Julia Schwartz

October 14, 2002


“Once you’re alive… you can’t ever be dead”



                The final chapter of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, “The Lives of the Dead,” is one of his most moving stories, and its placement as the last in O’Brien’s story gives it a powerful role as, above all, an explanation for the purpose of The Things They Carried in the context of his childhood girlfriend Linda and her relationship with him as Timmy.

                In “The Lives of the Dead,” the truth of Linda is undeniable. This varies from the rest of Tim’s stories, which could be taken as either truth or fiction. However, while in the majority of The Things They Carried, O’Brien often discusses the paradoxical truth of his stories, in the story of Linda, there is no question; Linda is simply presented as truth. In telling the story of Linda, however, Tim tells the reader that the Linda whom he remembers is “not the embodied Linda; she’s mostly made up” (245)—but she still has a basis in reality, just like the “man who never was” (245). This man is never defined, but is most likely Tim, or all the people who Tim has known and are now dead. In the book, “the man who never was” was actually the title of the movie Linda and Timmy go to see on their one and only date. He ‘never was’ because he began as a dead man who was later used and given a new, pivotal role when he was dressed up by the British to deceive the Germans and win the war.

                Throughout the entire chapter, the truth of Linda is unwavering, in sharp contrast to the questionable truth of all the other characters. The one detail in the story of Linda and Tim’s relationship that could be used as actual evidence for proving the truth of Linda is the title of the movie she and Timmy see: The Man Who Never Was. O’Brien twice refers to himself in 1990 as forty-three years old, and we know he was the same age as Linda, who was nine when they saw the movie. This means there was a difference of thirty-four years from the time O’Brien is telling the story to when it happened. We know he is telling it in 1990, as he says, so he would have seen the movie with Linda in 1956. There was an actual movie called The Man Who Never Was, and it was released in 1956[1], so it would have been in theaters then—and this date proves the reality of Linda.

                Although the movie The Man Who Never Was can serve to prove the veracity of the Linda-Tim story, it has a much deeper meaning in relation to the rest of the story. When Tim speaks his final words, he tells how he is “still dreaming Linda alive in exactly the same way [in 1990 as he did when he was nine]. She’s not the embodied Linda, she’s mostly made up, with a new identity and a new name, like the man who never was. Her real name doesn’t matter” (246). Once O’Brien has established the truth of Linda, her meaning becomes more profound to the overall story and its own truth, as different parts of her existence and impact on Tim serve as metaphors for him and his own life.

                There is a great part of Linda that Tim can’t understand. For instance, Tim notices that “[Linda] always smiled at the world… the smile never went away” (229), even when Linda is stricken with brain cancer and knows she will die. As a matter of fact, Tim makes this observation on his date with Linda, which is coincidentally the first time Linda appears in her red cap, which is the symbol of her illness. In spite of the hat, in spite of the knowledge of her eventual death, Linda still smiles. Later, at the movies, even as she watches a horrible story of a dead corpse from World War II, she still smiles. “I couldn’t understand it. There was nothing to smile at” (232), says Tim. What Tim didn’t understand is that Linda always manages to find the good in things, to look on the bright side, and to cherish the moments she had as a member of the living. Even when she knows she will probably die from her tumor, she still goes out on her date with Tim, still shares innocent love with him, and still “understood with a clarity beyond language that [she and Tim] were sharing something huge and permanent” (230). The permanence of this bond signals that Linda knows she will continue to live on in Tim’s mind long after her death. Her continued presence in his mind constantly serves as peace, and in part of her role as his ‘guardian angel’ figure, she shows him that there is always something to smile at, trying to share her deep knowledge with him.

                Linda’s wisdom goes far beyond the idea of searching for the things to smile at in life. It is often amazing to come to the reality that even with all her wisdom, she is still a mere nine years old. “There was something ageless in her eyes—not a child, not an adult—just a bright ongoing everness” (238). Her concept of “once you’re alive… you can’t ever be dead” (244), is well beyond the capabilities of the average nine year old. After Linda dies, Tim goes to the funeral home to view her body, because “what [he] needed…was some sort of final confirmation, something to carry with [him] after she was gone” (240). When Tim thinks back to Linda and finds his memories of Timmy, he says, “I’m young and happy. I’ll never die” (246), which backs up Linda’s theory of ‘once you’re alive, you can’t ever be dead.’ If Tim will never die once he returns to Timmy, where he is young and happy, he is alive when he returns to the youthful happiness of Timmy. This concept of immortality through memory and happiness is Linda’s legacy to Tim, the ‘something to carry with him after she’s gone.’ Throughout The Things They Carried, O’Brien tells about all the things that the other men carried. In “The Lives of the Dead,” O’Brien finally tells what he carried: Linda, and her words. Because Tim realizes that he can keep the dead alive through their happiness, which has no limits to mortal life, he will be able to cope with the deaths of those who died with him in the war because he knows he can keep them alive.

                Linda’s death makes it easier in some ways for O’Brien to deal with the deaths of others in Vietnam, but in the same way, his realization that he could have done things differently in the case of Linda makes Vietnam almost harder. Aside from being powerful in and of itself and relaying the essence of the reason behind The Things They Carried, “The Lives of the Dead” also serves as a metaphor for Vietnam. O’Brien only refers to this slightly, but it’s apparent that it is. Obviously, there is the main concept of someone he is close to dying in a way beyond his control. However, there is also the idea that O’Brien feels that Linda’s death was testing him, as a precursor to his reaction to Vietnam. When O’Brien says, “naturally, I wanted to do something about it, but it just wasn’t possible. I had my reputation to think about. I had my pride” (233), he is actually talking about Linda, but he could just as soon be talking about his draft notice for the war, when he wanted desperately to escape to Canada, but knew that he couldn’t because he had his reputation and pride fighting against him. O’Brien regrets not sticking up for Linda more than he did, and realizes later that he should have, but really just wasn’t strong enough. He regards his failure to stand up for Linda bravely as a failure of courage, and looks back to think that practicing courage wouldn’t have been such a bad idea, for it was sorely needed in Vietnam: “Besides, it doesn’t get easier with time, and twelve years later, when Vietnam presented much harder choices [than sticking up for Linda against Nick Veenhof], some practice at being brave might’ve helped a little” (234).

                Throughout “The Lives of the Dead”—and The Things They Carried—O’Brien emphasizes the importance of recalling the souls of those lost. The importance of Linda to Tim after she is gone is her wisdom and that “something ageless in her eyes…that bright ongoing everness, that… pinprick of absolute lasting light” (238). This is what O’Brien would call the soul of a person. O’Brien tells the stories of how he and his platoon mates would treat dead people jokingly and tell stories that often “were exaggerated, or blatant lies, but it was a way of bringing body and soul back together, or a way of making new bodies for the souls to inhabit” (239).  The importance of creating a safe atmosphere for the souls of those lost explains why Tim tells stories: he views stories as ways of bringing the dead back to life: “As a writer now, I wanted to save Linda’s life. Not her body—her life” (236). The body is only important because it houses the soul. If the soul is embodied as “ongoing everness,” it can never die, and thus can be brought back whenever someone gives it a place to live. Once someone has found the “ongoing everness” that is the essence of soul, they will be alive, and will never die.






[1] See “The Man Who Never Was” http://us.imdb.com/Title?0049471

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