The Things They Carried
64 pages • 2 hours read
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Published in 1990, The Things They Carried is a collection of interrelated short stories about the Vietnam War written by Tim O’Brien. The historical fiction collection has been hailed not only as an essential piece of literature about the Vietnam War, but as a workshop in fiction writing itself. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a New York Times Book of the Century. It was featured in a PBS series about the Vietnam War narrated by Ken Burns. Although Tim O’Brien won the National Book award in 1979 for his novel Going After Cacciato , it is perhaps the stories of The Things They Carried which has left the largest impact on the American perception of the Vietnam War.
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The Things They Carried comprises 22 short stories that range in length from just a few paragraphs to fully fleshed out dramatic narratives of 20 pages or more. The stories are largely written in first person, from the point of view of a single narrator, Tim O’Brien. While there are 22 separate stories, the book is made up of a few central dramatic events that are repeatedly featured.
In “The Things They Carried,” a soldier named Ted Lavender takes a shot to the head while the First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross daydreams about his love Martha. In “On the Rainy River,” the narrator confronts the decision of whether or not to go to war by escaping to a fishing lodge run by an old man named Elroy Berdahl. In “How to Tell a True War Story,” Curt Lemon dies from a grenade explosion and his friend Rat Kiley tortures a baby water buffalo . In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” a soldier’s young girlfriend flies from Cleveland to Vietnam and becomes deeply involved in the action. In “Ambush,” the narrator describes the time that he killed a man. Stories 15 and 17 describe the death of a soldier named Kiowa who drowned in a mud field during an attack. In “The Ghost Soldiers,” the narrator seeks revenge on a field medic for his mistreatment of a wound the narrator suffers during battle. In Story 22, the narrator remembers a childhood friend of his who passed away at the age of nine and reflects on the nature of memory, death, and storytelling.
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Throughout all of these stories, the narrator frequently offers reflections on both the craft of writing and the nature of truth. These reflections become intertwined with the stories in complicated ways that fragment the reader’s sense of what is “true” and what is merely fiction. It is for this complicated intertwining of truth and fiction that The Things They Carried is celebrated as both an accurate portrait of the Vietnam War and as a work of expertly crafted fiction.
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By Tim O'Brien
Going After Cacciato
If I Die in a Combat Zone
If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home
In the Lake of the Woods
Audio Study Guides
Community reads, creative nonfiction, memorial day reads, military reads, short story collections, vietnam war.
- My Preferences
- My Reading List
- The Things They Carried
- Literature Notes
- On the Rainy River
- Book Summary
- About The Things They Carried
- Character List
- Summary and Analysis
- Enemies and Friends
- How to Tell a True War Story
- The Dentist
- Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong
- The Man I Killed and Ambush
- Speaking of Courage
- In the Field
- The Ghost Soldiers
- The Lives of the Dead
- Character Analysis
- Tim O'Brien
- Lt. Jimmy Cross
- Norman Bowker
- Mary Anne Bell
- Henry Dobbins
- Tim O'Brien Biography
- Critical Essays
- The Things They Carried in a Historical Context
- Narrative Structure in The Things They Carried
- Style and Storytelling in The Things They Carried
- The Things They Carried and Loss of Innocence
- The Things They Carried and Questions of Genre
- Full Glossary for The Things They Carried
- Essay Questions
- Practice Projects
- Cite this Literature Note
Summary and Analysis On the Rainy River
In an attempt to relieve some shame and guilt about his involvement in the war, middle-aged writer "O'Brien" relates a story about himself that he has never before told anyone. "O'Brien's" story is about the summer of 1968 when he was 21 years old and was drafted to serve in the Army. Before his draft notice arrived, "O'Brien" had taken a mild stand against the war in the form of campaigning for the presidential campaign of anti-war advocate Eugene McCarthy and writing college newspaper editorials against the war.
He recounts his thoughts on receiving a draft notice, feeling that he was not suited for war because his educational accomplishments and graduate school prospects were too great. O'Brien tells his father that his plan for the summer is to wait and work. He spends his summer working at a pig slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant. The work is messy and unpleasant, and O'Brien feels his life going out of control.
Around mid-July, O'Brien begins thinking about crossing the border into Canada to avoid the draft. He weighs the morality of this decision as he fears losing respectability, being ridiculed, and being caught by authorities.
While at work in the slaughterhouse, O'Brien suddenly feels an urge to go to Canada. He leaves work and drives north along the Rainy River, the natural border between the U.S. and Canada. Exhausted and scared, O'Brien stops, still on the U.S. side of the border, at a shabby old fishing resort. The elderly owner, Elroy Berdahl, rents him a cabin. Elroy does not pry into O'Brien's plans, though they are probably fairly obvious. O'Brien continues to feel nervousness and fear, and above all else, shame for running to Canada, but he joins Elroy in chores around the lodge to forget about his troubles.
When figuring O'Brien's bill, Elroy recalls the chores O'Brien had done, decides that instead he owes O'Brien money, and gives him $200. O'Brien refuses the money, though he would need it if he did continue on to Canada. But Elroy tacks it to O'Brien's cabin door with a note marked "Emergency Fund."
During O'Brien's last day at the lodge, Elroy takes him fishing on the river. O'Brien the narrator comments on the thoughts that flashed through his mind. He remembers crying and feeling helpless while Elroy just keeps on fishing, pretending not to notice. O'Brien tries to force himself out of the boat and toward the Canadian shore but can not compel himself to flee to Canada. They return to the lodge, and O'Brien departs for home and, eventually, for Vietnam.
From the first sentence of the chapter, O'Brien begins to impress, however subtly, the importance of the novel's form, a blend of war autobiography and writer's memoir. Readers should note that a writer's memoir is a form of autobiography. Generally, a writer's memoir is more essayistic and contemplative than an autobiography, in which an author recounts scenes from his or her own life. Writer's memoirs frequently describe how a writer writes and what the conditions were — mental and emotional — that surrounded the production of some literary or journalistic work. The admission that "this is one story I've never told before" signals two points to the reader. First, the story establishes a confessional tone and creates an immediate empathy between the reader and the O'Brien character. Second, in the context of the preceding chapter, the reader knows that this is an unresolved story, perhaps a fragment of memory that, given O'Brien's philosophy of storytelling, is being crafted into a story as a means for understanding the events of the past.
Yet the story is not fragmentary and disconnected, abruptly moving between memories. The overall form of the chapter is narrative, though the stream-of-consciousness interjection of raw emotions interrupts the story's fluidity. For example, when O'Brien discusses the justifications that apparently underpinned U.S. involvement in the war, he writes that "the very facts were shrouded in uncertainty" and that "the only certainty that summer was moral confusion." This political discourse O'Brien provides is the real-world macrocosm version of the personal microcosm of "moral uncertainty" that distressed him during the summer of 1968. The uncertainty continues to disturb him until he takes this "act of remembrance" and makes sense of moral disorder by committing it to paper and formulating it into a story for the narrator himself and the novel's readers to understand.
An important difference exists between the physical and sensory detail O'Brien employs at the beginning of the chapter, or rather the lack of it, and the attention paid to it at the chapter's close. "O'Brien" describes his stance against the war as "almost entirely an intellectual activity. . . . I felt no personal danger." His precise use of detail mirrors an internal change in O'Brien as he is described in physical detail.
An example of this detail is the contrast of O'Brien's work in the meatpacking plant to the future that he hopes awaits him in graduate school. O'Brien works in the meatpacking plant as a summer job, not as an occupation that will become a full-time career. He has aspirations, and those aspirations are higher than working in such conditions. Work in the plant, for O'Brien, is nearly an indignity, an indignity that is surpassed only by his participation in a war that he morally opposes. O'Brien offers this variation in detail for the following reason: the former, with its "dense greasy pig-stink," elicits a strong reaction from the reader. The effect also appears when Elroy Berdahl perceptively tells O'Brien that he had wondered about the smell. The metaphor of the pork product assembly line also extends to the military machine that drafts soldiers and sends them to war.
O'Brien only took action to evade the draft and follow his own inclinations rather than follow the expectations of his community after he "felt something break open in [his] chest…a physical rupture — a cracking-leaking-popping feeling." O'Brien reprises this idea when "O'Brien" revisits the shit field ("Field Trip") and when Timmy/O'Brien learns of Linda's death ("The Lives of the Dead"). He creates a complex relationship between physical detail, his ability to understand the story of his own life, and the audience's ability to understand the vicarious lessons of war, even if those lessons are paradoxical.
O'Brien sets up paradoxical relationships that are revisited in various forms throughout the novel. One such paradox is that of courage and fear. He explains that he was "ashamed to be doing the right thing" in following his conscience and going to Canada. Because this paradox is a reversal of commonly held notions about courage in war, O'Brien — who has never told the story of his flight to the Tip Top Lodge before — needs to "write" a story as a means for structuring a way to understand the paradox and come to terms with it.
This meta-fictive means of imposing meaning on moral disorder and personal conflict is not the only storytelling O'Brien does in this chapter. He actually tries to do the same thing in the middle of the Rainy River — he "slipped out of his own skin" and watched himself (much like Elroy Berdahl watched and read O'Brien) in his attempts to decide whether he should escape to Canada. At the end of the chapter, however, the importance of the physicality of "O'Brien" reemerges. O'Brien was literally paralyzed as he tried to force himself from the boat. So it follows that he had denied his own feelings and submitted to the schemas of stories of other people, like the older generation of veterans whom he despises, and to what he considered cowardice — at least until finally telling this story.
The Lone Ranger Famous cowboy hero and the star of first a radio show and then a television show in the 1940s and 1950s.
USS Maddox American destroyer stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Gulf of Tonkin Arm of the South China Sea between Hainan Island and the coasts of Southern China and Northern Vietnam. Location where North Vietnamese forces attacked and sunk two American ships in 1964. Afterwards, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing military action in Southeast Asia.
Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969; born Nguyen That Thanh) President of North Vietnam (1954-1969).
Geneva Accords Established in 1954, the Geneva Accords were rules which governed military action and treatment of captured soldiers.
SEATO Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (1955-1976).
Cold War Hostility and sharp conflict as in diplomacy and economics between states, without actual warfare.
dominoes Refers here to the "domino effect" or "domino theory," which was the prevalent course of foreign policy adopted by the United States during the Cold War. The notion was that if one area or nation "fell" to Communist forces, that the surrounding areas would also "fall" under Communist influences, like dominoes toppling over.
Gene McCarthy (b. 1916) Eugene McCarthy, a World War II veteran, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1948 to 1958 and the U.S. Senate from 1958 to 1968. In 1968, he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, winning the New Hampshire primary, a factor in Lyndon Johnson's decision not to seek re-election. McCarthy supported the Vietnam War at first, voting in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, but by 1968, he strongly opposed the war.
draft notice Official notice sent by the Selective Service System, informing a young man to report for an armed forces physical exam. The first step to being drafed into the armed forces.
Phi Beta Kappa An honorary society of U.S. college students in liberal arts and sciences with high scholastic rank; a member of this society.
summa cum laude With the greatest praise: a phrase signifying above-average academic standing at the time of graduation from a college or university: the highest of three categories.
jingo A person who boasts of his patriotism and favors an aggressive, threatening, warlike foreign policy; chauvinist.
graduate school deferment Men in graduate school who maintained a high enough GPA (grade point average) could defer the draft and remain in school in the U.S.
National Guard In the U.S., the organized militia forces of the individual states, a component of the Army of the U.S. when called into active federal service.
reserves Personnel or units in the armed forces not on active duty but subject to call; last resort troops, usually remained in the U.S.
CO Conscientious objector. A designation for legal exemption from military combat service due to moral or personal ideological conflict.
Bao Dai (1913-1997, meaning "Keeper or Preserver of Greatness") Bao Dai was the last of the Nguyen Emperors.
Diem Ngo Dinh Diem (1901-1963), first president of South Vietnam (1955-1963).
Saint George Patron saint of England.
LBJ Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) 36th president of the United States (1963-1969).
Huck Finn Protagonist from the novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain marked by his plucky and rebellious spirit.
Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989) A countercultural icon of the 1960s, Abbie Hoffman was successful at turning many flower children into political activists.
Jane Fonda (b. 1937) Actress and sex symbol who toured Vietnam in 1972; she became a vocal anti-war activist and was harshly criticized by some veterans for her political position on the war.
Gary Cooper (1901-1961) film actor characterized by a rugged masculine quality well known for his roles in Westerns such as High Noon (1952). He also appeared in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and Sergeant York (1941).
Plato's Republic Central text of Western thought in which the Greek philosopher Plato outlines the construction of the ideal political city and leader.
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Home — Guides — The Things They Carried — Plot Summary of ‘The Things They Carried
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The Things They Carried: Plot Summary
Table of contents.
“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien is a powerful and introspective novel that delves into the experiences of American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Through a collection of interconnected short stories, O’Brien explores the physical, emotional, and psychological burdens carried by the soldiers, while also examining the nature of truth, memory, and storytelling.
The book opens with the story that shares its title, “The Things They Carried.” In this story, O’Brien introduces the readers to the tangible and intangible objects carried by the soldiers, ranging from weapons and equipment to personal items that hold deep sentimental value. These objects symbolize the weight of the soldiers’ burdens, both literal and metaphorical, as they navigate the challenges of war.
Throughout the book, O’Brien delves into the lives of various soldiers, providing glimpses into their individual experiences. The story “Love” centers around Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, the platoon leader, and his unrequited love for a girl back home. Cross carries letters and photographs of her, which serve as a constant reminder of the emotional weight he carries. His preoccupation with thoughts of her leads to the tragic death of one of his men.
In “Spin,” O’Brien explores the concept of “humping,” the arduous task of carrying heavy equipment through the harsh jungle terrain. The story highlights the physical strain endured by the soldiers and the toll it takes on their bodies and minds. It also reveals the psychological coping mechanisms employed by the soldiers to maintain their sanity in the face of the grueling demands of war.
“On the Rainy River” narrates O’Brien’s personal struggle with the decision to go to war or escape to Canada. As a young man faced with the draft, he wrestles with feelings of shame, fear, and moral confusion. The story delves into the internal conflict experienced by many soldiers torn between personal beliefs and societal expectations.
In “The Man I Killed” and “Ambush,” O’Brien confronts the guilt and trauma resulting from killing an enemy soldier. He vividly describes the aftermath of a violent encounter and the profound impact it has on his psyche. These stories explore the moral ambiguity of war and the lasting emotional consequences endured by those involved.
“How to Tell a True War Story” challenges the notion of absolute truth and the idea that war stories can be objectively conveyed. O’Brien asserts that the truth of war lies in the emotional and psychological truths conveyed through storytelling, rather than in strict factual accuracy. He explores the ways in which the human experience of war defies easy categorization and seeks to capture the complex, contradictory nature of combat narratives.
The final story, “The Lives of the Dead,” reflects on the power of storytelling to preserve the memory of the deceased. O’Brien recalls childhood memories of a girl named Linda who died at a young age. He emphasizes the importance of storytelling in immortalizing the dead and keeping their spirits alive through memory and narrative.
The Things They Carried: Chapter 1
The first chapter of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, titled “The Things They Carried,” sets the stage for the entire book. In this opening story, O’Brien introduces the readers to the tangible and intangible items carried by the soldiers serving in the Vietnam War.
The story begins by listing the physical objects that the soldiers carry, emphasizing their weight and significance. These objects include weapons, ammunition, and gear, but they also include personal belongings such as photographs, letters, and good luck charms. O’Brien describes each item in detail, highlighting their individual importance to the soldiers and the memories and emotions attached to them.
As the story progresses, the focus shifts from the physical objects to the intangible burdens carried by the soldiers. O’Brien explains that the soldiers also carry the weight of fear, guilt, and the overwhelming burden of the war itself. The soldiers carry the memories of fallen comrades, the weight of responsibility, and the constant presence of death and danger.
Moreover, O’Brien introduces the concept of storytelling as another burden carried by the soldiers. He explains that storytelling is a means for them to make sense of their experiences, cope with the trauma of war, and connect with others. The act of storytelling allows the soldiers to carry the weight of their experiences and share their stories with one another, creating a bond and a sense of collective memory.
“The Things They Carried” sets the tone for the rest of the book, highlighting the physical and emotional burdens carried by the soldiers and the role of storytelling in navigating the complexities of war. It introduces the theme of the blurred line between truth and fiction and sets the stage for the exploration of memory, trauma, and the human experience of war that follows in the subsequent chapters.
Love: Chapter 2
The second chapter of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien is titled “Love” and focuses on the character of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, the platoon leader. The chapter explores the theme of love and its impact on the soldiers’ experiences during the Vietnam War.
In “Love,” O’Brien reveals that Cross carries letters and photographs from a girl back home named Martha. Martha is not Jimmy Cross’s girlfriend, but rather a woman with whom he is infatuated. He imagines a romantic relationship with her, even though their connection is primarily platonic. Cross uses his fantasies about Martha as a form of escapism from the harsh realities of war.
Throughout the chapter, O’Brien recounts instances where Cross’s preoccupation with Martha leads to costly distractions and a loss of focus on his duties as a leader. In one instance, Cross is distracted by thoughts of Martha while his men are under attack, resulting in the death of one soldier, Ted Lavender.
The death of Lavender profoundly affects Cross, and he blames himself for the tragedy. He realizes the weight of his responsibility as a leader and the consequences of his distracted state of mind. Cross feels guilt and remorse for not being fully present and focused on the well-being of his men.
The chapter also explores the emotional toll that war takes on relationships. Cross’s love for Martha is one-sided, as she does not share the same romantic feelings towards him. He carries her letters and photographs as a symbolic connection to a world of love and normalcy, a stark contrast to the violence and brutality of war.
“Love” delves into the complexities of human emotions and the ways in which love, both real and imagined, can impact soldiers in a war zone. It examines the ways in which personal attachments can become burdensome in the midst of a war, distracting soldiers from their responsibilities and adding to their emotional burdens.
Spin: Chapter 3
The third chapter of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien is titled “Spin” and focuses on the concept of “humping” – the arduous task of carrying heavy equipment through the unforgiving terrain of the Vietnam War.
In “Spin,” O’Brien vividly portrays the physical and psychological toll that humping takes on the soldiers. He describes the weight of the gear they carry, including weapons, ammunition, and supplies, and emphasizes the relentless demands of their mission. The soldiers trudge through muddy jungles and steep mountains, their bodies strained to the limit as they navigate the treacherous landscape.
Throughout the chapter, O’Brien delves into the coping mechanisms employed by the soldiers to endure the grueling task of humping. They engage in light-hearted banter, jokes, and storytelling as a means of distraction and camaraderie. The humor and camaraderie serve as a temporary respite from the physical and emotional burdens they carry.
O’Brien also explores the psychological impact of humping. The soldiers become intimately familiar with the weight of their equipment, feeling it even when they are not actively carrying it. The weight becomes ingrained in their bodies and minds, leaving a lasting impression even after they remove their gear.
“Spin” also highlights the disparity between the physical and psychological burdens carried by the soldiers. While the physical weight can be measured and quantified, the emotional toll remains immeasurable. O’Brien reflects on the mental exhaustion and strain that accompany the physical exhaustion, revealing the immense burden that the soldiers carry on both a physical and psychological level.
The chapter concludes with the soldiers reaching their destination and finding temporary relief from the weight they have carried. They strip off their gear, shedding the physical and metaphorical burdens that have weighed them down. However, the respite is temporary, as they know they will soon have to shoulder their
On the Rainy River: Chapter 4
The fourth chapter of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien is titled “On the Rainy River” and explores the protagonist’s internal struggle with the decision to go to war or escape to Canada.
In “On the Rainy River,” O’Brien recounts his personal experience as a young man facing the draft during the Vietnam War. He introduces the character Tim O’Brien, who shares his name but may or may not reflect his own experiences.
The chapter begins with O’Brien describing his life in the small town of Worthington, Minnesota, and his initial reluctance to go to war. He feels torn between societal expectations, patriotic duty, and his own personal beliefs. As the draft notice arrives, O’Brien’s internal conflict intensifies.
O’Brien decides to escape to Canada, seeing it as a way to avoid the horrors of war. He makes his way to the Rainy River, which separates the United States and Canada. However, when he arrives at the river, he is overwhelmed by fear, shame, and confusion.
The story takes a reflective turn as O’Brien contemplates the consequences of his decision. He grapples with feelings of cowardice and the judgment he anticipates from others. O’Brien is torn between his own moral convictions and the pressures of societal expectations and familial pride.
Ultimately, O’Brien decides to return to the United States, feeling unable to face the shame and guilt that desertion would bring. He acknowledges that the decision is not a heroic one, but rather one driven by fear and a desire to avoid social stigma.
“On the Rainy River” explores the complexities of patriotism, duty, and personal convictions in the context of war. It highlights the internal struggle faced by many young men during the Vietnam War, torn between their own beliefs and the societal pressures to conform.
The chapter serves as a turning point in the book, setting the stage for the exploration of truth, memory, and the effects of war on the human psyche. It establishes O’Brien’s introspective and reflective narrative voice, providing a deeper understanding of his personal journey and the moral dilemmas faced by soldiers during wartime.
Enemies & Friends: Chapter 5
In the story “Enemies,” the soldiers encounter a young Vietnamese water buffalo while on a mission. The platoon becomes divided on whether to kill the animal or let it go. On one side, some soldiers argue that the buffalo could be a potential threat, while others oppose killing it, seeing it as an innocent creature. Tensions rise as the soldiers debate the situation. Eventually, Azar, one of the soldiers, throws a grenade at the buffalo, killing it. The act leads to a sense of remorse and guilt among the platoon, highlighting the moral complexities and the blurred lines between right and wrong in war.
Friends: Chapter 6
In the story “Friends,” the focus is on the friendship between two soldiers, Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk. Both soldiers make a pact that if either of them is critically injured, the other will euthanize them to spare them from suffering. However, their friendship becomes strained when Jensen breaks Strunk’s nose during a heated argument. Later, Strunk suffers a leg injury, and Jensen contemplates fulfilling their pact. Ultimately, Strunk recovers from the injury and forgives Jensen. The story delves into the complexities of friendship and the extreme circumstances faced by soldiers, highlighting the bonds and tensions that can arise under the pressure of war.
These stories, like others in the book, offer glimpses into the lives of soldiers during the Vietnam War, exploring themes of morality, friendship, and the psychological impact of war. Each story presents a unique perspective on the human experience of warfare and adds to the overall tapestry of the book.
How to Tell a True War Story: Chapter 7
The chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien is a metafictional exploration of the nature of storytelling and the blurred lines between truth and fiction. O’Brien challenges the notion of objective truth and delves into the emotional and subjective aspects of war narratives.
The chapter begins with O’Brien stating that true war stories are not about war but about the human experience and the often contradictory and complex emotions that arise in such situations. He emphasizes that the truth of a war story lies in its emotional impact rather than strict adherence to factual accuracy.
O’Brien presents various vignettes to illustrate his point. He tells the story of Curt Lemon, a soldier who dies in Vietnam, and describes how Lemon would play dangerous games with his life to prove his bravery. Through this story, O’Brien explores the ambiguity of courage and the irrationality of war.
He also recounts the tale of Rat Kiley, a medic who mutilates a dead Vietnamese soldier out of frustration and anger. O’Brien highlights the horror and despair that war can inflict on individuals, often leading to actions that defy moral norms.
The chapter further examines the relationship between the storyteller and the listener. O’Brien argues that the act of telling a true war story is an act of communion, an attempt to bridge the gap between the experiences of the soldier and the listener who can never fully understand the reality of war.
O’Brien concludes the chapter by presenting a fictionalized account of a soldier who dies from a gunshot wound. He explains that the story is not entirely true but captures the truth of war and its impact on the soldiers.
“How to Tell a True War Story” challenges the traditional notions of truth and reality in storytelling. O’Brien emphasizes the importance of emotional truth and the power of narrative to convey the complex and often contradictory experiences of war. The chapter serves as a meditation on the nature of storytelling itself, inviting readers to question the boundaries between fact and fiction, and to recognize the inherent subjectivity and power of storytelling in shaping our understanding of war.
The Dentist: Chapter 8
The chapter “The Dentist” in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien delves into the peculiar character of Curt Lemon, a soldier who becomes obsessed with visiting a dentist despite having healthy teeth. The chapter explores the theme of fear and the lengths to which individuals go to confront and overcome their fears in the midst of war.
In “The Dentist,” the narrator recalls the story of Curt Lemon, a soldier known for his reckless behavior. Lemon develops an irrational fear of dentistry and becomes fixated on having a tooth pulled. Despite having no dental issues, he becomes determined to visit a dentist and convinces the platoon to arrange for one.
The soldiers find an Army dentist stationed nearby and take Lemon to the clinic. Upon arrival, Lemon’s fear intensifies, and he becomes increasingly anxious. The dentist, who recognizes the absurdity of the situation, tries to reason with Lemon, assuring him that there is no need for tooth extraction.
However, Lemon insists on going through with the procedure, hoping that it would prove his courage and validate his masculinity. The dentist reluctantly agrees and proceeds to extract a perfectly healthy tooth.
The chapter highlights the irony of Lemon’s situation, as he willingly endures unnecessary pain to confront his fear. It explores the warped sense of bravery and the distorted notions of masculinity that emerge in the context of war.
Furthermore, the chapter serves as a commentary on the absurdity and irrationality of the Vietnam War itself. The soldiers are placed in a hostile and unpredictable environment, facing life-threatening situations, yet they also grapple with their own personal fears and insecurities.
“The Dentist” sheds light on the complex psychological toll of war, revealing the ways in which fear manifests and influences individuals’ actions. It underscores the lengths to which people are willing to go to prove their courage, even if it means subjecting themselves to unnecessary risks and pain.
Through the character of Curt Lemon, O’Brien offers a glimpse into the anxieties and vulnerabilities of soldiers in the midst of a chaotic and uncertain war. The chapter explores the nuanced aspects of fear and the desperate measures individuals take to confront it, further adding to the multifaceted portrayal of the human experience in the Vietnam War.
Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong: Chapter 9
The chapter “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien recounts an extraordinary and unsettling tale that takes place during the Vietnam War. The chapter explores the transformative power of war and the ways in which individuals can be profoundly changed by their experiences.
In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” the story revolves around Mark Fossie, a soldier stationed in Vietnam. Fossie’s girlfriend, Mary Anne Bell, arrives unexpectedly from the United States and joins him at his outpost. Initially innocent and naive, Mary Anne is eager to experience the war firsthand.
As time passes, Mary Anne gradually undergoes a dramatic transformation. She becomes immersed in the war, embracing the harsh realities and adapting to the environment. She discards her civilian clothing, adopts a soldier’s mentality, and learns to handle weapons.
Mary Anne becomes increasingly involved with the Green Berets, who allow her to accompany them on dangerous missions. Her transformation becomes so complete that she loses touch with her former self, seemingly enchanted by the power and allure of war.
The other soldiers, including the narrator, are both fascinated and disturbed by Mary Anne’s transformation. They witness her assimilation into the brutal and violent world of war, and her transformation becomes a symbol of the war’s ability to shape and change individuals.
However, the story takes a dark turn when Mary Anne disappears into the mountains. Fossie and the others search for her, but she is never found. She becomes a legend among the soldiers, embodying the mysterious and unpredictable nature of war.
“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” explores themes of transformation, the allure of war, and the loss of innocence. The chapter raises questions about the impact of war on individuals and the profound changes it can bring about. It examines the psychological and emotional toll that war takes on those involved, and the ways in which the war environment can both attract and consume individuals.
Through Mary Anne’s character, O’Brien examines the destructive power of war and the ways in which it can strip individuals of their identities and reshape them into something unrecognizable. The chapter serves as a haunting reminder of the profound and lasting effects of war on the human psyche.
Stockings: Chapter 10
In the chapter “Stockings,” the narrator, Tim O’Brien, reflects on the emotional significance of a pair of stockings he received from a fellow soldier’s girlfriend. The stockings are intended as a good luck charm and symbolize the connection between the soldiers and their lives back home.
The chapter explores the power of tangible objects in maintaining a sense of normalcy and humanity amidst the chaos and brutality of war. O’Brien describes how the stockings evoke memories of warmth, intimacy, and femininity, contrasting sharply with the harsh realities of the Vietnam War.
The stockings become a symbolic link to the civilian world and the soldiers’ longing for love, comfort, and stability. They represent the soldiers’ desire for connection, both physical and emotional, and the yearning for a life beyond the confines of war.
O’Brien reflects on the shared experiences and conversations among the soldiers surrounding the stockings. They discuss the significance of the stockings and their own personal connections to home. The stockings become a shared symbol of hope, reminding the soldiers of the love and support they have left behind.
Church: Chapter 11
In this chapter, the soldiers of Alpha Company attend a makeshift church service in the Vietnam War.
In “Church,” the soldiers gather at an abandoned pagoda, led by Lieutenant Cross and the company’s chaplain. The setting is a stark contrast to the violence and chaos of the war, providing a temporary respite from the harsh realities they face.
During the service, the soldiers participate in rituals and prayers, seeking solace and a connection to something greater than themselves. They recite the Lord’s Prayer and listen to the chaplain’s sermon, which centers on the themes of faith, fear, and the uncertainty of war.
As the service progresses, however, the soldiers’ thoughts often wander. They think about their loved ones back home, their fears of dying, and the harsh realities of the war they must confront daily. The soldiers grapple with the dichotomy between their faith and the violence they witness and participate in.
The chapter explores the soldiers’ complex relationship with religion and the challenges they face in reconciling their beliefs with the harshness of war. It reflects on the ways in which faith can provide comfort and hope amidst the chaos, but also acknowledges the doubts and conflicting emotions that arise in such circumstances.
Through the “Church” chapter, O’Brien explores the role of religion in the lives of soldiers and the ways in which it can offer a temporary respite from the traumas of war. It highlights the soldiers’ search for meaning and connection, even in the midst of destruction and despair.
The Man I Killed: Chapter 12
In Chapter 12 of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, titled “The Man I Killed,” the narrator, Tim O’Brien, reflects on the death of a young Vietnamese soldier he killed during a skirmish. The chapter delves into the complex emotions and psychological impact that result from taking another person’s life.
“The Man I Killed” begins with a vivid description of the deceased soldier, O’Brien meticulously portraying his physical attributes and imagining the life he might have led. As O’Brien examines the body, he contemplates the profound loss of life and the weight of responsibility that comes with killing.
The chapter delves into O’Brien’s guilt and inner turmoil as he tries to come to terms with the consequences of his actions. He questions the justifications for war and the human cost of violence, grappling with the morality of taking another person’s life.
Throughout the chapter, O’Brien oscillates between reality and imagination, weaving scenarios of the soldier’s past, his family, and the potential futures that will never come to fruition. These imagined scenarios highlight the universal humanity of the enemy and challenge the dehumanization often associated with war.
As O’Brien continues to reflect on the deceased soldier, he acknowledges that he will carry the memory of the man he killed with him for the rest of his life. The chapter ends with O’Brien acknowledging the futility of trying to understand the full complexity of the soldier’s life, acknowledging the inherent limitations of his imagination and perspective.
“The Man I Killed” explores the psychological and emotional toll of war, addressing themes of guilt, remorse, and the dehumanizing effects of violence. It raises profound questions about the nature of war, the moral implications of killing, and the lasting impact it has on those who participate in it.
Ambush: Chapter 13
In Chapter 13 of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, titled “Ambush,” the narrator, Tim O’Brien, recounts a pivotal moment from his time as a soldier in the Vietnam War. The chapter explores the complexities of guilt, the unpredictability of war, and the burden of memory.
In “Ambush,” O’Brien shares the story of an ambush he and his fellow soldier, Azar, set up on a trail in the Vietnam jungle. As they lie in wait, a young enemy soldier approaches, seemingly oblivious to the imminent danger. O’Brien hesitates but ultimately throws a grenade, killing the young soldier instantly.
The chapter delves into the immediate aftermath of the ambush and the emotions it evokes in O’Brien. He grapples with a profound sense of guilt and regret for taking another person’s life. He questions the morality of his actions and wonders if he could have chosen a different path.
As O’Brien reflects on the incident, he contemplates the ambiguity of war and the blurred lines between right and wrong. He acknowledges the fundamental uncertainty and confusion that permeates the battlefield, where split-second decisions can have lasting consequences.
The chapter also explores the power of storytelling and the subjective nature of memory. O’Brien admits that over time, his recollection of the events may have become embellished or distorted. He acknowledges that the truth of the story lies not in strict factual accuracy but in the emotional impact and the lasting weight it carries.
“Ambush” serves as a meditation on the psychological and moral dilemmas faced by soldiers in war. It delves into the complexities of decision-making under extreme circumstances and the lifelong repercussions of those choices. The chapter captures the moral ambiguity and the enduring emotional burden that war places on those who experience it firsthand.
Through introspection and introspective narration, O’Brien invites readers to question the nature of warfare, the ethical implications of violence, and the lasting effects of guilt. “Ambush” serves as a poignant reminder of the profound toll that war takes on the human psyche and the complexities of reconciling the weight of one’s actions in the face of a volatile and unpredictable environment.
Style: Chapter 14
In Chapter 14 of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, titled “Style,” the narrator explores the power of storytelling and the ways in which truth and fiction intertwine in the retelling of war experiences. The chapter reflects on the role of storytelling in shaping memories, providing solace, and preserving the essence of those who have been lost.
In “Style,” the soldiers engage in a discussion about the different narrative approaches employed by war writers. The narrator, O’Brien, emphasizes the importance of finding the right “style” to convey the true essence of a war story. He emphasizes that storytelling is not solely about factual accuracy but rather about capturing the emotional truth and human experience.
The chapter also delves into the concept of truth in storytelling. O’Brien acknowledges that, at times, he may exaggerate or fabricate certain details to convey the emotional truth of a situation. He argues that truth goes beyond mere facts, insisting that what matters most is the authenticity of the emotions and the connections made through storytelling.
As the soldiers debate the merits of different war stories and writing styles, the chapter underscores the subjective nature of memory and the role of imagination in reconstructing past events. O’Brien emphasizes that the stories we tell ourselves and others shape our understanding of reality and serve as a form of coping and healing.
“Style” serves as a metafictional reflection on the act of storytelling itself. It explores the power of narrative to convey the multifaceted experiences of war and the complexities of capturing the truth in words. The chapter highlights the ways in which storytelling becomes a means of preserving memories, honoring the fallen, and finding solace in the face of trauma.
Through “Style,” O’Brien invites readers to consider the malleability of truth and the subjective nature of memory. It challenges conventional notions of what constitutes a “true” war story and invites us to engage with the deeper emotional truths conveyed through storytelling. Ultimately, the chapter underscores the vital role of storytelling in processing and making sense of the harrowing experiences of war.
Speaking of Courage: Chapter 15
In Chapter 15 of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, titled “Speaking of Courage,” the narrator focuses on the character Norman Bowker, a Vietnam War veteran who struggles with the psychological and emotional aftermath of his experiences. The chapter explores themes of guilt, isolation, and the longing for recognition and understanding.
“Speaking of Courage” takes place after the war, as Bowker drives aimlessly around his hometown, unable to find solace or connection with the people and places he once knew. Through internal monologue, O’Brien delves into Bowker’s thoughts and memories, revealing the weight of guilt he carries for a specific incident during the war.
The chapter recounts the story of how Bowker tried to save his comrade Kiowa from sinking into a sewage field, but ultimately failed, leading to Kiowa’s death. Bowker’s inability to save his friend haunts him and fuels his sense of guilt and shame.
As Bowker drives around town, he yearns for recognition and understanding of his experiences in the war. He wants someone to listen to his stories, to acknowledge the sacrifices he made and the horrors he witnessed. However, he struggles to find an audience that can truly comprehend the depth of his emotional burdens.
“Speaking of Courage” highlights the alienation and isolation experienced by many veterans returning from war. It explores the challenges of reintegrating into civilian life and the difficulty of conveying the complex and traumatic nature of their war experiences to those who have not lived through it.
Through Bowker’s story, O’Brien underscores the importance of empathy and understanding in healing the wounds of war. The chapter serves as a powerful reminder of the lasting impact of war on individuals and the necessity of acknowledging and addressing the psychological toll it takes on veterans.
Notes: Chapter 16
In Chapter 16 of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, titled “Notes,” the narrator reflects on the aftermath of the war and the process of writing the book itself. This chapter serves as a metafictional exploration of the author’s creative process and the challenges of capturing the essence of war through storytelling.
“Notes” delves into O’Brien’s struggles in translating the experiences of war into words. He acknowledges the limitations of language in conveying the full depth and complexity of the emotions and horrors he and his comrades faced. The chapter emphasizes the role of storytelling as a means of understanding and processing the traumas of war.
O’Brien discusses his attempts to find the right narrative approach, grappling with the weight of responsibility in accurately representing the lives and experiences of his fellow soldiers. He confronts the challenges of memory, acknowledging that the stories he tells may be altered or embellished over time but are nevertheless grounded in emotional truth.
Throughout the chapter, O’Brien addresses the notion of truth in storytelling and its relationship to personal memory and imagination. He recognizes that the stories he tells may not be strictly factual, but they contain a deeper emotional resonance and capture the essence of the war experience.
“Notes” serves as a reflection on the power of storytelling and its ability to transcend time and distance. O’Brien acknowledges the cathartic nature of writing and its role in preserving the memories and experiences of those who have been lost.
Through this chapter, O’Brien invites readers to consider the complexities of representing war through literature. He explores the intersection of memory, truth, and fiction, emphasizing the importance of emotional truth in conveying the impact of war on individuals and society as a whole.
In the Field: Chapter 17
In Chapter 17 of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, titled “In the Field,” the narrator recounts a distressing incident that occurs during a mission in Vietnam. The chapter explores the horrors of war, the fragility of life, and the psychological toll it takes on the soldiers.
“In the Field” focuses on the death of Ted Lavender, a young soldier in the platoon. As the platoon moves through the dense jungle, Lavender is suddenly shot and killed. The suddenness and violence of his death leave the soldiers in shock and disbelief.
The chapter delves into the aftermath of Lavender’s death, examining the emotional impact it has on the soldiers. They grapple with feelings of guilt, fear, and grief, haunted by the realization that death can strike at any moment and to anyone.
O’Brien explores the fragility of life and the sense of vulnerability experienced by the soldiers in the face of constant danger. The chapter highlights the psychological toll that witnessing death and experiencing loss has on the soldiers, as they struggle to cope with the brutal realities of war.
Through vivid descriptions and introspective narration, “In the Field” captures the chaos and confusion that permeate the battlefield. O’Brien portrays the sense of disorientation and the surreal nature of war, where life can be extinguished in an instant.
The chapter also raises questions about the morality and purpose of war, as the soldiers confront the human cost and the futility of the violence they are subjected to. It offers a searing critique of the dehumanizing effects of war and the toll it takes on the individuals caught in its midst.
“In the Field” serves as a poignant reminder of the devastating consequences of war and the impact it has on the soldiers who endure its hardships. It encapsulates the themes of loss, trauma, and the fragility of life that permeate the entire novel.
Good Form: Chapter 18
In Chapter 18 of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, titled “Good Form,” the narrator delves into the concept of truth in storytelling and the role of fiction in conveying the realities of war. The chapter explores the fluid nature of memory, the reliability of narratives, and the ways in which storytelling can shape our understanding of the past.
“Good Form” begins with the narrator challenging the accuracy of his previous chapters and acknowledging that some details may have been fabricated or altered for the sake of storytelling. He highlights the inherent subjectivity and fallibility of memory, underscoring the difficulty of capturing the full truth of war experiences.
The chapter also explores the literary technique of metafiction, as the narrator questions the purpose and impact of the stories he tells. He acknowledges that some readers may seek a straightforward, factual account of the war, but he argues that the emotional truth conveyed through storytelling is equally valid and meaningful.
Through “Good Form,” O’Brien blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, challenging the notion of objective truth and emphasizing the power of storytelling to evoke emotional responses and convey deeper truths. The chapter invites readers to question their own assumptions about the nature of truth and the ways in which narratives shape our understanding of the world.
By examining the complexities of memory and storytelling, “Good Form” encourages readers to reflect on the limitations of language and the subjective nature of personal narratives. It raises profound questions about the nature of truth and the ways in which we construct meaning from our experiences.
Ultimately, the chapter serves as a meditation on the nature of storytelling itself, challenging conventional expectations of what constitutes a “true” war story and encouraging readers to engage with the deeper emotional truths that emerge from the intertwining of fact and fiction. “Good Form” underscores the power of storytelling to capture the essence of lived experiences and the profound impact of war on those who endure it.
Field Trip: Chapter 19
After the emotionally devastating story of “In the Field” in Tim O’Brien’s novel “The Things They Carried,” the narrative shifts to the aftermath of the war. O’Brien reveals that years later, he and his ten-year-old daughter visit the site where Kiowa, one of his comrades, tragically lost his life. Accompanied by an interpreter, O’Brien returns to the field that holds painful memories.
As O’Brien surveys the area, he notices that the field appears different from how he remembers it. The passage of time has transformed the landscape, altering the physical features that once held significance. However, the emotional weight and the burden of guilt associated with Kiowa’s death remain unchanged within O’Brien’s heart.
In a symbolic act of reconciliation, O’Brien decides to leave a pair of Kiowa’s moccasins in the spot where he believes his friend sank. This gesture serves as a form of closure for O’Brien, allowing him to come to terms with the loss and to honor the memory of Kiowa.
By leaving the moccasins, O’Brien acknowledges the enduring impact of the war and the lives lost during the conflict. It represents his attempt to pay homage to Kiowa and find a sense of peace within himself. Through this act, O’Brien finds solace in the midst of grief, offering a small tribute to a fallen comrade and symbolically releasing the weight of guilt that has burdened him.
This chapter highlights the lingering effects of war on the human psyche and the importance of finding ways to reconcile with the past. It explores themes of guilt, loss, and the complexities of survivor’s guilt. O’Brien’s pilgrimage to the field and his symbolic gesture demonstrate his commitment to preserving the memory of his fellow soldiers and his ongoing journey towards healing and understanding.
The Ghost Soldiers: Chapter 20
In Chapter 20 of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, titled “The Ghost Soldiers,” the narrator recounts a nighttime mission undertaken by the soldiers in Vietnam. The chapter explores themes of fear, vulnerability, and the complexities of human emotions in the midst of war.
“The Ghost Soldiers” centers around a mission to retrieve the body of a fallen soldier, Curt Lemon, who had been killed earlier in the novel. The soldiers are tasked with infiltrating an enemy-controlled area under the cover of darkness.
As they navigate the treacherous jungle, the soldiers’ fear and apprehension intensify. They are haunted by the presence of the unseen enemy, who seems to lurk in every shadow and rustle of foliage. The soldiers grapple with their mortality and the fragile nature of their existence in the hostile environment.
Amidst the tension and fear, O’Brien explores the depth of human emotion and the ways in which fear can affect individuals differently. Some soldiers exhibit bravery, while others succumb to panic and display irrational behavior. The chapter delves into the psychological toll of war, highlighting the fragile nature of the human psyche in such extreme circumstances.
“The Ghost Soldiers” also explores the theme of camaraderie and the bonds forged among soldiers in times of adversity. The soldiers support and rely on each other for survival, demonstrating the strength that can be found in shared experiences and collective purpose.
Throughout the chapter, O’Brien conveys the surreal and disorienting nature of war. The uncertainty, the darkness, and the constant threat of danger create a palpable sense of unease and tension. The narrative reflects the chaos and confusion of the battlefield, as well as the individual struggles faced by the soldiers.
Night Life: Chapter 21
In Chapter 21 of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, titled “Night Life,” the narrator reflects on the experiences and emotions of soldiers during their downtime in Vietnam. The chapter explores themes of escapism, longing, and the contrast between the harsh realities of war and the desire for normalcy.
“Night Life” takes place in the city of Saigon, where the soldiers are granted a brief respite from the dangers of the war zone. The chapter focuses on the interactions between the soldiers and the local Vietnamese people, particularly the relationships they form with Vietnamese women.
O’Brien portrays a vibrant nightlife scene in Saigon, filled with bars, clubs, and brothels. The soldiers seek solace and temporary relief from the horrors of war through these encounters. They yearn for human connection, intimacy, and a taste of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic and dehumanizing environment.
However, beneath the surface of these interactions lies a sense of loneliness, longing, and a profound sense of displacement. The soldiers are acutely aware of the transient nature of their relationships and the barriers that separate them from the Vietnamese people. The cultural and language barriers serve as reminders of the underlying tensions and conflicts of the war.
Through “Night Life,” O’Brien explores the complexities of desire, highlighting the ways in which the soldiers seek comfort and escape from the traumas of war. He captures the yearning for connection and the pursuit of temporary happiness in an environment defined by violence and uncertainty.
The chapter also examines the moral ambiguity of these encounters, as the soldiers grapple with their own actions and the consequences of their choices. It raises questions about the impact of war on individuals’ moral compasses and the ethical implications of seeking solace in the midst of conflict
The Lives of the Dead: Chapter 22 Summary
In the final chapter of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, titled “The Lives of the Dead,” the narrator reflects on the power of storytelling and the impact of war on his own life. The chapter explores themes of memory, loss, and the ways in which stories can bring the dead back to life.
“The Lives of the Dead” begins with the narrator recounting his childhood fascination with death and his first encounter with mortality when his childhood sweetheart, Linda, passed away from a brain tumor. He recalls how Linda’s death deeply affected him and sparked his interest in storytelling as a means of preserving memories and bringing the deceased back to life.
As the chapter progresses, the narrator describes his experiences in Vietnam and the lasting impact of the war on him and his fellow soldiers. He reflects on the deaths of his comrades, including Curt Lemon and Kiowa, and the weight of their memories that continue to shape his life.
Throughout the chapter, O’Brien weaves together personal anecdotes, dreams, and fictional stories to illustrate the interconnectedness of life and death. He contemplates the notion that storytelling has the power to transcend mortality by keeping the memories and experiences of the dead alive.
“The Lives of the Dead” serves as a poignant conclusion to the novel, as the narrator grapples with the lingering effects of war and the significance of storytelling in processing grief and making sense of the past. The chapter encapsulates the overarching theme of the book: the power of storytelling to convey the complexities of human experiences, particularly in the context of war.
By blending reality and imagination, O’Brien blurs the lines between fact and fiction, challenging traditional notions of truth and inviting readers to reflect on the nature of storytelling and its ability to shape our understanding of the world.
In “The Lives of the Dead,” O’Brien offers a profound meditation on the intertwined nature of life and death, memory and storytelling. The chapter serves as a reminder of the enduring impact of war and the importance of preserving the memories and stories of those who have been lost.
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"The Things They Carried" Summary
The stories were based on O’Brien’s experiences while serving as a soldier in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. O’Brien was motivated to write the book after returning from Vietnam and being shocked to see how little American civilians knew about the war.
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"The Things They Carried" Plot Overview
"The Things They Carried" is a collection of 22 connected short stories following the experiences of a U.S. Army platoon in South Vietnam during the war. The book’s central characters are the soldiers in the platoon. They were based on real people, but at times the author blurred the line between fact and fiction.
“Love” is a story that takes place after the war, when O’Brien meets up with his old platoon leader Jimmy Cross. They talk about his obsession with Martha and Cross admits that he still loves her and that she never married. He hoped that O’Brien could write a heroic story about him in his book, thinking that Martha would be impressed.
“Enemies” is about two soldiers, Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk, who get into a fight in which Jensen breaks Strunk’s nose. Strunk is sent to the hospital and when he returns to the platoon, Jensen is worried that Strunk will try to kill him for revenge. Jensen avoids Strunk until his madness drives him to break his own nose with his pistol. He then asks Strunk if they are “even” now, and Strunk agrees that they are.
“Friends” is the follow-up story to “Enemies”. Strunk and Jensen have become close friends and do everything together. The two make a pact, agreeing that if either of them is severely wounded in battle, the other will finish him off as an act of mercy. Later, Strunk loses most of his leg in a battle. He begs Jensen not to shoot him as they had previously agreed. Jensen sees Strunk off to the medevac chopper, but later learns that Strunk died en route to the hospital.
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“The Dentist” is about a hyper-macho, courageous soldier who actually enjoyed combat. In combat he behaves recklessly and without fear. However, he is extremely afraid of a certain army dentist. During one attempt to visit the dentist, the fearless soldier faints. The solder agonizes over his fear about going to the dentist so much that one night, he wakes the dentist and forces him to pull one of his teeth. The tooth turned out to be entirely healthy, and the pain the soldier felt was only in his own mind.
“Spin” is a story about the platoon members’ unusual habits and quirks. It is told in a series of short, disconnected anecdotes about the different soldiers in the platoon. O’Brien’s daughter, Kathleen, says he tells too many war stories. For O’Brien, writing war stories is a way to preserve memories, his own and those of his platoon mates.
“On the Rainy River” follows O’Brien before the war, when he attempts to avoid the draft board by going to Canada. In the forests near the border between the US and Canada, O’Brien finds a tourist lodge run by a man named Elroy Berdahl. He spends six days at the lodge with Berdahl, trying to decide whether or not to cross the border into Canada. Berdahl offers to take him across in a boat, but in the end, O’Brien decides to return and join the military. He explains that he felt he was forced to go to war because he feared embarrassing his family more than facing death. O’Brien doesn’t see it as courageous. He thinks he took the cowardly way out because he let other people’s opinions compel him into going to war.
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In “Field Trip” , another story that takes place long after the war, O’Brien travels with his daughter to find the place where one of his fellow soldiers, Kiowa, was killed. Kiowa had been killed in a mortar attack and his body sank into mud and had to be dug out after the battle. When O’Brien finds the place where the battle happened, many years after the war, he is surprised to find the area doesn’t look as he remembered it. He buries the dead soldier’s keepsake (a pair of moccasins) in the place where he believes he had died.
In “Church” , the platoon uses a Buddhist pagoda as a base of operations. They interact with the temple monks and discuss their own feelings about religion. Although the monks do not seem to mind the platoon’s presence, Kiowa, one of the soldiers, is upset at the idea of using a religious site as a base. Kiowa is seen as a very religious soldier because he carried a Bible with him everywhere, but it is revealed that he only does this because of his upbringing.
“Stockings” is about a soldier named Dobbins who would wear his girlfriend’s stockings around his neck when sleeping, and sometimes in combat. He continues to do so even after learning she wants to break up with him, because he believes her stockings keep him protected. After he survives several deadly encounters without a single scratch, other members of the platoon start believing in the stockings’ powers.
In “How to Tell a True War Story” , O’Brien discusses how soldiers are always telling war stories. He writes that many of these stories are false, or at least partially false. He explains that soldiers tell war stories to cope with their situation in war and to understand it afterward. O’Brien explains how to tell what’s true or not in these stories, and says the listener can tell the difference by the amount of questions the story provokes. He also suggests that it doesn’t matter if everything in the story is totally factually true, because such stories are about conveying the emotions of the experience, not historical truth.
In “The Man I Killed” , O’Brien describes how he killed an enemy. He struggles with this knowledge and imagines an alternate reality where he didn’t kill the man and he survives the war. O’Brien imagines a whole life story after the war for the dead fighter.
In “Ambush” , O’Brien is asked by his daughter after the war if he ever killed anyone. He lies and says no, but then recounts one of the times when he did. The story begins with a graphic description of the dead man’s body as O’Brien saw it. Long after the war, O’Brien can still see the man he killed walking down the jungle path where he was killed.
"Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is a story told to O’Brien by the platoon medic Rat Kiley. The story is about one soldier whose unit spent its time in a very quiet sector of the front. It is so quiet and boring that one soldier finds a way to sneak his girlfriend into his base. But things go wrong when she loses interest in him and becomes infatuated with the war. She ultimately leaves him.
In the story “Style” , the platoon finds a village that has been destroyed by bombing. A very young Vietnamese girl is dancing in the ruins of a destroyed house, and the soldiers are confused. They approach the house and find the bodies of the girl’s family in the rubble. The girl continues to dance, and some of the soldiers wonder if her dance is some kind of ritual. Later, one soldier mocks the girl, causing another soldier to threaten to kill him if he doesn’t show respect.
“Speaking of Courage” is another story that takes place after the war. It is a story of one of O’Brien’s platoon mates, Norman Bowker, who returns from the war and had no friends to talk to about his experiences. He spends his time driving around a lake, remembering how his friend Kiowa died. Kiowa’s leg got caught in some mud when the platoon came under mortar fire, and Bowker, after failing to pull him out, ran in fear. He feels responsible for Kiowa’s death and thinks he was a coward for running away.
“Notes” is about how O’Brien wrote the story “Speaking of Courage.” Bowker had written him a long letter asking him to write a letter about someone who felt as though they died after the war. O’Brien agrees and writes a version of the story that would become “Speaking of Courage.” Bowker doesn’t like the story because O’Brien distorts the truth about what happened to Kiowa. Unable to adjust to civilian life after the war, Bowker later committed suicide.
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“In the Field” tells the story of trying to find Kiowa’s dead body after it was buried under mud in a mortar attack. Jimmy Cross, the platoon leader, must write a letter to Kiowa’s parents about their son’s death. O’Brien feels responsible for the death because he used his flashlight at night, which he thinks allowed the enemy to detect the platoon. Eventually the men find Kiowa’s body and pull it from the muck.
“Good Form” is another story about war stories, and the truth or fiction that is a part of them. O’Brien writes about how there are different kinds of truth in war stories. One example he gives was a story about killing a young Vietnamese fighter. He says he would not be lying if he said he killed the soldier, but also if he said he hadn’t. He says the purpose of the story, which was to convey the feelings of the war, is more important than the truth.
In “Ghost Soldiers” , O’Brien writes about two occasions when he was shot. In the first case, he was saved by the platoon medic, Rat Kiley. He was nearly killed the second time, however, because the platoon’s new medic froze up when the platoon came under fire. He decides he wants to get revenge on the new medic, so he and some of his friends decide to scare him at night by pretending to be the enemy. But he is surprised when the new medic doesn’t scare so easily.
“Night Life” is a story about the platoon medic Rat Kiley, and how he left the platoon. The platoon is forced to sleep during the days and march through the nights, looking for the enemy. No enemy is ever encountered and the regimen starts to negatively affect the soldiers. Rat Kiley is haunted by the deaths of some of his platoon mates. He has doubts about his ability to be a combat medic because of the blood and body parts he sees. Once he has a gruesome dream about his own death, and in the morning he shoots himself in the foot, hoping to be sent home. The platoon leader Jimmy Cross knows Kiley shot himself on purpose, but he also knows how brave Kiley was in the past. The other platoon members also believe in Kiley. When Cross has to evacuate Kiley in a helicopter, he vouches for him by telling the other medics that Kiley’s wound was an accident.
“The Lives of the Dead” compares O’Brien’s first experiences of war with the first time he saw a dead body as a child. In the story, O’ Brien’s platoon receives fire from a village, and the platoon leader calls in an air strike that destroys it. A fellow soldier finds the dead body of an old man and pokes it with a stick, encouraging O’Brien to do the same. O’Brien refuses because he has respect for the dead. Another soldier asks him if the old man was the first dead body he ever saw. It wasn’t. When he was young, his childhood friend Linda died of brain cancer at the age of 9. O’Brien writes about the ways in which he still sees or thinks of the people in his life he lost, like Linda and his fellow soldiers. He concludes that the dead still live through people’s memories.
The Things They Carried
By tim o'brien, the things they carried summary and analysis of "the things they carried" and "love".
Summary of “ The Things They Carried ”
The first story in the collection introduces the cast of characters that reappear throughout the book. The cast is made up of the soldiers of the Alpha Company, led by First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross . The platoon is deployed to fight in the Vietnam War. The narrator, O’Brien, is one of the soldiers, and he distinguishes one soldier from another in this first story by the items that they carry.
O’Brien lists the things the soldiers carry -- both physical and emotional. All carry basic military goods and personal items: provisions, ammunition, and special ponchos that they may be wrapped in if they die. Army slang for carrying goods is “humping” them. Aside from the basic goods, explains O’Brien, all of the men “hump” slightly different things. One wears his girlfriend’s stockings around his neck, another carries a bible, another carries a slingshot, another comic books, another condoms.
Cross carries letters from a gray-eyed English literature student named Martha . He is in love with her, but he is obsessed with whether or not she is a virgin. He remembers taking her out on a date, trying to put a hand on her knee, and being rebuffed. He wishes he had carried her up to her room, and “kept his hand on her knee all night.” After she sends him a pebble he keeps it in his mouth and imagines it is her tongue. As lieutenant, O’Brien points out, Cross “carries” responsibility for the lives of all of his men. Cross considers this a heavy burden.
The first casualty for the company is Ted Lavender , a soldier who is shot dead outside Than Khe. O’Brien recounts that he hits the ground solidly, fast, weighed down by all the things he was carrying. He was more afraid of the enemy than most soldiers, so he was carrying more ammunition than was required. He had gone to relieve himself while his comrades were blowing up a tunnel. Kiowa , a part native-American soldier in the company becomes obsessed by the death of his comrade. “Boom-down,” is how he describes the sound of the death to anyone who will listen. “Dead weight” puns O’Brien.
Kiowa is horrified by his comrade’s death. But it does serve to make him better enjoy being alive. As he settles down to sleep that night with his Bible as a pillow, he enjoys the smell of the glue and paper and the feeling of his own living body.
Lavender is one of the only soldiers who dies in combat. The soldiers rarely see enemy fire -- mostly they sit around and play checkers. All of the men walk around in a state of constant boredom and constant tension. They are aware that they might die at any moment, which drives them crazy. But O’Brien describes how they try to cover their fear with tough talk about the “pussies” who shoot off their own fingers and toes to be discharged from the army. They all secretly long to do the same, explains the narrator, but are too embarrassed to try.
Meanwhile, the person hit hardest by Lavender’s death is Cross, who essentially blames himself. He feels he may have a hard time focusing on the war because he is so wrapped up in thoughts of Martha, and may have not taken the proper precautions, thereby letting Lavender's death happen. The morning after Lavender is killed, Cross burns the letters he has received from Martha. Then he burns his photographs of her. But still he feels responsible. Setting the photographs on fire strikes him as a futile gesture.
But even as he beats himself up over Lavender’s death, Cross can’t help returning to his obsessive thoughts about Martha. He convinces himself that he no longer loves her or cares whether she is a virgin. He feels both love and hate for her. He resolves to think less about Martha and more about his men, resolves to pull his raggedy crew together and make them abandon the equipment they don’t need so that they will be able to travel lighter, decides he should be less of a friend and more of a leader.
The author uses a familiar and ancient trope in this first short story, which provides the title for the collection. Authors as far back as Homer described soldiers going into battle by naming the things that they carried: goatskins filled with water, spears, locks of hair from their beloved ones. O’Brien updates this literary strategy. His characters carry the modern implements of war. But the feeling evoked is similar: static lists make the characters seem already dead, prematurely mourned. The lists are like wills.
The first story is told in third person, with some insight into the mind of Jimmy Cross. This movement between perspectives is called free indirect discourse, and serves to distance the reader from the soldiers. The reader sees them as if they were in a movie, moving slowly across an unfamiliar landscape, carrying their various burdens. The ancient movement of men going to war is juxtaposed with the rough, modern language of the soldiers themselves. They use slang, swear at each other, and try to diffuse the feeling of danger and helplessness by describing death as being “zapped” or “torn up.”
Often dramatic narratives are driven by conflict -- frequently two characters butting heads. A war narrative needs none of these traditional sources of pressure because the war itself provides the conflict. O’Brien describes the atmosphere as tense at all times. The men know they might die at any moment. When the inevitable happens and a soldier is killed, extra tension stems from the fact that Cross knows he is responsible. Guilt becomes the most pervasive emotion of all.
Summary of “Love”
Years after the war, Jimmy Cross goes to visit the narrator, Tim O’Brien, at O’Brien’s home in Massachusetts. They look at pictures, reminisce, drink coffee, and smoke cigarettes. Cross says he has never forgiven himself for Lavender’s death. He worries about how O’Brien might portray him if he ever writes a story about Cross. His former leader asks O’Brien to describe him as a brave and handsome man if he ever decides to put any of their experiences together into writing.
Cross shows O’Brien the photo of Martha playing volleyball. The image is the exact same one that he burned after Lavender’s death (see “The Things They Carried”). O’Brien is surprised to see it, so Cross explains how he came to have another copy. He had run into Martha after the war. She had never married, had trained as a nurse, and gone on Lutheran missions to the Third World. She was unreceptive when Cross confessed that he had always loved her. When the conversation took a slightly sexual turn, she shut her eyes and rocked back and forth, seeming very disturbed. She gave him another copy of the photo of her playing volleyball and told him “not to burn this one.”
The shift from the first story to “Love” is one of the most jarring in the book for the reader who expects a traditional novel or a collection of short stories. In a novel, it is unlikely that there would be a shift in geography (Vietnam to Massachusetts), time (many years) and narrator (third person omniscient to first person) all at once. In a collection of short stories, on the other hand, two stories would not normally share the same characters, themes and events. “The Things They Carried” jars by doing all of these things.
“Love” serves to tie up the narrative strings of “The Things They Carried,” but also to call into question the whole process of storytelling. The Things They Carried is as much about why one would tell stories at all as it is about war. This preoccupation of fiction with its own role is often called “meta-fiction.” Meta-fiction consciously points to its own status as fiction and anxiously asks what purpose fiction might serve. In “Love,” when Cross asks that he be portrayed as a hero, there is an emotional content in the request: the reader feels Cross’ hurt and sorrow that he has not acted as a hero. But the reader is also forced to wonder: Has O’Brien acceded to his character/friend’s demand? Or is the fiction in some other way warped or untrue?
The Things They Carried Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Things They Carried is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
is this a war story, per se? if so who is the main character, and why?
This particular story is more about sexual longing than war. Mark Fossie seems to be the main character who wants to import his girlfriend.
What is it that Jimmy cross carries with him? What do they represent?
Jimmy always carries letters from Martha. His identity and hopes for the future are part of those letters.
How does Tim kill his first enemy
I think with a grenade.
Study Guide for The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried study guide contains a biography of Tim O'Brien, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.
- About The Things They Carried
- The Things They Carried Summary
- Character List
Essays for The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.
- Rationalizing the Fear Within
- Physical and Psychological Burdens
- Role of Kathleen and Linda in The Things They Carried
- Let’s Communicate: It’s Not About War
- Turning Over a New Leaf: Facing the Pressures of Society
Lesson Plan for The Things They Carried
- About the Author
- Study Objectives
- Common Core Standards
- Introduction to The Things They Carried
- Relationship to Other Books
- Bringing in Technology
- Notes to the Teacher
- Related Links
- The Things They Carried Bibliography
The Things They Carried
Tim o’brien, everything you need for every book you read..