Things They Carried By Tim Obrien English Literature Essay
Tim O’Brien was born in 1946, on October 1st. His work mostly reflects his experiences in the Vietnam War. When reading his writings one can see the effect that the war had on him; however, the most evident point in his writing is the impact the Vietnam War had on American soldiers in general who fought there. At this point, O’Brien teaches a creative writing program at Minnesota West Technical College. O’Brien’s imagination was greatly developed by his experiences in Worthington, Minnesota. In 1968, O’Brien served 2 years in the Vietnam War. The war serves as an influential memory for his stories, hence the frequent war stories presented in his writing. After serving in the war, O’Brien advanced to graduate school at Harvard University, and later obtained an internship at the Washington Post O’Brien’s writing is referred to as a “blur between fiction and reality”. This type of writing is called “metafiction” and consists of actual events in his life mixed with fictitious and exaggerated details. His knowledge of writing combined with the compelling war stories and a Harvard degree contribute to engrossing tales of his times in Vietnam. In 1979, O’Brien received the National Book Award for Going after Cacciato, a book he wrote the preceding year.
Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried is organized into varying lengths of chapters. The chapters range from as short as one page to as long as 35-40 pages. For example, the back to back chapters “Enemies” and “Friends” consist of a short description of occurrences in which Dave Jenson and Lee Strunk get into a fist fight and then learn to trust each other. Differential to these chapters are chapters such as “On the Rainy River” which contains long, detailed descriptions of O’Brien’s days preceding his departure to Vietnam. A major structural technique that O’Brien uses in The Things They Carried is storytelling. The whole book is a flashback of the war in O’Brien’s eyes. Each story O’Brien tells allows the reader to seemingly confront the experience in their own eyes and see what it was like. Chronological order is also used to accurately convey the time sequence in which the events in the Vietnam War occurred. Though the novel starts out with an event in the middle of the Vietnam War, it then flashes back to cause the reader to bear in mind the preceding events. The plot of The Things They Carried is mostly a simple plot consisting of stories of O’Brien’s experience in the Vietnam War. These varying stories make the plot of The Things They Carried classified as “multiple plots”. The time covered in the novel is around 3 years, starting from the time O’Brien knew he was going to be drafted, to the end of the war when he went back to study at Harvard. The beginning of the novel differs from the end in that O’Brien starts out telling his stories of Vietnam with the story of the tangible and intangible things that the soldiers carried with them when fighting . The end of the novel, however, O’Brien not only tells his story, but focus’ more on a stories “power to save people”. In order to convey this to the reader, O’Brien makes direct reference to the death of Linda, and how he successfully dealt with the “guilt and confusion” of the event.
Point of View
The stories in The Things They Carried are mostly told from O’Brien’s first person point of view; however, some stories are told from the point of view of other soldiers. This is seemingly done to skillfully give a different sense of distance from the constant 1st person protagonist’ view. The first person point of view is a reminiscent cognizance of O’Brien’s and is told from his point of view 20 years earlier in his life. In the novel, O’Brien is the protagonist in the stories about himself, but the observer in his tales of other platoon men. There are numerous shifts of point of view in the novel, for example, the point of view shifts to Mitchell Sanders’ point of view to convey one story to the reader, while the point of view changes to Rat Kiley’s to tell another. Similarly, the point of view switches from O’Brien’s first person point of view, to a third person perspective when he is relaying a story in which he was not included. The purpose of the mostly first person point of view in The Things They Carried is to give a more personal aspect of the war stories to the reader. The “storytelling” form that the tales are told in helps to give the reader a perspective of someone who was actually there. The third person point of view that O’Brien uses to tell some of the war stories is used to vary the perspective of the reader and give an omniscient view of the story. This is done so the reader can easily see a specific story that requires one to know more details than a specific character can relay.
The protagonists in the novel are Jimmy Cross, Mitchell Sanders, Tim O’Brien, and Kiowa. The antagonists in the novel are Azar and Curt Lemon. Although the minor characters are nowhere near as important as O’Brien and some other key people, they still have their own distinct story in many cases. For example, Curt Lemon, though a minor character, is featured in a story about how he was killed while playing with a grenade. These minor facts and involvement of the minor characters help add variety to the stories that Tim O’Brien relays to the reader. Two central characters in The Things They Carried are Tim O’Brien and Jimmy Cross. O’Brien is a 22-24 year old soldier (in his stories) and is a round, dynamic character. O’Brien is opposed to war, but believes that he has an obligation to his family, being the reason why he fights. After the war, O’Brien demonstrates intelligence and creativity by recounting occurrences in his books and through his other writings. “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” (158). This quote reveals characteristics of O’Brien by conveying to the reader his profoundness and belief in the power of story- telling. Another main character in the novel is Jimmy Cross (round, dynamic), a lieutenant who is responsible for all of the men. Cross’ age isn’t revealed in the book, but characteristics that describe him are honest, well intentioned, and easily guilt tripped. Cross serves as an example of the mental effects of war. A quote that reveals characteristics of Cross is “He was realistic about it. There was that new hardness in his stomach. He loved her but he hated her.” This quote reveals characteristics of Cross because it conveys to the reader the effectiveness of his love on him.
There are two time settings in The Things They Carried. The first is the late 1960’s and the second is the late 1980’s. The time setting of the late 1960’s is the time at which O’Brien was drafted into the Vietnam War, and served in the war. The late 1980’s setting is the time when O’Brien wrote the novel and relays the stories to the reader. The novel occurs in Vietnam and Massachusetts; Vietnam being the place where the war occurred, and Massachusetts serving as the setting leading up to the war and after the war. The environment is generally described in a pessimistic tone, where words like “murky”, “muck”, and “dark” are used. Examples of this include “began wading side by side through the deep muck of the shit field”, and “rains had fallen without stop… and the muck had now risen thigh-deep in the field along the river”. Symbolic meanings of the environment are strewn throughout the novel with negatively connotated words like “shit” and “murky”. These words symbolize the disconsolate and hostile environment constantly surrounding the soldiers and affecting their attitude. The atmosphere created by the words describing the environment is negative and harsh and conveys to the reader that the soldiers are harmed both internally and externally. The setting is important in the novel because they help represent the graphic events that O’Brien relays and also cause the stories to seem more lifelike and personal to the reader.
The diction in The Things They Carried is generally informal and very connotative.. An example of this is “We forgot wages. Thos odd jobs you done.” (52). The dialogue between soldiers has constant uses of bad grammar and improper contractions such as “So what’d this crud job pay?” (53). The descriptions that O’Brien relays to the reader through narration, however, is mostly colloquial. Dialogue is constantly used to explain situations O’Brien experienced in the Vietnam War. The dialogue differs greatly from the narrative voice. The fundamental distinction between the two is the type of diction; O’Brien’s narration is colloquial and sometimes elevated diction, while the dialogue between the soldiers is low, informal, and filled with slang and crudeness. The dialogue from character to character is somewhat distinct in that each character has aspects of speaking that other characters do not demonstrate. For example, Rat uses a plethera of curse words [“Jesus Christ, man, I write this beautiful fuckin’ letter…” (69)], while Elroy constantly uses bad grammar [“Those odd jobs you done” (53)]. “A friend of his gets killed, so about a week later Rat sits down and writes a letter to the guy’s sister. Rat tells her what a great brother she had, how together the guy was, a number one pal and comrade. A real soldier’s soldier, Rat says. Then he tells a few stories to make the point, how her brother would always volunteer for in a million years, dangerous stuff, like doing recon or going out these really badass night patrols. Stainless steel balls, Rat tells her. The guy was a little crazy, for sure, but crazy in a good way, a real daredevil, because he liked the challenge of it, he liked testing himself, just man against gook. A great, great guy, Rat says.” (67). The diction O’Brien uses in this passage is simple and low. Slang is used constantly and even vulgar words are used. O’Brien may have used this type of diction to convey his point and characterize Rat as the unkempt vagabond that he is. Words like “really badass” and clichés like “in a million years” cause the reader to have a less scholarly mindset and see Rat’s characteristics. This sets the tone of the war by accurately portraying death, and soldiers’ reaction to death in the Vietnam War. “Linda was nine then, as I was, but we were in love. And it was real. When I write about her now, three decades later, it’s tempting to dismiss it as a crush, an infatuation of childhood, but I know for a fact that what we felt for each other was as deep and rich as love can ever get. It had all the shadings and complexities of mature adult love, and maybe more, because there were not yet words for it, and because it was not yet fixed to comparisons or chronologies or the ways by which adults measure such things.” (228). This passage differs greatly in diction from the previous passage mentioned. The diction in this passage is high and scholarly; it helps convey the deep and profound feelings O’Brien claims to have had for Linda. Words like “complexities”and “chronologies” communicate the love O’Brien has, and reveals his character by conducting a heavily thorough description of a love that continues to affect O’Brien years later in his life. Also, this passage sets a more intellectual, profound tone for the reader and furthers the theme of things soldiers carry with them in war.
The sentences in The Things They Carried range greatly from extremely simple to complex, seemingly unending sentences. The length also varies from extremely short and simple, to complex lengthy sentences. The level of formality is generally neutral when O’Brien is narrating, and falls to informal when dialogue occurs between the soldiers. Examples of simple, short sentences include “They get arty and gunships. They call in air strikes. All night long, they just smoke those mountains. They make Jungle juice. Scorch time. It’s all fire.” (75). Lengthy, complex sentences are demonstrated in passages like “One of those real thick, real misty days-just clouds and fog, they’re off in this special zone-and the mountains are absolutely dead-flat silent.” (75). Although fragments, rhetorical questions, and parallel structure is not used in the novel, repetitions are habitually used in O’Brien’s descriptions. Examples of this include the usage of “they” at the beginning of the sentences in “They get arty and gunships. They call in air strikes. They fuckin’ crash that cocktail party. They make jungle juice. They blow away trees and glee clubs…” (75), “A real soldier’s soldier” (67), and “A great, great guy” (67). These repetitions are used to convey a point to the reader. That point being what all the soldier’s do (the repetition of they), a pun on the word soldier (the back to back usage of soldier), and stressing that the man who died was great. O’Brien uses syntax through constant repetitions and use of simple sentences to create a short, simplistic rhythm of describing something; however, when telling a story, O’Brien uses complex sentences to go into detail and aide the reader in experiencing the story more easily. Furthermore, O’Brien also uses complex sentences to enhance effect by going into detailed description of environment and the soldiers’ surroundings. “A friend of his gets killed, so about a week later Rat sits down and writes a letter to the guy’s sister. Rat tells her what a great brother she had, how together the guy was, a number one pal and comrade. A real soldier’s soldier, Rat says. Then he tells a few stories to make the point, how her brother would always volunteer for in a million years, dangerous stuff, like doing recon or going out these really badass night patrols. Stainless steel balls, Rat tells her. The guy was a little crazy, for sure, but crazy in a good way, a real daredevil, because he liked the challenge of it, he liked testing himself, just man against gook. A great, great guy, Rat says.” (67). This quote previously mentioned in description of diction uses syntax through repetition and lengthy sentences to create a storytelling effect. This storytelling effect causes the reader to more accurately see the characteristics of Rat and more importantly, the reactions of soldiers when a comrade dies. These help define character by revealing Rat’s matter-of-fact characteristics. The syntax also sets the tone by portraying death in the Vietnam War and maintaining a somber, despairing tone.
Sight: “Her pretty blue eyes seemed to glow.” (96). This quote appeals to site by describing the color and the effect of Mary Anne’s eyes. The function of the imagery in this situation is to convey Rat’s feelings toward Mary Anne by telling the reader a statement that he made about her. This is evident through Rat saying “This seventeen-year-old doll…” (96). Thus confirming the positively connotated feelings Rat has toward Mary Anne. Touch: “There was some pain, no doubt, but in the morning Curt Lemon was all smiles.” (88) . This quote conveys to the reader the importance of maintaining a “tough” reputation. This is evident because the “pain” experienced was completely unnecessary, and was only brought about through Curt Lemons desire to redeem himself from feinting before going to the dentist. Smell: “At night I’d go home smelling of pig.” (43). This smell-appealing quote serves to convey to the reader the hardships of working in the meatpacking plant where O’Brien had previously worked (before the war). The “smelling of pig” transfers to the reader the distaste that O’Brien had for going to the meatpacking plant everyday and, everyday, coming home with a horrible stench. Hearing: “Not a single sound, except they still hear it.” (75). This quote follows a passage about when war in Vietnam gets quite on “One of those real thick, real misty days…” (75). The sound-appealing quote serves to express more effects of the war. The fact that “they still hear it” portrays the scarring effectiveness of being a soldier because the platoon men still hear war sounds (in their head) even on a quite night. Taste: “…he carried the pebble in his mouth, turning it with his tongue, tasting sea salt and moisture.” (8). This appeal to taste represents the idea of how much is taken away during war. Because of all the hardships in the war, Cross keeps a pebble in his mouth simply to taste the saltiness and moisture. This gives the reader an example of how much is taken from a soldier once he is drafted into the war.
Although the novel is not highly symbolic, O’Brien uses certain characters in the book to represent something with more aesthetic value to the reader. One symbol is the man that O’Brien is not sure if he killed or not. “His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut…” (124). These descriptions are of the man that O’Brien thinks he killed with a grenade. The horrific, graphic representation of the man serves to represent O’Brien not wanting to believe that he had taken a man’s life. The man is a symbol for the guilt that soldiers feel when they kill someone. Another symbol in The Things They Carried is Kathleen, O’Brien’s daughter. Kathleen represents the people that O’Brien relays his stories to. Directly telling his war tales to her causes her to respond to his stories, and represents readers who respond through reading the novel. “When she was nine, my daughter Kathleen asked if I had ever killed anyone.” (131). This quote further makes Kathleen symbolism evident. Asking about events in O’Brien’s life triggers a story that he will tell her, just like his writings and stories that he relays to his readers. Lastly, Linda serves as a symbol of past events that resurface during story telling. “Linda was nine then, as I was, but we were in love. And it was real. When I write about her now, three decades later, it’s tempting to dismiss it as a crush, an infatuation of childhood, but I know for a fact that what we felt for each other was as deep and rich as love can ever get.” (228). The reference to Linda thirty years later in his life reveals Linda’s symbolism by conveying to the reader that past events are brought back through story telling. This is expressed through “When I write about her now, three decades later.” Telling the reader about a past experience with Linda thirty years ago reveals Linda as the symbol and suggests that past events, and even people from the past, are brought back through storytelling and imagination.
Figurative language is used constantly in the novel to give readers a reference and something to compare O’Brien’s stories too. For example, similes such as “I felt a sudden swell of helplessness come over me, a drowning sensation, as if I had toppled overboard…” (57), and “A killer, he said-like a nail in his jaw.” (88). Cause the reader to relate an event O’Brien is talking about to events that they know more about. All readers have not experienced “a sudden swell of helplessness”, but “toppling overboard” is something that everyone can relate to, whether they have directly experienced or not, because it is an easily imaginable event. Also, although not everyone has experienced a tooth being a pulled, “like a nail in his jaw” conveys the horrible pain that tooth pulling causes because it, also, is an easily imaginable event. Furthermore, rhetorical questions are used on page 56 when O’Brien says “What would you do? Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood… Would it feel like dying? Would you cry, as I did?” he gives the reader thoughts about what they would do if they were in his situation. This helps the reader more directly experience what O’Brien experienced when he was in Canada by making the reader think about what they would do, and how they would react in his situation. The effect that the figurative language has on the novel as a whole is the effect of making the reader put themselves in O’Brien’s shoes. Thinking about similar situations (similes, metaphors) and thinking about how they would react (rhetorical questions) seemingly channels O’Brien’s feelings at that time, to the reader simply reading about his experience.
Ironic devices are used often in The Things They Carried to express the irony brought about by war. For example, O’Brien says “I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything.” (41). This statement is ironic because O’Brien thought he was too good to be in the war and had a negative attitude when he got drafted, but after the war, O’Brien was a soldier who realized the effects that the war had on him, and the importance of emotional feelings during his time serving in Vietnam. This statement conveys to the reader that O’Brien believe war has an extremely profound and life-changing effect on its soldiers. Another example of irony is “The war over and there was no place in particular to go.” (137). This statement is ironic because during the war, the soldiers always complained and wished that they had freedom; however, when they finally got their freedom and weren’t forced to fight anymore, they had nowhere to go. Irony is further explained in this statement by the fact that during the war, the soldiers always had a place to stay. And even if that place was outdoors in the middle
of the woods, it suited them. “Death sucks” stated on page 243 by Mitchell Sanders is an understatement because Sanders takes a complex, emotional event such as death and sums it up in one word. This ironic device it intended to convey the importance of maintaining a positive attitude during war. If a soldier starts thinking negatively and thinks there is nothing to live for, then all is for nothing. Maintaining a positive attitude helps the soldier fight on and persevere in order to return home. O’Brien uses ironic devices throughout the novel to convey themes to the reader such as maintaining a positive attitude during war, but also to portray the irony of war itself. This is exemplified by the change of O’Brien’s attitude from the beginning to the end of the war.
The tone in The Things They Carried is a generally pessimistic tone in which Tim O’Brien relays to the reader the important mix of truth and fabrication in a war story. The narration and memory story that O’Brien tells the reader creates a didactic tone through the explanations of reasons and methods used when telling a story. Through the references to a mix of fiction and truth in a war story, O’Brien creates less of a storytelling tone and more of a imaginative tone which subconsciously causes the reader to fabricate on their own and exaggerate the stories by imagining them in their own way. “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” (158). This quote helps establish the imaginative tone by referring to “making up others” and “carrying it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur…”. Making up stories is related to imagination and causes the imaginative tone, while inventing incidents serves as a simile for making up stories, and causes the same effect. “I felt isolated; I spent a lot of time alone.” (43). This quote sparks a pessimistic tone by referring to isolation and alone time in a period of war. Both of which are negative occurrences and seemingly “rub off” on the reader to create the pessimistic tone.
Themes in The Things They Carried include physical burdens caused by war, emotional hindrance caused by war, and the amount of truth in storytelling is generally little. Physical burdens caused by war are present in the novel through the simple physical atrocities the soldiers experienced in the Vietnam War. The emotional hindrance caused by war is a theme in The Things They Carried through the references to love (Cross’ love for Martha, O’Brien’s love for Linda) and the emotional burden of killing a man and death (O’Brien killing the man with the grenade, the deaths of the soldiers around him). Love, death, and killing each affect the soldiers greatly and put emotional toil on them throughout the book. Cross is constantly reminded of Martha and thinks about her, O’Brien makes reference to Linda in his storytelling, and each soldier is unsure how to deal with deaths around them and killing other men. The most prominent and central theme in the book is the amount of truth in storytelling. O’Brien constantly makes references to “inventing incidences” and “making up certain truths” in order to convey the blur of truth and fiction in war stories. The reference to fiction reveals that O’Brien is attempting to avoid recounting the Vietnam War as a history book; he is trying to tell his stories to entice the reader and establish ways in which a soldier will connect with his readers, or merely bore them with an insipid recount of an event in his life. Prominent motifs in The Things They Carried are storytelling and isolation. Storytelling is conveyed as a powerful tool in O’Brien’s eyes, and throughout the novel, O’Brien intends to cause the reader to see its power. Isolation
is a prominent motif in The Things They Carried because of the references to loneliness and isolation as a destructive force when one is in war. O’Brien intends to communicate to the reader that isolation is as destructive a force as any other hardships faced in Vietnam.
Significance of the Title
The title The Things They Carried makes direct reference to the physical and emotional “things” that the soldiers in Vietnam carried with them throughout being in the war. Physical things such as guns, ammunition, food, and water, are carried to survive and keep the soldiers healthy, while intangible ideas are carried with the soldiers seemingly to maintain a healthy mindset and keep them feeling as though they are fighting for something. For example, “they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war that history is only beginning to absorb.” (Back cover). This quote explains an intangible thing that the soldiers carried with them in the war. This accurately portrays the effects of the war on its soldiers. Soldiers being forced to fight in the war don’t go home unscathed even if they weren’t physically injured. Each soldier goes home “carrying” feelings of guilt, confusion, and “unrelenting images”, while each soldier still fighting in the war carries their love, passion, and perseverance, each being a motivating force to return home safely. Before reading the novel, one might merely think of tangible objects being carried during the war, but after beginning the novel, and finishing it, it is the intangible things like love, passion, and images, that are the most important things in the readers mind. After reading The Things They Carried it is evident to the reader that the emotional things being “carried” have a much bigger effect on soldiers than simple materials used for survival.
“Linda was nine then, as I was, but we were in love. And it was real. When I write about her now, three decades later, it’s tempting to dismiss it as a crush, an infatuation of childhood, but I know for a fact that what we felt for each other was as deep and rich as love can ever get. It had all the shadings and complexities of mature adult love, and maybe more, because there were not yet words for it, and because it was not yet fixed to comparisons or chronologies or the ways by which adults measure such things.” (228). This also is one of the most significant quotes in the book because it conveys to the reader the power that storytelling has. An event occurring three decades before the relaying of the Vietnam War is brought up through O’Brien’s recounts because of the power of storytelling. The reference to a seemingly unrelated event is brought out through telling stories of the Vietnam War, and the reader is more easily brought to see the emotional profoundness that war brings out in its soldiers.
“By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” (158). This is one of the most important quotes in the book because it exemplifies the main idea of the book: the mix of truth and fiction in story -telling. This quote sums up the idea that factual events do not have the same moral effect on readers as a fictional event with more passion involved.
“They carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.” (41). This is a significant quote because it gives the reader a sense of how important being “tough” was in the war. It communicates to the reader that the men in the Vietnam War feared shame more than anything else, and that shame that they feared was caused by a simple fault in maintaining a tough impression.
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