The Things They Carried
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First edition cover
|Published||March 28, 1990|
|Media type||Print (hardcover, paperback)|
The Things They Carried is a collection of linked short stories by Tim O'Brien, about a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. His third book about the war, it is based upon his experiences as a soldier in the 23rd Infantry Division. O’Brien prefers to refrain from political debate and discourse regarding the Vietnam War, but has become jaded regarding the ignorance he perceives from the denizens of his home town toward the world. It is in part this ignorance that drove O’Brien to author The Things They Carried. It was initially published by Houghton Mifflin in 1990. Many of the characters are semi-autobiographical, sharing similarities with characters from his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. The book works heavily with metafiction, employing a writing tactic called verisimilitude. The use of real names and inclusion of himself as the protagonist within the book creates a style that meshes and blurs the fiction and non-fiction. The Things They Carried is dedicated to the men of the Alpha Company with whom he fought during the war.
- The Things They Carried
The reader is introduced to Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, the leader of a platoon of soldiers in Vietnam. He carries physical reminders of Martha, the object of his unrequited love. A death in the squad causes Cross to reconsider his priorities, and, heartbroken, he burns all reminders of his life outside the war in order to stave off dangerous distractions.
We are privy to a conversation between Cross and O’Brien, reminiscing about the war and about Martha. O’Brien asks if he can write a story about Cross, detailing his memories and hopes for the future; Cross agrees, thinking that perhaps Martha will read it and come find him.
A series of unrelated memories from the war narrated from O’Brien’s point of view, Spin showcases the fact that wartime is not necessarily a steady onslaught of violence, but also includes moments of camaraderie and beauty: a joke of a hate letter to the Draft Board; learning a rain dance between battles.
- On the Rainy River
O’Brien gets drafted straight out of college. He is reluctant to go to war and considers fleeing the draft; he even goes so far as to make his way toward the Canada–US border. Near the border, he encounters an elderly stranger who allows him to work through his internal struggle. O’Brien is given the opportunity to escape; however, the societal pressures are too much for him. He then goes to war ashamed with his inability to face the consequences of leaving.
- Enemies and Friends
Told in two sections, we see the developing relationship between soldiers Jensen and Strunk. At first regularly antagonized by one another, the two are drawn toward respect and friendship by the stress and horrors of wartime existence. Ultimately, they agree that if one should be wounded, the other must deal the fatal blow as a form of mercy.
- How to Tell a True War Story
O’Brien uses examples of tales from his fellow soldiers to illustrate the fact that truth is a delicate and malleable thing when it comes to telling war stories. After all, anything can be faked... but generally, only the worst events can be proven real. He concludes that in the end, the truth of a story doesn’t matter so much as what the story is trying to say.
- The Dentist
In order to mourn Curt Lemon, a man O’Brien did not know well, he shares a brief recollection about a bizarre interaction between Lemon and an army dentist. Lemon, who is afraid of dentists, faints before the dentist can examine him. Later that night, however, he complains of a phantom tooth ache so severe a tooth is pulled - even though it’s perfectly healthy.
- Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong
O’Brien passes on the legendary (and almost certainly exaggerated) tale of Rat Kiley’s first assignment, near a river called the Song Tra Bong. The area being so isolated, the story goes, one of the soldiers flies his hometown girlfriend in by helicopter. At first, she cooks, cleans, and tends to the soldiers’ wounds... but gradually, she assimilates into Vietnamese guerilla culture and disappears into the jungle.
Regarding superstitions at wartime, O’Brien explains how Henry Dobbins wore the stockings of his girlfriend around his neck to bed, and sometimes to battle. Even when the girlfriend breaks things off, he keeps the stockings around his neck, as their powers have been demonstrated.
The platoon discovers an abandoned building being used as a sort of church, inhabited by monks who bring them food and supplies. The men discuss their relationships with churches, and for the most part, appreciate the interaction with other people and the peace of the building. Henry Dobbins wants to become a priest, but decides otherwise.
- The Man I Killed
O’Brien describes a man he killed in My Khe, as well as the manner in which he killed him. He makes up a life story for the man, torturing himself with the idea that he’d been a gentle soul.
O’Brien’s daughter asks if he killed anyone in the war; he lies to her that he did not. After noting this interaction, he goes on to tell the story of an ambush outside My Khe, in which O’Brien kills a young man who may or may not have wanted to harm him.
The platoon witnesses a young Vietnamese girl dancing through the burned remains of her village, and argue over whether it’s a ritual or simply what she likes to do. Later, Azar mocks the girl, and Dobbins rebukes him.
- Speaking of Courage
This follows post-war Norman Bowker, who finds himself at a loss: his girlfriend is married, his friends are dead. He reflects on the medals he won in Vietnam, and imagines telling his father about both these and the medals he did not win. Ultimately, despite the fact that he has no one to share these memories with, he finds catharsis in imagined conversations.
O’Brien confesses that Norman Bowker asked him to write the previous story, and that he hanged himself three years later after being unable to find any meaning in life after the war. O’Brien muses over the suspicion that, without Harvard and writing, he too might have lost the will to live after returning from Vietnam.
- In the Field
When Kiowa is killed on the banks of a river, during a mission led by Jimmy Cross, Cross takes responsibility for his death and writes to Kiowa’s father while the others search for the body - as usual, Azar jokes around at first. Another soldier also feels responsible for the death, as he did not save Kiowa; the story ends with the body being found in the mud and both soldiers left to their guilt.
- Good Form
O’Brien reiterates that the real truth does not have to be the same as the story truth, and that it is the emotions evoked by the story that matter. He admits that the story about killing a man on the trail outside My Khe was false; he merely saw the man die, but wanted to instill the same feelings in the reader that he felt on the trail.
- Field Trip
After finishing the story, “In the Field,” O’Brien says, he and his ten-year-old daughter visit the site of Kiowa’s death with an interpreter. The field looks different from his memory of it, but he leaves a pair of Kiowa’s moccasins in the spot where he believes Kiowa sank. In this way, he comes to terms with his friend’s death.
- The Ghost Soldiers
O’Brien recounts the two times he took a bullet. The first time, he is treated by Rat Kiley, and is impressed with the man’s courage and skill. The second time, he is treated by Kiley’s replacement, Bobby Jorgenson; Jorgenson is incompetent, and nearly kills O’Brien. Furious, O’Brien promises revenge, but can only recruit Azar. They scare Jorgenson by pretending to be enemy soldiers, but when Jorgenson proves that he is no longer a coward, O’Brien lets go of his resentment.
- Night Life
O’Brien tells the second-hand account of Rat Kiley’s injury: warned of a possible attack, the platoon is on edge. Kiley reacts by distancing himself, the stress causing him to first be silent for days on end, and then talk constantly. He has a breakdown about the pressure of being a medic, and shoots himself in the toe to be sent away. No one questions his bravery.
- The Lives of the Dead
O’Brien remembers his very first encounter with a dead body, that of his childhood sweetheart Linda. Suffering from a brain tumor, Linda dies at the age of nine and O’Brien is deeply affected by her funeral. In Vietnam, O’Brien explains, the soldiers keep the dead alive by telling stories about them; in this way, he keeps Linda alive by telling her story.
- Tim O'Brien
- Narrator and also protagonist. While modeled after the author and sharing the same name, O'Brien (within the story) is a fictional character and not the actual author. The author intentionally blurs this distinction. He believes that some things cannot be explained at all: For example, he eventually reveals but cannot say that Kiowa's death was his fault.
- Lt. Jimmy Cross
- Cross is the platoon leader. He is obsessed with a young woman back home, Martha (who does not return his feelings), and later believes that his obsession led to the death of Ted Lavender. In the short story "In the Field," he also decides to camp the team one day on the "shitfield" (a field the nearby village uses as a toilet), which leads to Kiowa's death.
- Bob "Rat" Kiley
- A young medic whose exaggerations are complemented by his occasional cruelty, which is displayed in "How to Tell a True War Story," in which he tortures a baby water buffalo after the death of his friend, Curt Lemon. He enjoys comic books. Eventually, he sees too much gore and begins to go insane as he imagines "the bugs are out to get [him]." He cannot adjust to the new procedure of sleeping during the day, and moving at night. Finally losing it, Rat "dope[s] himself up" and shoots himself in the foot, which pulls him out of service.
- Norman Bowker
- A soldier who O'Brien says attempted to save Kiowa the night he died. When Kiowa slips into the "shitfield," Bowker repeatedly tries to save him but is unable to; as a result, he feels guilty for Kiowa's death after the war. His memories continue to haunt Norman at home as he realizes that the world has moved on from the war, and wants nothing to do with the "hell" in Vietnam. He is continually haunted by the fact that he could not save Kiowa from sinking under the "shitfield" on a rainy night. However, O'Brien admits eventually that Norman did not fail to save Kiowa, that was fictional. After the war he briefly assists O'Brien in writing a story about Vietnam, but he hangs himself with a jump rope in an Iowa YMCA facility, leaving no note and his family shocked.
- Henry Dobbins
- Machine gunner. A man who, despite having a rather large frame, is gentle and kind. He is very superstitious; as a result, he wears his girlfriend's pantyhose around his neck as a protective "charm," even after she dumps him. He briefly contemplates becoming a monk after the war due to their acts of charity.
- A compassionate and talkative soldier; he demonstrates the importance of talking about one's problems and traumatic experiences. He is also a devout Baptist and a Native American that occasionally feels contempt and distrust towards white people. However, he appears to be Tim O'Brien's best friend in the company. Kiowa often helps other soldiers deal with their own actions, such as taking the lives of other human beings. He is eventually killed when camping out in the "shitfield."
- Mitchell Sanders
- He is the radiotelephone operator for the platoon. Like O'Brien, he is also a storyteller and is portrayed as a mentor.
- Ted Lavender
- A grenadier. He dies from a gunshot wound to the back of the head. He is notorious for using tranquilizers to cope with the pain of war, and for carrying a (rather large—six to eight ounces) stash of "premium dope" with him. Cross blames himself for Lavender's death, as he was fantasizing about Martha when Lavender was shot.
- Curt Lemon
- A young man that frequently attempts to assume the role as a tough soldier. However, he is also good friend of Rat Kiley. Lemon dies after setting off a rigged artillery shell. In one of the book's more disturbing scenes, O'Brien and Dave Jensen help clear the trees of Curt's scattered remains, during which Jensen sings "Lemon Tree" (something that "wakes [Tim] up"). After Lemon dies, Kiley writes a long, eloquent letter to Lemon's sister, describing his friendship with Lemon and emphasizing how good a person Lemon was; Lemon's sister never responds, which crushes Kiley emotionally.
- A young, rather unstable soldier who engages in needless and frequent acts of brutality; in one story, he blows up an orphan puppy that Ted Lavender had adopted by strapping it to a Claymore mine, then detonating it. He also aids Tim O'Brien in gaining revenge on Bobby Jorgenson, but mocks O'Brien when he's not willing to take the revenge further. At one point, Azar breaks down emotionally, revealing that his cruelty is merely a defense mechanism.
- Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk
- Minor soldiers who are the main characters of "Enemies" and "Friends." Jensen fights with Strunk over a stolen jackknife, but they became uneasy friends afterwards. They each sign a pact to kill the other if he is ever faced with a "wheelchair wound." After Strunk steps on a rigged mortar round and loses a leg, he begs Jensen not to kill him. Jensen obliges, but seems to have an enormous weight relieved when he learns "Strunk died somewhere over in Chu Lai." Jensen is sometimes mentioned singing "Lemon Tree" after Curt Lemon's abrupt death. Jensen also appears in "The Lives of the Dead", where he pressures O'Brien to shake hands with a dead Vietnamese.
- Bobby Jorgenson
- Rat Kiley's replacement, after Rat "put a round through his foot" due to breaking under pressure. Green and terrified, he is slow to aid O'Brien when he is shot in the behind; nearly killing O'Brien after failing to treat him for shock. Filled with rage after his recovery, O'Brien elicits help from Azar to conspire and punish Jorgenson with a night of terrifying pranks; afterward, however, O'Brien and Jorgenson become friends. Jorgenson may be a reference to a similarly-named character from The Caine Mutiny.
- Martha - Cross's romantic love, though she has only platonic feelings for him. He burns her letters and photos while trying to get over the guilt he feels for being responsible for Ted Lavender's death.
- Linda - Tim's childhood love. Nine years old, she dies of a brain tumor caused by cancer. She first gives Tim a reason to write stories: to "save her life" in his memory.
- Kathleen - Tim's daughter, an observer to O'Brien's stories.
- Mark Fossie - A soldier who sends for his girlfriend to stay with him on his base in Vietnam. However, this turns out to be a big mistake (see below).
- Mary Anne Bell - Mark Fossie's girlfriend. She is originally sweet and innocent when she arrives at Vietnam from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, but soon feels drawn to the culture and the thrill of war. She joins the Green Berets in their ambushes and patrols until she walks off into the jungle, never seen again.
- Elroy Berdahl - An 81-year-old man at the Tip Top Lodge, where Tim stops by on his way to Canada. Although he doesn't say much, he helps Tim come to grips with going to war.
- Nick Veenhof - A 9-year-old boy who bullies Linda for wearing a cap to school. He later takes the hat during a spelling test, revealing that Linda has cancer; Nick is later forced to take Linda home, with Tim coming along.
In the short story "Good Form," the narrator makes a distinction between "story truth" and "happening truth." O'Brien feels that the idea of creating a story that is technically false yet truthfully portrays war, as opposed to just stating the facts and creating no emotion in the reader, is the correct way to clear his conscience and tell the story of thousands of soldiers. Critics often cite this distinction when commenting on O'Brien's artistic aims in The Things They Carried and, in general, all of his fiction about Vietnam, claiming that O'Brien feels that the realities of the Vietnam War are best explored in fictional form rather than the presentation of precise facts. O'Brien's fluid and elliptical negotiation of truth in this context finds echoes in works labeled as 'non-fiction novels'. The fine line of what constitutes fiction versus non-fiction is blurred throughout the book, for though Tim O'Brien claims this book to be fiction, the author and the protagonist share the same name and same profession as writers. Additionally, the character Tim references writing the book Going After Cacciato which the author Tim had written and published previously. The theme of believing in the people around you and having reliable people with you comes from the time period being filled with people who are opposed to the action of war. This causes the people who are drafted into the mutual hate to band together to live.
The stories "The Things They Carried," "On the Rainy River," "How to Tell a True War Story," "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," "The Man I Killed," and "Lives of the Dead" were adapted for the theatre in March 2011 by the Eastern Washington University Theatre Department as part of the universities' Get Lit! Literary Festival in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts The Big Read 2011, of which The Things They Carried was the featured novel. The same department remounted the production in December 2011 for inclusion as a Participating Entry in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. The production was selected as an alternate for KCACTF Region VII, as well as receiving other KCACTF honors for the production's director, actors, and production staff.
Before the book's publication in 1990, five of the stories: "The Things They Carried," "How to Tell a True War Story," "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," "The Ghost Soldiers," and "The Lives of the Dead" had been published in Esquire.
"Speaking of Courage" was originally published (in heavily modified form) as a chapter of O'Brien's earlier novel Going After Cacciato.
"The Things They Carried" was also included in the 1987 volume of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Ann Beattie and the second edition of Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama by Robert DiYanni.
The Things They Carried has received critical acclaim and has been established as one of the preeminent pieces of Vietnam War literature. It has sold over 2 million copies worldwide and celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2010. It has received multiple awards such as France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger Award and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, as well as being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award.
O’Brien has expressed surprise at how the book has become a staple in middle schools and high schools, stating that he "certainly hadn’t imagined fourteen year-old kids and eighteen year-olds and those even in their early twenties reading the book and bringing such fervor to it, which comes from their own lives, really. The book is applied to a bad childhood or a broken home, and these are the things they're carrying. And in a way, it's extremely flattering, and other times, it can be depressing."
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