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Throughout The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien often alludes to Kathleen, his daughter, and Linda, his childhood friend with cancer. However, Kathleen and Linda do not exist. O’Brien includes them in his story because they allow him to interact with the reader within the text without actually interacting with the reader personally. Kathleen represents the reader in the text, one who can interact with Tim O’Brien and alter the things he says. Linda, on the other hand, represents the way storytelling and memory can alleviate the pain in any traumatic situation in the past.
Kathleen appears in O’Brien’s stories many times, most notably in “Field Trip” where O’Brien takes Kathleen, his daughter to Vietnam on vacation. The difficulty of explaining his experiences in Vietnam to Kathleen is evident in the frustration of his tone when he says, “At the same time, however, she’d seemed a bit puzzled. The war was as remote to her as dinosaurs and cavemen.” (183) If Kathleen represents the reader, this suggests that O’Brien believes we are similarly out of touch, requiring explanation for everything he says and does. This idea of Kathleen as the reader is evident in this exchange: “Kathleen sighed. ‘Well I don’t get it. I mean, how come you were even here in the first place?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘Because I had to be.’ ‘But why?’”(183) Her misunderstanding and need for explanation are apparent, and it is equivalent to the reaction of a reader to the text. But what is also on display here is O’Brien’s almost disinterest with the explanation. “Because I had to be” is never an adequate response to a child’s curious nature. O’Brien’s disinterest suggests that he does not care if the reader does not understand or like what he is saying, or not know why he is saying it. He is simply writing to alleviate the pressures on his mind. Writing serves many purposes for him, first and foremost as a method of catharsis, a way in which to alleviate such traumatic memories of what happened in Vietnam.
It is also possible that in the dialogue quoted above, Kathleen takes the form of O’Brien’s inner conscience, a conscience perhaps still confused about the purpose of the war, and his role in the war. In “On the Rainy River”, O’Brien describes his doubts and fears about going to the war after getting the request of his presence in Vietnam. Perhaps, as mentioned above, Kathleen is a representation of those questions that still remain, a literal figure to ask them without O’Brien having to leave character in the story.
Linda is portrayed in “The Lives of the Dead” as Timmy’s nine year old friend and his first true love. It is revealed later that she has a brain tumor, and she subsequently dies, much to the dismay of a young Tim. O’Brien include her in the story to illustrate the healing power of imagination, and also to foreshadow events. O’Brien’s immortalization of her is similar to his immortalization of Kiowa later; through writing, he make those meaningful people in his life eternal through stories. While Linda does not exist, she provides a way for O’Brien to describe a truth without breaking character. O’Brien tries to explain his methods with a quote on page 230 when he says, “The things 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.” (230) He is revealing that the origin of stories is dreams, and that the origin of his storytelling career started with his dreams about Linda: “Lying in bed at night, I made up elaborate stories to bring Linda alive in my sleep. I invented my own dreams.” (243)
Linda and Kathleen are included in this book for separate reasons. Kathleen is the materialization of the reader in the text, who, to O’Brien, seems childish and naïve when it comes to Vietnam. Linda is O’Brien’s way of demonstrating his theory on story-telling: its purposes and origins. The inclusion of the two characters into the story effectively demonstrate O’Brien’s desire to stay in character while explaining the truths of his experience.
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