In his novel The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien uses the field and Kiowa’s body as metaphors to reflect how Kiowa’s death emotionally affects the platoon. Specifically in “In the Field,” O’Brien uses metaphors to draw connections from the environment and Kiowa’s corpse to the soldier’s feelings.
O’Brien describes the field in a downcast manner to reflect the morose sentiment of his unit. The morning after Kiowa’s death, the soldiers “began tramping side by side through the deep muck of the shit field” (O’Brien 155). The thickness and filth of the water holds the soldiers back; they are physically burdened traveling through their environment. However, the choice usage of “tramping” suggests the field is literally holding them back from moving on, just as the soldiers are held back mentally by the loss of Kiowa, a good friend to many of the soldiers in the unit. The condition of the field adds to this negativity as the soldiers literally must trudge through excrement to find their friend. The weather adds further to the predicament of the soldiers. As Jimmy Cross ponders his letter to Kiowa’s family “[t]he rain fell in a cold, sad drizzle” (162). While the rain slows the progress of the unit in their attempts to find Kiowa’s corpse, it also reflects how the soldiers feel. The rain represents the universal sadness and tears present in the unit. Jimmy Cross even rubs his eyes, a possible sign that he has cried. Finally, the depth of the water reflects the pain felt by Jimmy Cross and the rest of his unit. Kiowa’s death greatly affects Cross as he goes “deeper into the muck, the dark water at his throat” (169). In this example, Lieutenant Cross continues deeper and deeper into the water, almost as if he is trying to drown away the feelings he is left with. The usage of muck further reflects this attitude. The death of Kiowa leaves him feeling grimy and unclean with failed responsibility; Cross is sick with the assumption that his choice to camp in the field led to this death. Overall, O’Brien’s in-depth explanations of the environment help to remove any ambiguity regarding the mood after Kiowa’s death.
Once more, O’Brien embeds metaphors in Kiowa’s condition to show the mood of the platoon. Initially, every soldier is looking for Kiowa’s corpse, and they are unable to find his body amidst the muck and mud of the field. Kiowa has been lost beneath the earth just as the men have beneath the weight of Kiowa’s death; they are despondent and nostalgic in their remembrance of him. Kiowa’s body has been lost and the soldiers feel lost and confused trying to find it. Once the soldiers find Kiowa’s corpse, they discover it is “angled steeply into the muck, upside down” (167). Removing Kiowa’s body from the mud proves to be an arduous task for O’Brien’s unit: the disgusting deed takes the joint effort of several men. Kiowa’s body is stuck and needs to be extracted from the mud so the men can move on with their mission. Similarly, the soldiers are stuck mentally in a depressed state and need to remove his body to right the wrong they feel in their guilt for his death. Finally, the soldiers remove Kiowa’s body and prepare it for extraction by cleaning it with towels. This finishing act represents the physical removal of dirt and the metaphorical removal of guilt. The soldiers feel compelled to do this because in washing away the scum and mud off of Kiowa’s body, they right their last wrongs and allow themselves to move on mentally from Kiowa’s traumatic passing. On the whole, the state of Kiowa’s corpse holds parallels to the feelings of the soldiers in O’Brien’s unit.
Frequently, writers reveal the hidden feelings of characters through descriptions of inanimate worldly features. However, the necessity of understanding the ties between environment and mood expands beyond literature and into broader entertainment: the directors of movies and the creators of video games often use small natural details to reveal larger meaning. O’Brien does just this in “In the Field,” where his description of the weather and natural surrounding and the state of Kiowa’s corpse represent the emotions of the soldiers.
Burrows, Larry. America in Vietnam, 1963: Deeper into War. 1963. Photograph. Time & Life Pictures. Time Life. Time. Web. 16 Oct. 2013. <http://life.time.com/history/vietnam-1963-america-wades-deeper-into-war/#3>.