Teacher Notes on The Things They Carried Use them as you read!!

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In "Ambush," O'Brien again relates the story of the man he killed in the war. This time the emphasis is on the memories he has of the event "really happened" and not the event as a story. Because it is a reflection given the reader by the "author" (really by the author's persona), the story now seems more real. As we will learn later on or should have learned previously with "How to Tell a True War Story," this sense of reality is an illusion.

"Speaking of Courage"

"Speaking of Courage" is an important tale if only to read "Notes" with more insight. On its own it is the troubling tale of a young man who is unable to speak about his experiences in the war and thus is forced to relive them and the guilt they inspire. Norman Bowker circles the lake in his hometown in Iowa over and over again because, as one of my brighter students has said,  "he can't get to the center of his problem so he always has to go around it." The lake is the correlative setting to the latrine in Vietnam where Kiowa is killed. As the story goes back and forth between postwar Iowa and Vietnam, Norman can only imagine having conversations about what he has gone through. He cannot have a real conversation, not with his father, not with his old girlfriend, not with a stranger on a speaker at a car hop.  Because he cannot confess his pain, Norman relives it over and over again.

If you’ve read The Scarlet Letter, you get the idea.


Here in "Notes" O'Brien tries his technique of giving you "the real story." He has just presented "Speaking of Courage" and now wants to give you the inside scoop of the "real" Norman Bowker. It is effective. The reader feels as if he has been given the logical outcome of what would happen to the repressed Bowker who cannot express the guilt he feels from the war. However, the reader is admonished to remember that there was no Norman Bowker. Bowker is a fictional character.

"Notes" uses this technique of "the story about the story" in order to deliver the real punch of the plot here. In explaining the origin of the story, the persona named Tim O'Brien gives the history of where the story came from. The setting came from his memory of a Minnesota lake, the inspiration came from a letter from Bowker after the war. Finally, the narrator says, the part about how Kiowa died and who let him die, "[t]hat part of the story is my own." If we forget that the narrator too is a fictional character, we are tempted to believe that the real Tim O'Brien is purging his guilt in a confessional story. It is powerful. It is well done manipulation on the author's part.

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