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The Things They Carried:Novel Summary: “The Man I Killed”

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Summary of “The Man I Killed”

 

O'Brien describes the corpse of the man he killed in Vietnam. He comes back obsessively to this exact description in later stories. The jaw was in the throat; one eye is a star-shaped hole; the skin on the cheek is peeled back. He is face up on the trail, slim and dainty.

 

The author begins to imagine the man's life story: he was born in 1946; his parents were farmers. He had been taught to defend the land. His health was poor, however, and he was not a fighter. He liked books and wanted to be a teacher.

 

Azar keeps telling O'Brien that he has trashed the man, but Kiowa, realizing Tim is in shock, tells Azar to go away. He tells Tim he did his duty. Kiowa keeps talking to Tim who seems to be paralyzed and unable to stop staring. He continues to make up the man's biography, intuiting that the man was afraid of being a coward in the war. Tim continues to notice the tiniest details in the corpse. The fingernails are clean and he wears a gold ring. He is convinced the man was a scholar. Kiowa finds a photo of the man's wife in his pocket.

 

Commentary on “The Man I Killed”

 

O'Brien registers the shock of having killed someone by describing the details of the corpse over and over. Meanwhile, Kiowa says words that are meant to comfort him about how it was inevitable, and that it was kill or be killed. Tim does not answer, showing that for him there is no comfort or acceptance of this act. Instead of dehumanizing the man as a “gook,” he humanizes him, inventing a biography for him. This augments his guilt, but perhaps it is a last appreciative act, to see the enemy as a human being first.




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