An Essay on The Lives of the Dead by Tim O’Brien

Prompt: This story begins, “But this too is true: stories can save us” (par. 1). In what different ways does that prove true in this story? Why “but”?


The narrator in The Lives of the Dead tells us that “by slighting death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was” (par. 92). The “we” is soldiers in Vietnam, young men in their 20s, of which the narrator is one. The soldiers “slight death” in many ways. At the beginning of the story, the narrator describes a little village that was burned up in an air strike. After the bombs stop dropping the soldiers search the village and find the dead body of “an old man who lay face-up near a pigpen at the center of the village” (par. 2). One of the narrator’s comrades goes up and shakes the old man’s hand, offering him a greeting. This begins a ritual in which all the other soldiers go up and do the same thing. “One by one…they just grabbed the old man’s hand and offered a few words and moved away” (par. 4). Everyone except for the narrator, Tim, does this. The narrator is “brand-new to the war”, and just looking at the old man’s body makes him feel sick (par. 7). Tim resists the prompting and teasing of his comrades, refusing to go near the body. As he watches the strange ritual, though, he notes that “it was more than mockery; there was a formality to it, like a funeral without the sadness” (par. 14).


This odd formal mockery of shaking a dead man’s hand, speaking to him, proposing toasts to his “family and ancestors, his many grandchildren, his newfound life after death” (par. 14) creates a kind of buffer between the young American soldiers and the horror of their situation. They are in a foreign land fighting a war. They have just come under sniper fire, which could’ve killed any one of them, and then they watched as their own army bombed out the village the sniper fire came from, killing an old man who could have been just an innocent civilian, who could have reminded them of their own grandfathers back home.


The “funeral without sadness” that they have for the old man creates a story these young soldiers can tell themselves. They are in a situation where, even though they are armed, they are rather powerless. Many of them were probably drafted and did not choose to leave home and go fight a war. Some of them may be morally opposed to the war. They may not have an intimate understanding of the politics underlying the very war they are fighting. They follow the orders of commanding officers. They walk into dangerous situations where they never know if they will be surprised by sniper fire or if they will survive. They watch as friends, enemies and strangers die around them in terrible ways. This is the grim reality of their situation. This is their nightmarish unaltered story.


The old man’s body represents this story. The ritual of shaking his hand alters the story. Maybe there is an afterlife where this old man can find peace or justice. Maybe it’s not too late for this old man’s grandchildren to live good lives. Maybe his ancestors lived good lives before him. Maybe showing his dead body the same kind of cordial politeness you would show a stranger you meet on the street is a sort of apology the soldiers make for being part of the army that perpetrated the violence that took this old man’s life.


Interwoven with this narrative about the Vietnam war is another narrative about Tim’s childhood. As a nine-year-old child, when he was Timmy, the narrator fell in love with a classmate, Linda, who was dying of a brain tumor. When the girl died Timmy comforted himself by telling himself stories. Timmy is able to use his vivid imagination to bring Linda to life again in his mind, so much so that it seems real to him. He is able to have conversations with her.


On the day that Timmy receives the news of Linda’s death, he lays down on the sofa and calls out to Linda. “Linda, please,” he says, and she comes to him (par. 86). She walks to him down a familiar street, and she looks vibrant, happy and healthy. The signs of sickness that Linda showed in life, a bald head covered in scars and stitches, are gone. The Linda that Timmy has dreamed alive ask him why he is so sad (par. 87). When Timmy responds that she is dead, she looks at him with “something ageless in her eyes” (par. 89) and tells him “Timmy, stop crying. It doesn’t matter” (par. 91).


Tim tells the reader:


The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness (par. 40).


Young Timmy uses his dreams of Linda to create the illusion of aliveness that he needs to cope with her death. The illusion of Linda gives him more time with her, to go to parties, to go ice skating. It is time that they did not have in reality. In reality, when Timmy and Linda went on a date together they were too shy to properly speak to each other. They barely look at each other (par. 37). When Timmy does speak to Linda on the date it’s to rudely tell her to “step it up” (par. 39). Timmy’s inner feelings are a sharp contrast to his outer brusqueness. Even at his young age, he feels he knows that they are in love, feels that they are “sharing something huge and permanent” (par. 37).


However, that fact is never communicated between them before Linda dies. After Linda dies and Timmy is dreaming Linda alive again, the Linda he dreams is able to have deep conversations with him about what death is like and why death is not permanent. “Once you’re alive you can’t ever be dead,” she tells him (par. 113). Later she likens being dead to being “inside a book that nobody’s reading” (120). You have to wait and hope that someone will pick up the book and begin reading your story. In this analogy, having your story told is like being brought back to life, if only for a little while.


So, Timmy keeps telling himself stories where and Linda spend time together, keeps bringing Linda back to life. He begins spending more and more time sleeping, going to bed earlier and earlier. His mother notices and asks him what’s wrong (par. 116), but he brushes off her concern. He doesn’t want to share the dream world he has created, because he’s scared that sharing this secret might mean losing it. To get to the stories, to bring Linda back to life, Timmy has to give up more of his connection with waking reality.


Perhaps that’s why the story begins with the word “but”. It is true that stories can save us. We need stories to comfort us when reality is so terrible that we can hardly cope with it. But, can the stories be something of a lie? Can we lose something if we immerse ourselves too deeply in story, like if we spend more time sleeping than waking, because we want to dream of a dead loved one?


Tim tells us about his “worst day at the war” (par. 108). He is assigned to help carry the bodies of dead enemy soldiers down a mountain and load them into a truck. The bodies have been lying there for more than a day and are bloated and stinking. As he and his fellow soldiers go about this hellish task another soldier, Mitchell Sanders, says to Tim, “Death sucks” (par. 111). He says it as if he is “awed by his own wisdom” (par. 110).


What Mitchell Sanders says, death sucks, is the stark truth that no amount of storytelling can provide an escape from.

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