The Things They Carried Tim O'Brien
(Full name William Timothy O'Brien) American novelist, short-story writer, memoirist, and journalist.
The following entry presents criticism on O'Brien's short-story collection The Things They Carried (1990) from 1990 through 2002.
Published in 1990, The Things They Carried is regarded as an exceptional fictional work based on the experiences of a dozen American soldiers dealing with the trauma and boredom of combat during the Vietnam War. Reviewers commend O'Brien's innovative combination of fiction, memoir, and nonfiction in the short pieces that comprise the volume. In fact, the interweaving of fact and fiction in The Things They Carried has generated much commentary, particularly about the ambiguous nature of his narratives and the metafictional quality of his storytelling techniques. In 1991 the volume was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Plot and Major Characters
The Things They Carried is comprised of twenty-two interconnected short stories, many of which were published separately in periodicals. These short pieces utilize elements of disparate forms—fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, memoir, author's notations, and literary commentary—and focus on the Vietnam War experience and its traumatic aftermath. The opening piece, “The Things They Carried,” is a list that focuses on everything carried into battle by each soldier in the book, ranging from such items as jungle boots and personal letters to feelings like grief, rage, and shame. Critics have praised it as a fitting and insightful introduction to the recurring characters in the book. Many of the pieces explore the process of storytelling and reflect on the confusion of the war experience: several episodes are derived from other sources, or are remembered long after the fact; some are stories overheard and repeated in the oral tradition. Several stories feature a character named Tim O'Brien who comments on the process of writing the stories—twenty years later. The interplay between memory and imagination makes it difficult for the reader to distinguish the truthful elements of the story. The O'Brien narrator often recalls and elaborates on the scenes in various stories; in other stories, he is not identified as the narrator until after the narrative is complete. In “The Man I Killed,” O'Brien revises the story of his mental breakdown after killing an enemy soldier—only to reveal that his revised version is also invented. Other stories are related by other narrators. “Speaking of Courage” chronicles the grief and alienation of Vietnam veteran Norman Bowker, who is unable to articulate his shame over his failure to save his friend from death in combat after he returns home to Iowa. In an addendum to the story, “Notes,” the narrator informs readers that the original version of “Speaking of Courage” was written in 1975 at the suggestion of Bowker, who killed himself three years later in Iowa. In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” Rat Kiley chronicles the strange story of Mary Anne Bell, an Ohio cheerleader who follows her high school sweetheart to Vietnam and transforms into a terrorist herself. By the end of the fantastic tale—as Mary Anne disappears into the jungle wearing a necklace of human tongues—Kiley is relating information from other sources and the story has become a legend. “How to Tell a True War Story” meditates on the relationship of truth to storytelling. In one section of the story, another soldier relates the story of a six-man patrol that is ordered into the mountains and undergoes a traumatic experience. When the soldier tries to apply a moral and revises the story, the narrator recognizes the inherent truth of the first version. For him, a true story is one that isn't based on what actually happened, but the different ways in which the traumatic experience is rewritten and retold. Critics note that traumatic experiences are endlessly filtered and recirculated in the stories. In another section of “How to Tell a True War Story,” Rat Kiley cruelly kills a baby water buffalo for no reason—which upsets a listener at one of O'Brien's book readings years later. O'Brien then retells the story, over and over, with each version providing a new perspective on Kiley's own emotional trauma from earlier combat experiences and the murder of the buffalo. Eventually he reveals that it all was a fictional exercise meant to express trauma and its consequences without merely utilizing his own personal experiences.
Critics assert that the central theme of The Things They Carried is the relationship of storytelling to truth. In this vein, they often discuss O'Brien's interest in transcending reality to represent the truths of his traumatic Vietnam War experience as a defining characteristic of the book. Commentators note that for O'Brien, the question of authenticity and verisimilitude when relating war experiences is ambiguous; instead, a story's authenticity is often based on its effect on the reader. As O'Brien states, a story is truthful if it “makes the stomach believe.” Reviewers assert that the stories address the effects of combat trauma and the struggle for redemption and recovery. The role of memory is an important theme in the stories in the volume. Another major thematic concern in The Things They Carried is cowardice: not only in combat, but also in the narrator's choice to participate in what he feels is an unjust war. Commentators have analyzed the representations of masculinity and femininity in the book. Exile and alienation also figure prominently in the stories, as returning American war veterans feel displaced from their old life and haunted by their wartime experiences.
A resounding critical success, The Things They Carried is considered a valuable contribution to the canon of Vietnam War literature. Commentators often discuss the genre of the book; it is often classified as a composite novel instead of a group of interconnected short stories. Some reviewers regard The Things They Carried as a continuation of O'Brien's first two Vietnam narratives: the autobiographical If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and novel Going after Cacciato (1978). The tendency of the stories to reflect upon their own status, format, and function has prompted critics to refer to the volume as a work of metafiction. O'Brien's concentration on storytelling and memory has led critics to compare The Things They Carried to the work of Marcel Proust and Joseph Conrad. Moreover, O'Brien's war stories have been compared to the Civil War stories of Ambrose Bierce and the classical stories of Homer's Iliad. Mental health professionals have praised O'Brien for his insightful depiction of combat trauma in his stories. Critics applaud his ability to memorialize his wartime experiences and view The Things They Carried as his most accomplished work of fiction.
The Things They Carried Essay: The Objectifying of Intangibles
Tim O’Brien’s 1990, The Things They Carried, is a collection of interconnected short stories that retell the adventures of the men of the Vietnam War’s Alpha Company. O’Brien’s experience as a foot soldier from 1968 to 1970 has given him an insiders perspective to the war and it is this perspective that the author shares through the characters he creates.
The author uses the objects the soldiers of the book carry to share this experience. “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself” (1990, p. 158) writes O’Brian. Through the various objects the soldiers keep the author manifests the feelings of that make up the realities of war. “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing — these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight” (O’Brien, 1990, pp. 21–22).
Each of the men had his own emotions to bare. The First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, the caring leader of the platoon carries photographs and letters written by the girl he had left back home. The heroic medic, Bob “Rat” Kiley has his comic books, candy, and bottle of brandy. Norman Bowker the quiet Iowa boy brings along his diary and a severed thumb taken from the body of a dead Viet Cong. Far from his Oklahoma home, the Native American, Kiowa holds tight to his bible and a hatchet given to him by his grandfather. And tied to his neck, the imposing machine gunner, Henry Dobbins styles a pair of pantyhose once worn by his girl.
To a man, O’Brien placed a collection of tangible items that in truth represented an emotional state, his emotional state, the emotional states of war. The author objectified these heavy emotions and distributed them to the men of Alpha Company to carry. All of this making up the “tangible weight” (O’Brien, 1990, p. 22) of war.
O’Brien, T. (1990). The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction (First Mariner books edition). Boston: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The Things They Carried essay sample was prepared by one of EssayShark newly registered writers to show his/her writing skills and professionalism. We’ve chosen this book as it is the one that is studied in various countries in the course of literature studies. This particular paper sample was aimed to describe the importace of personal belongings in the book. You can take advantage of the presented ideas, but don’t use any of them in personal purposes to avoid plagiarism.
Here is one more essay sample dedicated to this book.
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried Essay: The Role of Women
The Things They Carried is a collection of small autobiographical stories by American writer Tim O’Brien. Although all the stories describe the author’s memories of the Vietnam War, they include female characters that play an important part in the book. Martha expresses love and danger; Mary Anne Bell loss of innocence, and Linda memory and death. Despite the fact that the leitmotif of the stories is war and death, female characters represent significant human values and emotions.
One of the most meaningful female characters is Martha, who appears in the first story The Things They Carried and symbolizes love and danger. A novel describes the story of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, who keeps memories of his friend Martha, whom he met in a college. He keeps all her letters and photographs and often thinks whether she dates with other guys. In fact, Jimmy understands that Martha does not love him and gives him false hope. One day the Alpha Company leaves for an operation, but even there the lieutenant cannot concentrate and thinks about his distant love. At this time, his friend Lavender gets injured, and after a while, he dies. This event makes Jimmy Cross to reflect on the unrequited love for Martha and to analyze the consequences of his obsessive thoughts about her. In this story, Martha symbolizes love, as the most valuable human feeling, and danger, since this attitude leads to tragic consequences. She expresses a magic love that resists the brutal reality of war. Ultimately, this unfulfilling dream of Martha, the hopes for a future life with her lead to the fact that the lieutenant is constantly distracted by thoughts about the object of his desire, even at the most critical moment. With this story, the author makes a statement that in the war the soldiers should focus on their actions, on what is happening at the current moment and not be distracted by the ghostly memories of the past, as this can cost a human life. Therefore, the character of Martha symbolizes a confrontation between love and danger, fantasy and the cruel reality of life.
Another major female character is Mary Anne Bell, who appears in the novel “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and symbolizes the loss of innocence. This story describes the decision of soldier Mark Fossie to bring his girl to the Vietnam War. The author describes Mary Anne as a beautiful, curious girl in nice clothes. But with a stay in Vietnam, she transforms into a real warrior: she studies the local language, communicates with other soldiers and learns how to handle weapons. This story is a symbol of the transformation of all soldiers in the war, as they come there innocent and inexperienced guys and become entirely different, strong and tempered men. The author draws a parallel between how Mary Anne loses her femininity on her arrival in Vietnam, and soldiers lose their innocence in the war. It is also worth noting that Mary Anne is the only female character who directly participates in the novel’s events. Thus, Mary Anne Bell symbolizes the loss of innocence of all soldiers who go through the horrors of war.
The character of Linda appears in the last story “The Lives of the Dead” and signifies the death and human memory. The last story of the book depicts the writer’s memories of his first love. Being at war, he thinks of his classmate Linda, with whom he once went to the cinema. He was in love with her but later discovered that she had a severe, incurable illness. After a while, Linda died, and O’Brien remembers how he went to the funeral and saw her corpse. The author thinks of this event as the first experience of death in his life and analyzes it in the context that memory is capable of giving eternal life to people who once were dear to the heart. Dead people can revive in literature and Linda’s death gives a push to O’Brien to write stories about the experience of war. The author asserts the idea that memory makes a person immortal since it allows to perpetuate his traits into various types of art. In the last novel, O’Brien summarizes that all the stories presented in the book are not about the war, but about the comprehension of life through the death of other people. Therefore, Linda symbolizes death, eternal life and the function of memory in art.
In conclusion, The Things They Carried is an autobiographical collection of novels written by Tim O’Brien about the Vietnam War. Although the main characters of the stories are soldiers of the war, female characters also play a significant role in this book. Martha symbolizes the opposition of love and danger, fantasy and reality, Mary Anne Bell-loss of the innocence of soldiers after the war, and Linda-death and eternal life. Female characters express important life values and fill the book with different emotions.
Gratch, Ariel. “Teaching Identity Performance Through Tim O’Brien’s Things They Carried.” Communication Teacher, vol 29, no. 2, 2015, pp. 71-75. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/17404622.2014.1001418.
Milbrodt, Teresa. “War and Routine Violence in “The Things They Carried”.” Pleiades: Literature In Context, vol 36, no. 1, 2016, pp. 168-169. Johns Hopkins University Press, doi:10.1353/plc.2016.0068.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.