norman Bowker is that he has guilt. A lot of it. And he just cant get over it. The source of this guilt is a horrible incident during Normans time in Vietnam, in which he fails to save the life of his comrade Kiowa.
One night, under mortar attack, Normans company is forced to duck and cover into a muddy field on the banks of a river in monsoon season. But this isnt just any field; in Normans indelicate words, it is a s&#* field. Literally, the people of the village use this space for their communal toilet. In these deplorable conditions, soldiers hide in the thick sludge under a torrential rain and a hail of shells and bullets. Youd be hard-pressed to find a more hellish situation.
But it gets even worse. Kiowa gets hit and starts sinking in the muck. Norman tries to pull him out, but the smell of his surroundings overpowers him, and he lets Kiowa slide down beneath it. Reflecting on this later, Norman cant get over the fact that he was not courageous enough to save his friend. He repeatedly refers to the Silver Star (the medal for valor) that he could have won had he saved Kiowa.
Norman also has an overwhelming need to communicate his experience to someone. In Speaking of Courage, he drives around a lake in his hometown, over and over, while having pretend conversations in his head. He fantasizes sitting down with his dad and telling him the whole agonizing story of Kiowas death. He imagines his dad listening closely, asking questions, in short, caring. He does the same thing with his ex-girlfriend, Sally. But Sally has since married someone else, and his father, we are told, preferred silence.
In Notes, we learn that Norman has written to the author, Tim OBrien, in a desperate attempt to communicate his story. He wants Tim to write Normans story. Tim does write the story but changes several things and doesnt include the part about Kiowas death. This is gravely disappointing to Norman.
Norman also struggles to fit in with societys expectations for him as a returning vet. He feels its important to be tough and not be seen as a whiner about his time in combat. Self-pity is frowned upon by the good folks at home.
Normans letter to Tim states that he doesnt want to sound like some jerkoff vet crying in his beer. He is very conscious of the way he is supposed to act in the eyes of a country that sent him off to war and now wants to forget all about it. Americas unwillingness to listen to him leads to his bottling everything up. As he concludes in Speaking of Courage, There was nothing to say. He could not talk about it and never would.
Unfortunately, the burden of these expectations and bottled-up guilt come to an appalling head for Norman Bowker. He hangs himself eight months after expressing his bitter disappointment with Tim for not getting his story right.
Even in his death, Norman fulfills the expectations of a society that just doesnt want to hear it. In the middle of a basketball game, he goes off to hang himself with a jump rope. He leaves no note.
As his mother explains later in a letter to Tim, Norman was a quiet boy. . . and I dont suppose he wanted to bother anybody. In light of his long struggle to communicate and connect, his death is even more poignant.
Norman Bowker is one of the most tragic characters in Tim OBriens The Things They Carried. He exemplifies the sad situation waiting at home in America for many Vietnam veterans.
The two stories and chapters Speaking of Courage and Notes describe Normans struggle returning to a country that doesnt want to hear his story. Norman is overwhelmed by guilt at the death of his friend Kiowa, whom he is convinced he could have saved. He yearns to talk to someone about this. He writes to the author, Tim, and tries to get his story published, but when Tim writes it, he leaves out the most important parts.
Ultimately, no one wants to hear the story. Norman is expected to bottle up his feelings and move on. The burden of this proves too much to bear and leads to his eventual suicide. Even in death, Normans feelings cant find an outlet, as he leaves no message.
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What did Bowker carry?
What did everyone carry in The Things They Carried?
What happened to Norman Bowker in The Things They Carried?
Why is Norman Bowker important in The Things They Carried?