type of work · Collection of interconnected short stories
genre · War stories; coming-of-age stories; memory stories
language · English
time and place written · Massachusetts, late 1980s
date of first publication · 1990
publisher · Houghton Mifflin / Seymour Lawrence
narrator · Tim O’Brien
point of view · Most of the stories are told from the first person, but on several occasions, O’Brien uses the third person as either a distancing tactic or a chance to let one of his platoon-mates, such as Mitchell Sanders or Rat Kiley, tell his story.
tone · The Things They Carried is an introspective memory story and a self-conscious examination of the methods and reasons behind storytelling. The narrator is unreliable; he speaks of the necessity of blurring truth and fiction in a true war story.
tense · Past tense, shifting between the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and the narrator’s immediate past, twenty years after the war
setting (time) · Late 1960s and late 1980s
setting (place) · Primarily Vietnam, but also U.S. locations including Iowa and Massachusetts
protagonist · Tim O’Brien
major conflict · The men of the Alpha Company, especially Tim O’Brien, grapple with the effects—both immediate and long-term—of the Vietnam War.
rising action · In the summer of 1968, Tim O’Brien receives a draft notice. Despite a desire to follow his convictions and flee to Canada, he feels he would be embarrassed to refuse to fulfill his patriotic duty and so concedes to fight in Vietnam.
climax · During their tour of duty, the men of the Alpha Company must cope with the loss of their own men and the guilt that comes from killing and watching others die.
falling action · After he returns from war, O’Brien grapples with his memories by telling stories about Vietnam.
themes · Physical and emotional burdens; fear of shame as motivaton; the subjection of truth to storytelling
motifs · Storytelling; ambiguous morality; loneliness and isolation
symbols · The dead young Vietnamese soldier; Kathleen; Linda
foreshadowing · O’Brien mentions the deaths of men such as Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon, and Kiowa before he gives detailed accounts of how and when they died in later stories.
William Timothy O’Brien was born on October 1, 1946, to an insurance salesman and an elementary school teacher in Austin, Minnesota. He was raised in Worthington, a small town in southern Minnesota that he would later describe as what one would find if one “look[ed] in a dictionary under the word boring.” As a child, the overweight and introspective O’Brien spent his time practicing magic tricks and making pilgrimages to the public library. His father’s New York Times accounts of fighting in Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II inspired O’Brien to consider a career in writing. When O’Brien arrived at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, he decided to focus his studies on political science. His college years, however, were spent trying to ignore the Vietnam War or railing against it—he attended peace vigils and war protests and aspired to join the State Department. He graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa and had already been accepted to a Ph.D. program at Harvard University’s School of Government when he received his draft notice, two weeks after graduation.
Faced with the prospect of fighting in the war he so actively opposed, the twenty-two-year-old O’Brien felt pulled between his convictions, which could be kept intact by escaping across the border to Canada, and the expectations of those in his hometown who, he once said, “couldn’t spell the word ‘Hanoi’ if you spotted them three vowels.” Though torn, he entered the military for basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington, on August 14, 1968. When he arrived in Vietnam in February 1969, he served in the Fifth Battalion of the 46th Infantry, 198th Infantry Brigade, American Division until March 1970. O’Brien’s area of operations was in the Quang Ngai Province, where he later set The Things They Carried.
O’Brien’s service brought him to the South Vietnamese village of My Lai a year after the infamous massacre of 1968. He was eventually wounded and returned home with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star for Valor, and a Combat Infantry Badge. He also had a storehouse of guilt and an endless supply of observations and anecdotes that would later comprise his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. This work was published in 1973 as O’Brien was abandoning his graduate studies for a career as a national affairs reporter for the Washington Post. That reporting stint lasted a year. In 1975 he published Northern Lights, an account of two brothers in rural Minnesota. Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award in 1979 over John Irving’s The World According to Garp and John Cheever’s Stories, was the account of a platoon forced to chase one of its AWOL soliders. Winning the National Book Award solidified O’Brien’s reputation as a masterful writer concerned with the ambiguities of love and war. Following this success came The Nuclear Age, a novel about a draft-dodger obsessed with the idea of nuclear holocaust, published in 1985.
After The Nuclear Age’s home-front comedy, O’Brien returned his attention to the battlefields. He wrote a short story, “Speaking of Courage,” that was originally meant for inclusion in Going After Cacciato. In 1990,“Speaking of Courage” was one of twenty-two stories included in The Things They Carried, a sequence of lyrical and interrelated stories that has been heralded as one of the finest volumes of fiction about the Vietnam War. The work gained attention and wide acclaim not only for its subject matter but also for its honesty and specificity, its discussion of fact and fiction, and its commentary on memory and on the act of storytelling itself. Much of the material in the work has been drawn from O’Brien’s experiences; he felt so close to his stories that he dedicated the work to his characters—Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa. The most striking elimination of the boundary between fact and fiction is the narrator and protagonist’s name, Tim O’Brien. The main character also has grown up in Worthington, Minnesota, and has attended Macalester College. Like the real O’Brien, the fictional O’Brien becomes a writer who records many of his Vietnam experiences in stories and novels. Nevertheless, several discrepancies exist between the two men. Unlike his protagonist, for example, the real O’Brien never killed a man while at war, and he doesn’t have any children.
The Things They Carried was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and it earned O’Brien comparisons to several eminent fiction writers. Two to whom he is often connected are Stephen Crane and Kurt Vonnegut. Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, published in 1895, follows a Union regiment during the Civil War and specifically concerns a recruit who, like the protagonist in The Things They Carried, struggles with his fear of cowardice and the “red sickness of battle.” Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five is about a World War II draftee who is taken as a prisoner-of-war during the Battle of the Bulge. Like Vonnegut, O’Brien inserts himself into his stories—in order to anchor his narratives to a larger world, but also because he is unable to escape the often terrifying memories of his war experience.
The protagonist, who is named Tim O’Brien, begins by describing an event that occurred in the middle of his Vietnam experience. “The Things They Carried”catalogs the variety of things his fellow soldiers in the Alpha Company brought on their missions. Several of these things are intangible, including guilt and fear, while others are specific physical objects, including matches, morphine, M-16 rifles, and M&M’s candy.
Throughout the collection, the same characters reappear in various stories. The first member of the Alpha Company to die is Ted Lavender, a “grunt,” or low-ranking soldier, who deals with his anxiety about the war by taking tranquilizers and smoking marijuana. Lavender is shot in the head on his way back from going to the bathroom, and his superior, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, blames himself for the tragedy. When Lavender is shot, Cross is distracting himself with thoughts of Martha, a college crush. It is revealed in “Love” that Cross’s feelings for Martha, whom he dated once before leaving for Vietnam, were never reciprocated, and that even twenty years after the war, his guilt over Lavender’s death remains.
In “On the Rainy River,” the narrator, O’Brien, explains the series of events that led him to Vietnam in the first place. He receives his draft notice in June of 1968, and his feelings of confusion drive him north to the Canadian border, which he contemplates crossing so that he will not be forced to fight in a war in which he doesn’t believe. Sitting in a rowboat with the proprietor of the Tip Top Lodge, where he stays, O’Brien decides that his guilt about avoiding the war and fear of disappointing his family are more important than his political convictions. He soon leaves, going first back home to Worthington, Minnesota and later to Vietnam.
In addition to Ted Lavender, a few other members of the Alpha Company are killed during their mission overseas, including Curt Lemon, who is killed when he steps on a rigged mortar round. Though O’Brien is not close to Lemon, in “The Dentist,”he tells a story of how Lemon, who faints before a routine checkup with an army-issued dentist, tries to save face by insisting that a perfectly good tooth be pulled. Lee Strunk, another member of the company, dies from injuries he sustains by stepping on a landmine. In “Friends,” O’Brien remembers that before Strunk was fatally hurt, Strunk and Dave Jensen had made a pact that if either man were irreparably harmed, the other man would see that he was quickly killed. However, when Strunk is actually hurt, he begs Jensen to spare him, and Jensen complies. Instead of being upset by the news of his friend’s swift death en route to treatment, Jensen is relieved.
The death that receives the most attention in The Things They Carried is that of Kiowa, a much-loved member of the Alpha Company and one of O’Brien’s closest friends. In “Speaking of Courage,” the story of Kiowa’s death is relayed in retrospect through the memory of Norman Bowker, years after the war. As Bowker drives around a lake in his Iowa hometown, he thinks that he failed to save Kiowa, who was killed when a mortar round hit and caused him to sink headfirst into a marshy field. O’Brien realizes that he has dealt with his guilt over Kiowa’s death differently than Norman Bowker in “Notes.” Just before the end of the war, O’Brien receives a long letter from Bowker that says he hasn’t found a way to make life meaningful after the war. O’Brien resolves to tell Bowker’s story, and the story of Kiowa’s death, in order to negotiate his own feelings of guilt and hollowness.
Like “Love” and “Notes,” several of O’Brien’s stories are told from a perspective twenty years after the Vietnam War, when he is a forty-three-year-old writer living in Massachusetts. Exposure to the guilt of old friends like Jimmy Cross and Norman Bowker prompts him to write stories in order to understand what they were going through. But two stories, “The Man I Killed” and“Ambush,” are written so that O’Brien can confront his own guilt over killing a man with a grenade outside the village of My Khe. In “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien imagines the life of his victim, from his childhood to the way things would have turned out for him had O’Brien not spotted him on a path and thrown a grenade at his feet. In “Ambush,” O’Brien imagines how he might relay the story of the man he killed to his nine-year-old daughter, Kathleen. In this second story, O’Brien provides more details of the actual killing—including the sound of the grenade and his own feelings—and explains that even well after the fact, he hasn’t finished sorting out the experience
In the last story, “The Lives of the Dead,” O’Brien gives another twist to his contention that stories have the power to save people. In the stories of Curt Lemon and Kiowa, O’Brien explains that his imagination allowed him to grapple successfully with his guilt and confusion over the death of his fourth-grade first love, Linda.
Analysis of Major Characters
Tim O’Brien is both the narrator and protagonist of The Things They Carried. The work recounts his personal experience in the Vietnam War and allows him to comment on the war. He enters the war a scared young man afraid of the shame that dodging the war would bring him and leaves the war a guilt-ridden middle-aged man who tells stories about Vietnam in order to cope with his painful memories. To cover the distance between himself and what he recounts, O’Brien weaves a prominent thread of memory through the work. Reading these stories is similar to spending extended time with an old soldier, allowing his memories to come to him slowly.
O’Brien’s point of view shapes the events he relates. In many, if not most, cases, O’Brien holds himself up as evidence for the generalizations he makes about the war. He is our guide through the inexplicable horror of the war and the main example of how extreme situations can turn a rationally thinking man into a soldier who commits unspeakable acts and desires cruel and irrational things. Occasionally, O’Brien fades away and lets another character or a seemingly omniscient third person tell the story. This technique lends a universal human quality to the stories’ themes and gives us the opportunity to understand the Alpha Company from several different perspectives.
O’Brien uses storytelling as solace and as a means of coming to terms with the unspeakable horrors he witnessed as a soldier. His comments suggest that although he has become a successful writer and that his negotiation of memory through storytelling has been a good coping mechanism, he still thinks that certain realities cannot be explained at all. His experience with those untouched by the war, such as his daughter Kathleen, exposes an irony in his faith in storytelling. He knows that he can grapple with his feelings of disbelief and painful confusion by telling others what happened and how, but he cannot express every feeling
Jimmy Cross’s character represents the profound effects responsibility has on those who are too immature to handle it. As a sophomore in college, he signs up for the Reserve Officers Training Corps because it is worth a few credits and because his friends are doing it. But he doesn’t care about the war and has no desire to be a team leader. As a result, when he is led into battle with several men in his charge, he is unsure in everything he does.
Cross’s guilt is palpable every time one of his men dies, but it is most acute in the case of Ted Lavender. Right before Lavender is killed, Cross allows himself to be distracted and deluded by the thoughts of his coveted classmate, Martha, who sends him photographs and writes flowery letters that never mention the war. His innocent reverie is interrupted by Lavender’s death, and Cross’s only conclusion is that he loves this faraway girl more than he loves his men. Cross’s confession to O’Brien, years later, that he has never forgiven himself for Lavender’s death testifies to his intense feelings of guilt about the incident.
Jimmy Cross can be viewed as a Christ figure. In times of inexplicable atrocity, certain individuals assume the position of a group’s or their own savior. Such men suffer so that others don’t have to bear the brunt of the guilt and confusion. Cross is linked to Christ not only on a superficial level—they share initials and are both connected to the idea of the cross—but also in the nature of his role. Like Christ, who suffers for his fellow men, Cross suffers for the sake of the entire platoon. In “The Things They Carried,” Cross bears the grief of Lavender’s death for the members of his troop, such as Kiowa, who are too dumbfounded to mourn. In the same story, he makes a personal sacrifice, burning the letters from Martha so that her presence will no longer distract him. In each case, Cross makes a Christ-like sacrifice so that his fellow men—Norman Bowker and Kiowa, in this case—can carry on without being crippled by grief and guilt.
Mitchell Sanders is a likable soldier and a devoted friend. He has a sense of irony, picking lice off his body and sending them back to his draft board in Ohio, and a sense of loyalty, refusing to help O’Brien inflict revenge on the medic Bobby Jorgenson and standing by Rat Kiley in his decision to escape Vietnam by shooting himself in the toe. He also has a strong sense of justice—when Cross leads the troops into the sewage field where Kiowa eventually meets his death, Sanders refuses to forgive him because the evidence shows that he should have known better.
Sanders often applies this pragmatism to his storytelling. He believes that a good war story often lacks a moral and that sometimes a story without commentary or explanation speaks for itself because he understands that war stories are never simple or cut-and-dried. In his story about the platoon driven crazy by phantom voices in the jungle, for example, he offers no explanation of what the voices were. Instead, he focuses on the soldiers’ experience of the voices, which he considers more relevant and concrete. Sanders is in this way a mouthpiece for O’Brien, who presents the stories that constitute The Things They Carried not to teach a moral but to portray an experience.
In life, Kiowa is diligent and honest, introspective and compassionate. He is practical, carrying moccasins in order to be able to walk silently and helping his fellow soldiers to rationalize their own unfortunate actions, especially O’Brien’s killing of a young Vietnamese soldier. A Baptist and a Native American, he brings a perspective different from that of his fellow soldiers to the unfortunate events that befall the Alpha Company.
Kiowa’s death is symbolic of the senseless tragedy of war. He dies in a gruesome way, drowning under the muck of a sewage field about which his lieutenant, Jimmy Cross, has a bad feeling. Kiowa’s entirely submerged body represents the transitory nature of life and the horrifying suddenness with which it can be snatched away. There is no dignity to Kiowa’s death; he becomes another casualty in a war that strips men of their identity and turns them into statistics.
Norman Bowker - A man who embodies the damage that the war can do to a soldier long after the war is over. During the war, Bowker is quiet and unassuming, and Kiowa’s death has a profound effect on him. Bowker’s letter to O’Brien in “Notes” demonstrates the importance of sharing stories in the healing process.
Henry Dobbins - The platoon’s machine gunner and resident gentle giant. Dobbins’s profound decency, despite his simplicity, contrasts with his bearish frame. He is a perfect example of the incongruities in Vietnam.
Bob “Rat” Kiley - The platoon’s medic. Kiley previously served in the mountains of Chu Lai, the setting of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” O’Brien has great respect for Kiley’s medical prowess, especially when he is shot for a second time and is subjected to the mistreatment of another medic, Bobby Jorgenson. Though levelheaded and kind, Kiley eventually succumbs to the stresses of the war and his role in it—he purposely blows off his toe so that he is forced to leave his post.
Curt Lemon - A childish and careless member of the Alpha Company who is killed when he steps on a rigged mortar round. Though O’Brien does not particularly like Lemon, Lemon’s death is something O’Brien continually contemplates with sadness and regret. The preventability of his death and the irrational fears of his life—as when a dentist visits the company—point to the immaturity of many young American soldiers in Vietnam.
Ted Lavender - A young, scared soldier in the Alpha Company. Lavender is the first to die in the work. He makes only a brief appearance in the narrative, popping tranquilizers to calm himself while the company is outside Than Khe. Because his death, like Lemon’s, is preventable, it illustrates the expendability of human life in a senseless war.
Lee Strunk - Another soldier in the platoon and a minor character. A struggle with Dave Jensen over a jackknife results in Strunk’s broken nose. In begging Jensen to forget their pact—that if either man is gravely injured, the other will kill him swiftly—after he is injured, he illustrates how the fantasy of war differs from its reality.
Dave Jensen - A minor character whose guilt over his injury of Lee Strunk causes him to break his own nose. Jensen’s relief after Strunk’s death is an illustration of the perspective soldiers are forced to assume. Instead of mourning the loss of his friend, Jensen is glad to know that the pact the two made—and that he broke—has now become obsolete.
Azar - A soldier in the Alpha Company and one of the few unsympathetic characters in the work. Every time Azar appears, he is mean-spirited and cruel, torturing Vietnamese civilians and poking fun both at the corpses of the enemy and the deaths of his own fellow soldiers. His humanity is finally demonstrated near the end of the work, when he is forced to help unearth Kiowa’s body from the muck of the sewage field. This moment of remorse proves that a breaking point is possible even for soldiers who use cruelty as a defense mechanism.
Bobby Jorgenson - The medic who replaces Rat Kiley. The second time O’Brien is shot, Jorgenson’s incompetence inspires O’Brien’s desire for irrational revenge. Although Jorgenson’s anger prompts him to kick O’Brien in the head for trying to scare him, he later apologizes, redeeming himself as a medic by patching things up with O’Brien.
Elroy Berdahl - The proprietor of the Tip Top Lodge on the Rainy River near the Canadian border. Berdahl serves as the closest thing to a father figure for O’Brien, who, after receiving his draft notice, spends six contemplative days with the quiet, kind Berdahl while he makes a decision about whether to go to war or to escape the draft by running across the border to Canada.
Kathleen - O’Brien’s daughter and a symbol of the naïve outsider. Although O’Brien alludes to having multiple children, Kathleen is the only one we meet. Her youth and innocence force O’Brien to try to explain the meaning of the war. Frustrated that he cannot tell her the whole truth, he is inspired by her presence since it forces him to gain new perspective on his war experience.
Mary Anne Bell - Mark Fossie’s high school sweetheart. Although Mary Anne arrives in Vietnam full of innocence, she gains a respect for death and the darkness of the jungle and, according to legend, disappears there. Unlike Martha and Henry Dobbins’s girlfriend, who only serve as fantasy reminders of a world removed from Vietnam, Mary Anne is a strong and realized character who shatters Fossie’s fantasy of finding comfort in his docile girlfriend.
Mark Fossie - A medic in Rat Kiley’s previous assignment. Fossie loses his innocence in the realization that his girlfriend, Mary Anne, would rather be out on ambush with Green Berets than planning her postwar wedding to Fossie in Cleveland.
Linda - O’Brien’s first love, whose death of a brain tumor in the fifth grade is O’Brien’s first experience with mortality. From his experience with Linda, O’Brien learns the power that storytelling has to keep memory alive.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Physical and Emotional Burdens
The “[t]hings” of the title that O’Brien’s characters carry are both literal and figurative. While they all carry heavy physical loads, they also all carry heavy emotional loads, composed of grief, terror, love, and longing. Each man’s physical burden underscores his emotional burden. Henry Dobbins, for example, carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose and, with them, the longing for love and comfort. Similarly, Jimmy Cross carries compasses and maps and, with them, the responsibility for the men in his charge. Faced with the heavy burden of fear, the men also carry the weight of their reputations. Although every member of the Alpha Company experiences fear at some point, showing fear will only reveal vulnerability to both the enemy and sometimes cruel fellow soldiers.
After the war, the psychological burdens the men carry during the war continue to define them. Those who survive carry guilt, grief, and confusion, and many of the stories in the collection are about these survivors’ attempts to come to terms with their experience. In “Love,” for example, Jimmy Cross confides in O’Brien that he has never forgiven himself for Ted Lavender’s death. Norman Bowker’s grief and confusion are so strong that they prompt him to drive aimlessly around his hometown lake in “Speaking of Courage,” to write O’Brien a seventeen-page letter explaining how he never felt right after the war in “Notes,” and to hang himself in a YMCA. While Bowker bears his psychological burdens alone, O’Brien shares the things he carries, his war stories, with us. His collection of stories asks us to help carry the burden of the Vietnam War as part of our collective past.
Fear of Shame as Motivation
O’Brien’s personal experience shows that the fear of being shamed before one’s peers is a powerful motivating factor in war. His story “On the Rainy River” explains his moral quandary after receiving his draft notice—he does not want to fight in a war he believes is unjust, but he does not want to be thought a coward. What keeps O’Brien from fleeing into Canada is not patriotism or dedication to his country’s cause—the traditional motivating factors for fighting in a war—but concern over what his family and community will think of him if he doesn’t fight. This experience is emblematic of the conflict, explored throughout The Things They Carried, between the misguided expectations of a group of people important to a character and that character’s uncertainty regarding a proper course of action.
Fear of shame not only motivates reluctant men to go to Vietnam but also affects soldiers’ relationships with each other once there. Concern about social acceptance, which might seem in the abstract an unimportant preoccupation given the immediacy of death and necessity of group unity during war, leads O’Brien’s characters to engage in absurd or dangerous actions. For example, Curt Lemon decides to have a perfectly good tooth pulled (in “The Dentist”) to ease his shame about having fainted during an earlier encounter with the dentist. The stress of the war, the strangeness of Vietnam, and the youth of the soldiers combine to create psychological dangers that intensify the inherent risks of fighting. Jimmy Cross, who has gone to war only because his friends have, becomes a confused and uncertain leader who endangers the lives of his soldiers. O’Brien uses these characters to show that fear of shame is a misguided but unavoidable motivation for going to war.
The Subjection of Truth to Storytelling
By giving the narrator his own name and naming the rest of his characters after the men he actually fought alongside in the Vietnam War, O’Brien blurs the distinction between fact and fiction. The result is that it is impossible to know whether or not any given event in the stories truly happened to O’Brien. He intentionally heightens this impossibility when his characters contradict themselves several times in the collection of stories, rendering the truth of any statement suspect. O’Brien’s aim in blending fact and fiction is to make the point that objective truth of a war story is less relevant than the act of telling a story. O’Brien is attempting not to write a history of the Vietnam War through his stories but rather to explore the ways that speaking about war experience establishes or fails to establish bonds between a soldier and his audience. The technical facts surrounding any individual event are less important than the overarching, subjective truth of what the war meant to soldiers and how it changed them.
The different storytellers in The Things They Carried—Rat Kiley and Mitchell Sanders especially, in addition to O’Brien—work to lay out war’s ugly truths, which are so profound that they require neither facts nor long explanations. Such statements as “This is true,” which opens “How to Tell a True War Story,” do not establish that the events recounted in the story actually occurred. Rather, they indicate that the stylistic and thematic content of the story is true to the experience that the soldiers had in the war. This truth is often ugly, in contrast to the ideas of glory and heroism associated with war before Vietnam. In O’Brien’s “true”war story, Kiley writes to Lemon’s sister, and when she never responds, he calls her a “dumb cooze,” only adding to the ugliness of the story. O’Brien’s declaration that the truest part of this story is that it contains no moral underscores the idea that the purpose of stories is to relate the truth of experience, not to manufacture false emotions in their audiences.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
O’Brien believes that stories contain immense power, since they allow tellers and listeners to confront the past together and share otherwise unknowable experiences. Telling stories returns to the foreground of the narrative again and again. Mitchell Sanders, the Alpha Company’s resident storyteller, whose anecdotes range from the mythic (the story of six men who hear voices in the jungle) to the specific (the story of how Rat Kiley shoots himself in the foot and as a result is allowed to leave Vietnam), contends that truth and morality in a war story have little to do with accuracy. For example, after telling the story of the men who hear voices in the jungle, Sanders admits that he made up a few things in order to get his point across. Nevertheless, his story has resonance. The added details are only further proof of the universal truth: the eerie quiet of the jungle causes soldiers’ imaginations to run wild with fantastic images far stranger than anything they might actually encounter.
O’Brien shows that storytelling is not just a coping mechanism for soldiers who are embroiled in the war but also a strategy for communication throughout life. Several of the stories in The Things They Carried are told from O’Brien’s point of view, twenty years after the war. With this distance, facts have become cloudy and all that remains of the experience are the lingering feelings and memories. He is aware of his omissions and exaggeration of detail, and in the case of “Good Form,” he even suggests that all of his previous stories are made up. Even if he did not actually kill a soldier in My Khe, the truth of his feelings about war is no less valid. His insistence on the idea that stories can make the past become part of the present shows that his priority is not on the facts but on our identification with his feelings.
O’Brien’s stories show that the jungle blurs boundaries between right and wrong. The brutal killing of innocents on both sides cannot be explained, and in some moments of disbelief, the men deal with the pain of their feelings by pointing out the irony.“There’s a moral here,” Mitchell Sanders ironically points out again and again, each time stressing the actual immorality of the specific situation. After Ted Lavender is fatally shot by the enemy, for example, Sanders jokes that the “moral” of Ted Lavender’s accidental and tragic death is to stay away from drugs.
Exposed to these horrors, the men’s notions of right and wrong shift and bend. After Ted Lavender’s death, for example, Cross evens the score and deals with his own guilt by burning the entire village of Than Khe. Similarly, Rat Kiley deals with his frustration about Curt Lemon’s death by brutally killing a water buffalo. Affected by the senselessness of war, even O’Brien—a college educated, peace-loving man—feels himself grow hard and callous, willing to wish others harm. Ironically, the moral or lesson in The Things They Carried is that there is no morality in war. War is ambiguous and arbitrary because it forces humans into extreme situations that have no obvious solutions.
Loneliness and Isolation
O’Brien argues that in Vietnam, loneliness and isolation are forces as destructive as any piece of ammunition. In repeatedly emphasizing the impact of solitude on the soldiers, he shows that thoughts, worries, and fears are as dangerous—if not more dangerous—than the Vietnamese soldiers themselves. In “How to Tell a True War Story,”Mitchell Sanders’s story concerning soldiers made so paranoid by their experience on listening patrol that they hear strange noises emphasizes how the imagination can take over instantly in the lonely silence. In “The Ghost Soldiers,” O’Brien takes unfair advantage of the power of isolation when he attempts to frighten Bobby Jorgenson while Jorgenson is on night guard duty. In order to emphasize the evil intentions of his revenge plot, O’Brien reflects on his fear of being cut off from the outside world and the close relation between night guard and childhood fears of the dark. In Vietnam, isolation is synonymous with endless time to dwell on the unknown.
Loneliness remains a strong presence enveloping the soldiers long after the war is over. Jimmy Cross, for example, feels bereft after the war because his hope for happiness in Martha is dashed by her rejection. Norman Bowker also feels empty and isolated after the war. In “Speaking of Courage,” he aimlessly drives around a lake in his hometown, thinking that he has no one to talk to. He even attempts to converse with an A&W employee, but no one will offer him consolation. O’Brien himself realizes that if he didn’t have writing to work through his trauma, he might be in as abject a place as Bowker. The character O’Brien’s narration—and, in effect, the author O’Brien’s The Things They Carried—is an attempt to combat the destructive isolation that the Vietnam experience fostered.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Dead Young Vietnamese Soldier
Although O’Brien is unclear about whether or not he actually threw a grenade and killed a man outside My Khe, his memory of the man’s corpse is strong and recurring, symbolizing humanity’s guilt over war’s horrible acts. In “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien distances himself from the memory by speaking in the third person and constructing fantasies as to what the man must have been like before he was killed. O’Brien marvels at the wreckage of his body, thinking repeatedly of the star-shaped hole that is in the place of his eye and the peeled-back cheek. The description serves to distance O’Brien from the reality of his actions because nowhere in its comprehensive detail are O’Brien’s feelings about the situation mentioned. His guilt is evident, however, in his imagining of a life for the man he killed that includes several aspects that are similar to his own life.
Kathleen represents a reader who has the capability of responding to the author. Like us, O’Brien’s daughter Kathleen is often the recipient of O’Brien’s war stories, but unlike us, she can affect O’Brien as much as O’Brien affects her. O’Brien gains a new perspective on his experiences in Vietnam when he thinks about how he should relay the story of the man he killed to his impressionable young daughter.
Kathleen also stands for the gap in communication between one who tells a story and one who receives a story. When O’Brien takes her to Vietnam to have her better understand what he went through during the war, the only things that resonate to the ten-year-old are the stink of the muck and the strangeness of the land. She has no sense of the field’s emotional significance to O’Brien, and thus does not understand his behavior there, as when he goes for a swim.
Linda represents elements of the past that can be brought back through imagination and storytelling. Linda, a classmate of O’Brien’s who died of a brain tumor in the fifth grade, symbolizes O’Brien’s faith that storytelling is the best way for him to negotiate pain and confusion, especially the sadness that surrounds death. Linda was O’Brien’s first love and also his first experience with death’s senseless arbitrariness. His retreat into his daydreams after her funeral provided him unexpected relief and rationalization. In his dreams, he could see Linda still alive, which suggests that through imagination—which, for O’Brien, later evolves into storytelling—the dead can continue to live.
Linda’s presence in the story makes O’Brien’s earlier stories about Vietnam more universal. The experience he had as a child illuminates the way he deals with death in Vietnam and after; it also explains why he has turned to stories to deal with life’s difficulties. Just like Linda, Norman Bowker and Kiowa are immortalized in O’Brien’s stories. Their commonplace lives become more significant than their dramatic deaths. Through the image of Linda, O’Brien realizes that he continues to save his own life through storytelling.
Important Quotations Explained
1. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.
Explanation for Quotation 1 >>
This quotation from the first story,“The Things They Carried,” is part of a longer passage about the emotional baggage of men at risk of dying. O’Brien contends that barely restrained cowardice is a common secret among soldiers. He debunks the notion that men go to war to be heroes. Instead, he says, they go because they are forced to and because refusal equals cowardice. This detached generalization foreshadows several later references to courage and juxtapositions of courage and cowardice. In “On The Rainy River,” O’Brien explains that the only thing that kept him from listening to his own convictions and running away from the war and across the border to Canada was the notion that the people in his hometown would think him a coward. Later, O’Brien kills a man himself and is forced to negotiate his guilt with his fellow soldiers’ rationalization that killing was the right thing to do. By alluding to this killing early, and indicating that men do unspeakable things partly because of impulse but mostly because of peer pressure, O’Brien suggests that the greatest fear of all soldiers is not death or killing but simple embarrassment. By pinning the unnecessary deaths of his friends, especially Kiowa, on these false notions of obligation, O’Brien suggests that the greatest tragedy of the Vietnam War is not its violence but its ability to inspire compliance.
2. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole.
Explanation for Quotation 2 >>
This quotation, from “The Man I Killed,”describes the corpse of a young Vietnamese soldier whom O’Brien killed with a grenade. In this story, the narration is from a third-person perspective, and is largely a series of unconnected observations and fantasies about the young, dead soldier. This particular passage is an example of the concrete description O’Brien uses to come to terms with his killing of the boy. He is blunt in these moments, perhaps because he thinks matter-of-factness is the only way to negotiate committing the unthinkable. But the observation that the man is dainty and the idea that his face might hold an expression speak to the humanity of both the dead young man and that of his killer-turned-observer. O’Brien’s description of the star-shaped hole in the boy’s eye is both a means of detaching himself and an idea that in death a body becomes mystical and beautiful. These particular words become a refrain for O’Brien—they are repeated several times in reference to this killing, to reinforce the notion that the memory of the young man’s body is one still fresh in O’Brien’s mind.
3. By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.
Explanation for Quotation 3 >>
This passage comes from “Notes,” a story about O’Brien’s efforts to allay Norman Bowker’s guilt about Kiowa’s death and his feelings of aimlessness after the war by telling a story. O’Brien reflects on his own storytelling after Bowker sends him a letter asking for a story because he, Bowker, wants to explain his feelings of frustration and disillusionment but doesn’t know what to say. The letter inspires O’Brien to consider his own storytelling as a means for coping with his traumatic experiences. This particular passage is one of several that support O’Brien’s contention that in storytelling, objective truth is not as important as the feeling that a story gives. Later, in “Good Form,” O’Brien says that the stories he tells may be entirely made up and forces us to decide whether his characters and contentions are just as powerful and valid if the facts behind them are simply made up. All of this commentary serves to prove that sometimes, in storytelling, factual truth is not as important as emotional truth.
4. I’d come to this war a quiet, thoughtful sort of person, a college grad, Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, all the credentials, but after seven months in the bush I realized that those high, civilized trappings had somehow been crushed under the weight of the simple daily realities. I’d turned mean inside.
Explanation for Quotation 4 >>
When, in “The Ghost Soldiers,” O’Brien tries to exact revenge on Bobby Jorgensen for his failure to treat him competently, he concedes that he is acting irrationally. Though it is difficult for O’Brien to admit, after a certain amount of time in Vietnam he realizes that he is capable of evil. The only way for him to deal with hurt is to hurt back. The terms O’Brien uses juxtapose his previous life—one of intellectualism and striving for success through studying—with his life in the jungle, where accolades like Phi Beta Kappa have no relevance. The foreign, academic terms “Phi Beta Kappa” and “summa cum laude” contrast starkly with the simple, blunt descriptions of life in the “bush,” just as the civility of his college years contrasts starkly with his newfound meanness.
5. [S]ometimes I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I’m young and happy. I’ll never die. I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.
Explanation for Quotation 5 >>
In the closing story, “The Lives of the Dead,” O’Brien broadens the scope of his work by juxtaposing his first encounter with death as a soldier with his first-ever experience with death when, at age nine, his friend Linda succumbed to a brain tumor. In this particular passage, O’Brien explains how memory and storytelling are comforts for times of mourning and how they have equipped him to deal with the painful past. In this extended metaphor, he considers how his need to tell stories evolved through daydreams of Linda. He is optimistic that the power of memory in storytelling gives immortality to both the one who has died—in this case Linda, making her vibrant and able to skate with Timmy in a warmly lit dream—and the one who tells the story—in this case O’Brien, enabling O’Brien to cope with his traumatic past.