This essay discusses a famous novel about the war in Vietnam called The Things They Carried. It also gives a piece of background information about the writer, Tim O’Brien. In the essay, there is a discussion of the main characters and the underlying themes. The author analyzes some of the literary devices in Tim O’Brien’s The Thing They Carried.
This book is a collection of stories about the war in Vietnam. Tim O’Brien, just like the fictional “Tim,” went to Vietnam, and that is where a lot of inspiration comes from. However, it is essential to understand that this novel is not autobiographical. However, there are indeed some similarities between both but a lot of differences as well.
The author lived through the times of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. As a college student at Macalester College, he joined the antiwar movement. Nevertheless, he still went to Vietnam upon his graduation.
As the writer, he used Vietnam as a way to reach the reader’s heart. In the past years, The Things They Carried became the staple work of war literature. Combining elements of diary, writer’s memoir, and fiction made the book exceptional. The author intentionally blurs the line between the truth and the fiction.
It also challenges the notion of the truth in war literature. It asks a question of what an authentic war experience is.
The readers are welcomed into the novel not to see the war as it was. They are here to see a representation of feelings, thoughts, experiences that the author witnessed and went through.
The Things They Carried: Literary Analysis
When a human mind confronts a traumatic event, the brain tries to simplify the experience and puts it into some form of order. The author of the novel, Tim O’Brien, uses this method and a technique to tell the story and as a way to process the events that he witnessed personally.
The author takes us through the number of stories about the Vietnam war the way the protagonist remembers it. It is not a straightforward narration from the beginning to the end. Instead, it is a whirlpool of memories, impressions, emotions, and events that the characters of the novel went through. It is written in a movie-like manner.
One of these events is an encounter with death. The first opening story is an excellent example of that. The first story describes incidents in which the majority of Alpha Company encounters the end of their comrade.
However, this is not the focus of the story.
It focuses on the list of men and the things that had sentimental and practical value for them, “Ted Lavender carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RTO, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.” (O’Brien, 1998)
Suddenly, this list is interrupted by death.
What produces an even more significant effect is that the death portrayed as something ordinary. One moment it tells about poncho. The next, it describes how Ted Lavender’s cold body was wrapped in it, “with its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost two ounces, but it was worth every ounce. In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that took him away.” (O’Brien, 1998)
The narration of the death is absurd and traumatic for the whole group of soldiers. The reader, in turn, learns about Lavender’s death long before they learn how he died. The readers see that the exact things these soldiers carried were fear, guilt, loss, pain, and trauma. In the second story called “Love,” when Jimmy Cross visits Tim many years after the war is over, they talk about all these things they carried through their lives.
In the novel, the act of storytelling is more important than the stories itself.
Each character is searching for some form of a resolution by telling their war story. The war Itself does not give this type of closure. The fact that reality and fiction are blended creates an effect of chaos and uncertainty. That is what exactly the writer was trying to achieve.
The writer also analyzes why the stories are told and how they should be told. In the end, the act of storytelling is an attempt to put the chaotic memories and experiences in order.
Pain and Happiness
In the novel, pain and happiness are interconnected. The soldiers are experiencing a blend of emotions such as love, appreciation for beauty, desire for peace, a drive to live. At the same time, all of the heroes experience a range of negative feelings such as shame, guilt, and pain. One of the best examples of this unusual blend is a female character in the novel named Mary Anne. She is a young woman who travels to Vietnam to keep her boyfriend company. Very quickly, a tender and an innocent 17 years old girl changes. There was “new confidence in her voice, [and] new authority in the ways she carried herself.” Rat Kiley observes these changes in her by saying, “Vietnam made her glow in the dark. She wanted more, she wanted to penetrate deeper into the mystery of herself, and after a time the wanting became needing, which turned then to craving… She was lost inside herself.” (O’Brien, 1998)
Anyone who hears this story will most probably doubt it. Especially those who went through the war themselves. Nevertheless, it is not that remarkable because the story is so emotionally charged. This is the story about finding beauty in war, finding beauty in pain, and the transformative power of suffering.
Through this theme, the author shows a blend of emotions that the soldiers were going through, the things they carried.
O’Brien suggests that the proper way to tell the war story is through storytelling. The truth and the story in itself are two oppositions. However, in this novel, these two notions are profoundly interconnected. Even the characters themselves during the story practice escapism. Fantasy and myth become their way of dealing with the painful reality. Instead of thinking about war, Jimmy Cross dreams about a girl named Martha. Instead of helping to find Kiowa’s body, he thinks about the conversation he would have with Kiowa’s father. Ted Lavender uses drugs to create an imaginary world and escape the war. Eddie Diamond does the same.
Through practicing escapism, the characters are trying to find refuge from the painful reality they have to live in.
One of the most peculiar short stories in the book is How to Tell a True War Story. The writer tells the reader that the real war story cannot be moral. You cannot believe it. It also never ends. We can see the narrator many years after the war was over in Vietnam. However, it was never over for him. It was so vivid that many years later, the memories of both good and evil were haunting Tim. He says, “Sometimes war is beautiful, sometimes it’s horrible.” He also says, “You can tell a true war story the way it never seems to end, not then, not ever.” (O’Brien, 1998)
Brien invites the readers for a listening session as if telling it can help him cope with these vivid memories. At the beginning of the story about the death of Curt Lemon, the author says that it truly happened. In the final paragraphs, he takes his words back by saying, “None of it happened.” (O’Brien, 1998) Truthful fiction becomes a technique in which the author writes about memory in a fictional way.
This essay analyzes The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. It is a collection of short stories about American soldiers in the Vietnam War. The writer invited the readers to become listeners of the stories he is telling about the war. In his attempt to put the memories in place, the author frequently repeats them and tells them the way he remembers. Therefore, it is hard to understand what is truth and what is not. The author blurs the line between the two and allows the reader to decide what is fact and what is not.
- O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. 1998, New York: Broadway Publisher.