‘The Lives of the Dead’ by Tim O’Brien: Short Story Analysis
‘The Lives of the Dead’ is a short story in memoir form by American writer Tim O’Brien from his book The Things They Carried. Tim O’Brien, while a young man, was drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam. His books are part fiction and part autobiographical about his life as a soldier and then as a writer. O’Brien uses a different style of retelling of his past. It reads somewhat like a story in a story, or rather like two mirrors being placed parallel to each other. It is then that we see infinite ways of looking at the story and the retellings of O’Brien’s life in Vietnam. Tim O’Brien is reflective, sentimental, and writes ‘The Lives of the Dead’ in a half-surreal and half-lucid style. O’Brien has been known to use unique writing styles for his literary works. He merges and blends the events during his childhood with those from his young adulthood as a soldier. He talks of his childhood sweetheart Linda who passed away when she was nine-years-old due to a brain tumor. He blends her death with the dead people he encountered fighting in Vietnam. As mentioned before, the prose and narration style is sentimental but simple. It is a modernist realistic short story, only partially paranormal. The paranormal portion is highly reflective thinking on the part of O’Brien to make the dead live again.
As a child, he wished Linda to live again in his night dreams. In this way, he felt the dead would never be forgotten. As long as someone can remember them and their stories, then the dead never really die. O’Brien can’t get over the death of his childhood sweetheart. He mentions several times in the narrative that he loved her beyond the physical. The two children who were both nine years old hardly spoke to each other, avoided each other’s glances, never kissed, et al., yet, O’Brien insists that they were indeed in love with each other. I noticed that he never mentions anything about physical contact between them; their love was platonic and sacred. O’Brien loved Linda and felt she too had the same feelings for him. O’Brien justifies their love several times in the narrative. O’Brien’s parents believed and respected the fact that their nine-year-old son loved a little girl. It is quite evident that when O’Brien’s parents took Linda and Tim out on a double date to the State Theatre for a movie, they already knew that Linda had a brain tumor and was probably dying. We notice this when O’Brien rudely comments about Linda’s red elfin red cap that she wore all the time due to multiple surgeries, surgical wounds, and the fact that she had gone bald because of the former. Tim comments aloud in the car about her cap, for which he gets a hard stare from his mother, who wishes him to behave.
Tim, who was then known as Timmy, watches the movie ‘The Man Who Never Was’ with his mother, father, and Linda. He abhors and is frightened by certain brutal scenes in the film but not Linda. She smiles throughout the movie in that mysterious way that O’Brien liked. They hardly spoke to each other, but O’Brien still maintains they were madly in love even though:
- They never met each other’s gaze.
- They hardly spoke to each other.
- Only at certain vital moments would they give each other a stare, and the look seemed to be like a conversation happening between them. This is especially true when Linda stares at O’Brien when her cap is taken off in class by her nemesis Nick to reveal her bald and wounded head. She seems to ask O’Brien through that stare that if he loved her, how could he have allowed Nick to do something like that?
- They liked to be in each other’s company.
For O’Brien this was reason enough for the deep and longing love he has for Linda. O’Brien loved Linda so much that he wanted to be in a physical relationship with her, but he writes it in a way that appears platonic and devoid of sexual passion. Something very asexual about the love shared between Linda and O’Brien, which could have probably materialized into something physical if the little girl had to live. But she passed away, leaving O’Brien distraught. I understand this kind of affection because I’ve myself got a little childhood sweetheart who embodies everything that I wish to see in him. That implies that he doesn’t need to be the person I think him to be. My love for him, too, is highly platonic most of the time. I have chronicled my little love story in my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. You can buy it on the products page of my blog. The memoir was a finalist in the 2020 DBW Awards.
In ‘The Lives of the Dead’, O’Brien reveals that we feed the flame of our deepest desires for people through self-hypnosis, especially in trying circumstances. We like to muse over the people we love and thus indirectly bring them back to life because we think about them. O’Brien tries to bring Linda and her story back to life and his fellow soldiers on either side of the Vietnam war whose dead remains he had encountered. Here is the list of the people whom he remembered when he wrote this piece in the year 1990:
- Ted Lavender.
- Curt Lemon.
- A slim young boy the author killed.
- An old Vietnamese village man’s dead body sprawled beside a pigpen.
- Several dead bodies of Vietnam soldiers O’Brien had to toss into a truck.
He tries to think of them and think up stories so that their memory would never die. The author seems to have a belief that the dead have a life in another realm after they die, and he contemplates this realm as a middle-aged writer of memoirs and fiction. Throughout this story, he talks about the many ways people try to cope with a dead body, especially the dead body of someone known to us. In Vietnam, the soldiers had a very unusual way of talking with the numerous dead victims and soldiers they encountered. They made up stories about them, which would otherwise sound banal, but it stuck and made life easier for those who survived to live another day in Vietnam. This is one of the main themes of this story; people tell stories about other people, mostly the dead, to keep their memory alive. We can’t keep them physically alive in this world, but by remembering them and creating stories about them, we give them another shot at life. There is a passage in this story where Linda, the mystical Linda, appears to O’Brien after her death and tells him that people who were dead felt like a library book that lay safe on a library shelf that had not been picked by any reader to read for a long while. Once the book would be picked, the dead would live again, highlighting the power of books, stories, and their writers or creators.
Life in Vietnam was tough for O’Brien. It impacted his life to such an extent that most of his literature centers around that period. He can’t forget:
- The old Vietnamese man’s dead body near the pigpen. That was the first dead body that he encountered, symbolizing a coming of age and dawning of life’s harsh realities. The reality that the process of death and dying is terrible, but as the ghostly Linda mentions later, once you are dead, it matters little what horrors one went through to reach this stage.
- Ted Lavender, an American soldier who popped tranquilizer tablets one after another into his mouth to bear up the hardships of army life in Vietnam. He was trying to douse the roaring flames of reality; he was trying to mellow it down and make it easier to swallow (mind the pun). When he dies, his fellow soldiers feel that he died because of his tranquilizers and not because of the war.
- Kiowa who passed away as he sunk into the muck along the Song Tra Bong river in Vietnam. Song Tra Bong also means ‘getting owned’, and it is O’Brien who now owns the death of Kiowa with whom he shared a Christmas cookie and who wouldn’t shake hands with the dead body of the old man lying near the pigpen. Kiowa was a man of principles, and so was O’Brien.
- In a very moving and fascinating passage, Curt Lemon’s death is mocked by another American soldier from O’Brien’s regiment called Rat Kiley. Rat tries to get away from Curt’s gruesome loss by portraying his death in the light of comedy. However, this comedy is only funny for those in the regiment because they are desperate to survive and not go insane. To us, portraying a dead American soldier as a naked Halloween trick or treat is not at all becoming. But this is what O’Brien is trying to tell us that they used self-hypnosis through wild and funny stories to keep themselves going. Thus, the regiment moved on when other people would have just buckled down under pressure. Life in Vietnam was not amusing, but it was satirical and highly ironic.
- The Vietnamese KIAs dead bodies whom O’Brien and another soldier Mitchell had to toss into a truck. O’Brien uses vivid imagery as he talks about the dead bodies’ blue-green color, their bloated bodies, and how they made sounds of gas diffusion when dumped into the truck. He describes this as sharp, burping sounds as the gases were released from the bloated dead bodies. It is then that Mitchell openly says that the process of dying is terrible. O’Brien is already aware of this because he had seen Linda’s dead body in her white casket at the morgue. In death, she was blue and swollen, fat and bloated, as she lay in her casket. She didn’t look like the Linda, whom he loved. But he realized that it was indeed she and that death could be callous in some ways and benevolent in other ways.
‘The Lives of the Dead’ analyzes the lives of all the dead people encountered by O’Brien. We relive their words and their lives, especially the life of little Linda. When O’Brien wrote this short story, he was a middle-aged author of forty-three who still dreamed of Linda at night. He had been dreaming of Linda ever since she died. It was thoughts of her that made him eagerly go to bed every night. He realizes that the real Linda was not what his dreams conjured her up to be. But that some semblance of her remained with him was good enough for him.
Making up stories as a writer saves others and the writer from being forgotten. O’Brien was known as Timmy when he was a child and Tim in his adulthood. When he looks at himself in the mirror, he knows that he doesn’t look like Timmy, who loved Linda so many years ago. However, he recognizes his eyes and inner soul or the inner essence of his being that can never change or die. It lives long after the person dies and is immortal. That is how he knows that he will live forever and with him the memory of Linda. As a writer, therefore, he is saving Timmy from death as Tim O’Brien, the writer. Thus, the story titled ‘The Lives of the Dead’ ends with Timmy being saved by Tim.
I want to comment upon the following before I end this analysis:
- Linda’s red cap is quite a suspenseful mystery that heightens our curiosity about what lurks underneath. When Nick lifts Linda’s red cap, and everyone in the class sees her bald and bruised head, we realize that Linda was a serene person who suffered a lot but wanted to live to see another day. She is surreal and calm in the face of the storm of her brain tumor. She cried once when Nick took off her cap. She is like a little angel. She symbolizes true love that never dies and becomes stronger as the years pass. Do you like love stories? Then maybe you’ll like my short story titled ‘Until Death Do Us Unite’. Check it out on Amazon. It will be worth your while.
- The parents of O’Brien were very co-operative and understanding of the sentiments of their son. They knew that their son loved Linda, and they respected him for that. That is why O’Brien’s mother takes a lot of trouble to make him understand what a brain tumor was. That is why O’Brien’s father drives Tim O’Brien down to the morgue to see Linda. Tim asks to see the dead body out of curiosity, which could be coupled with the fact that he wanted something to remember her by. The father realizes when Timmy had had enough and takes him for an ice-cream. We see the dead here in this story in a way that makes us fond of them. That is the power of Tim O’Brien’s narrative style, which dwells and muses on thought at a deep level.
- As a child, Timmy O’Brien felt protective towards Linda and wanted to protect her from Nick in his heart of hearts. However, his pride came in the way, and Nick kept on bullying Linda even after her death. Timmy felt that if he had had to stand up for Linda in the past, that would have prepared him to take up more challenges as a soldier in the Vietnam war.
- Stories create miracles. Miracles don’t happen in real life; writers have the power to create miracles with their stories. That is what O’Brien does here in this short story titled ‘The Lives of the Dead’. He saves Linda from dying in anonymity, doing a service to her, the readers, and the writing community in general.
I was touched while reading and analyzing this short story by American writer Tim O’Brien. I hope to read and review more American writers’ works in the coming days. In keeping with the fact that the most critical election of the century is going on in America, I decided to celebrate the American spirit by reading and blogging about American literary and non-fiction content. I hope to blog more American content in the coming days.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out the products page on my blog or my author’s page on Amazon. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
Copyright © 2020 Fiza Pathan
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