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Thematic Connection

It’s impossible to define The Things They Carried as a novel or a collection of short stories, because all the stories are interrelated and interconnected. As for “Ambush” and “Speaking of courage,” the deep thematic connection between the two aforementioned stories is masterfully created by numerous stylistic devices namely the narrative perspective, setting, and symbolism. The thematic connection between “Ambush” and “Speaking of Courage” is the topic of guilt and shame with their widest implications. The protagonists of the two stories committed crime the most serious before the God and humankind, – they killed a man.

War memories are torturing both heroes and jeopardize their post-war rehabilitation. Vietnam War was the most controversial war in the history of the United States. The anti-war and pacifistic opinions inside the country were strong, so the soldiers who went to the war felt ashamed before their own nation. American soldiers in Vietnam a priori felt guilt for being aggressors, not defenders. O’Brien pictures them, young, strong, safely back from the war, but already cursed and trapped in the nightmare connection with their generation.

When American soldiers went to and through the war, the things they carried were grief, terror, love, longing; after the war they were to carry guilt and shame. Norman Bowker from “Speaking of courage” finds himself to be completely useless and lonely after the Vietnam War; his guilt prevents him from connecting to his own father. Similarly, in “Ambush” the narrator’s daughter, Kathleen, being aware that his Dad wrote stories devoted to the theme of war, wonders if he had killed a man. Tim, the narrator, lies to her and decides to tell her the truth when she’s already a grown-up.

In “Speaking of courage” the actual setting of the story is Norman’s small hometown, where he drives around the lake on the fourth of July contemplating. But Norman’s memories soon bring us to the field near the Song Tra Bong River, and Norman was unable to prevent his friend Kiowa from sinking in the mud. The same happens in “Ambush,” when Tim recollects a man approaching so he automatically killed him. Then Tim is sure that he could escape killing that man; he can’t forgive himself murdering a man and sometimes sees that man returning safely into the fog.

And Norman drives to a fast-food restaurant and tries to tell his story to a cashier because he desperately needs to share his guilt and despair with anyone, but doesn’t finish. In both stories, Tim O’Brien skilfully bridges “reality with imagination, and fact with fiction”. Some of the characters are based on real-life individuals, on the contrary, some were invented by the author, for instance, Kathleen from “Ambush. ” This literary device was used to put greater emphasis over the reactions and reflections of the characters.

O’Brien writes psychological prose but not historical fiction. The absence of linear narrative enhances the atmosphere of guilt-ridden hysteria. The author doesn’t present the “chronology” of the events but tries to focus on the inner feelings of those who went through the war. The reality experienced by the individual is of interest to Tim O’Brien, but what interests him more is the aftermath of the war, not on the global scale, but in the context of a common soldier. In both cases, the characters are guilty of someone’s death, and they both know that the death wasn’t inevitable.

In “Ambush” it was a stranger, but in “Speaking of courage” the perished man was Kiowa, Norman’s close friend. In “Ambush” Tim was on the watch and after seeing a man approaching, he was scared, and threw a grenade. Tim says it was done automatically, without even analyzing whether he was acting right or wrong. Norman in “Speaking of courage” is guilty of Kiowa’s death, who was his battle comrade. The heroes doomed to live with the understanding that they could prevent unnecessary deaths, and this awful understanding turns their further lives into a constant nightmare.

The heroes of both stories, Norman and Tim, carry such a baggage of depressing memories that they can’t even share it with anyone. Tim and Norman are often at the verge of hallucinating. For instance, Tim in “Ambush” shares such an experience, “…when I’m reading a newspaper or just sitting alone in a room, I’ll look up and see the young man coming out of the morning fog. I’ll watch him walk toward me, his shoulders slightly stooped… and then continue up the trail to where it bends back into the fog. ” (O’Brien, 1998, p.

134) Norman also seems to be hallucinating when he attempts to tell his story to a cashier. We see that the feeling of guilt and shame badly affected the psychological stability of Tim and Norman. An interesting literary device is used in “Ambush. ” Lets’ suppose that the “Tim” from the story is Tim O’Brien himself, but he didn’t have a daughter named Kathleen. In the story this nine-year old girl asks Tim if he had killed a man, and the father lies that he hadn’t. Tim decides to tell her the truth only when she is a grown-up, and starts telling the story to the reader.

Grown-up Kathleen might be considered as author’s alter-ego, and he needs a thorough talk to somebody to define his feelings and reminiscences. In this story Tim, the narrator, has to accept double burden of guilt and shame, because his inability to share his war memories made him lie to his own child. In “Ambush”, Tim recollects Kiowa’s comment on the stranger’s death, “He told me that it was a good kill, that I was a soldier and this was a war…” (O’Brien, 1998, p. 133) But there can be no “good kill,” and nothing can justify a great number of unnecessary deaths.

And this thesis is further supported by awkward death of Kiowa himself in “Speaking of courage. ” So O’Brien’s message deals with the comprehension that there were no winners and losers in the Vietnam War, there were only innocent people dead, injured and suffering. The author makes us equally sympathise an unknown young man in “Ambush,” who might be from the enemy side, and Kiowa. Life as an ultimate value is empathised trough the whole collection of O’Brien’s stories; the author teaches us tolerance, fraternity, kindness, strength and invaluable wisdom.

In “Speaking of courage” the war memories and guilt resulted in alienation of Norman from the whole humankind. He also needs somebody to listen to his story, but now he doesn’t have anything in common with his father, stuck to the TV-screen. These haunting memories turn Norman from cheerful and inspired into a silent and gloomy young man. An interesting symbolism is applied in “Speaking of courage. ” Norman drives around the small lake in his hometown, not knowing how to adjust himself to normal life after returning from war. This lake can be considered a symbol of memory in this story.

He recollects driving around this lake with his friends; one friend has drowned in the lake and his high-school girl has already married. Norman goes round and round trough the circles of his memory, being unable to find a way out. When Norman thinks about his small hometown, he says that, “It had no memory, therefore no guilt. ” (O’Brien, 1998, p. 143) Another symbol from “Speaking of courage,” which is undoubtedly worth analyzing, is the date of the story. It takes place on the fourth of July, but it doesn’t arise any joy or patriotic feelings in it.

In “Ambush” and “Speaking of courage” the characters feel guilty of their own weakness. In “Speaking of courage”, Norman accepts that he couldn’t be brave in the stinking field near the Song Tra Bong River, therefore he let Kiowa get swallowed up by the muck. If we apply the psychological approach to analyzing the stories, we will see that the characters are haunted by comprehension that everything could be different and they are to admit the responsibility for tragic events happened during the war. The thematic connection between the stories “Ambush” and “Speaking of courage” is the topic of shame and guilt.

The main characters of both stories feel guilty of deaths that could have been prevented if Norman and Tim were stronger and more fearless. Their inability to share their memories and reflections results in their alienation from the closest people. Committing a murder was a serious psychological trauma for Norman and Tim. Long after the end of the war the heroes are still haunted by the tragic memories from the battlefield. The ultimate message behind the stories is associated with the idea of human life as the highest value.


O’Brien, T. 1998. The Things They Carried. Broadway, Reprint.

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