Tim O’Brien’s short story The Things They Carried is the first of twenty-two stories in the book of the same name. This book tells about various episodes from the life of a company of soldiers serving in Vietnam. All narratives are connected, but each can be considered separately. The plots are based on the writer’s actual experience but combine both his memories and fiction, uniquely representing the historical fiction genre. In The Things, They Carried story, one of the soldiers, Ted Lavender, dies during an operation under the command of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross.
The lieutenant blames himself because his thoughts are occupied by the girl whose letters and photographs he carries. Although soldiers in wars look similar because of their uniforms and even move similarly following military rules, the things they carry, talismans, letters, and emotions, differ, highlighting their individuality and maintaining a connection with the home.
O’Brien’s book contains military stories that uniquely combine elements of memoirs and artistic fiction. During his studies in college, the writer was drafted into the American army. He was against the war but was still forced to go to Vietnam, where he served for two years (Tim O’Brien para. 2). The writer describes real places in the book and introduces a narrator named Tim O’Brien, who is close to the author, making readers think about the reality of the events described.
However, other details are transparent fiction, changing the notion of the work. For example, in the book, the narrator has a daughter named Kathleen. In turn, the writer became the father of two sons and, later, after the book’s publication. The author used fictional truth, as he considered it more effective in addressing the feelings of readers (Tim O’Brien para. 3). Thus, having the features of non-fiction literature, his stories are artistic.
The Vietnam War was widely publicized, and the fact that it was terrible, like any other war, is well known. However, the differences between knowledge of something and actual experience are significant. O’Brien uses the events he encountered and his feelings about them and complements them with fiction to interact with the audience. The writer revised his stories several times, removed details, and added new ones. A researcher Young notes that when studying various versions, attention is attracted not by their historical accuracy or artistic aestheticism but by how they affect readers and what kind of notion they form (12). This feature of the work blurs the boundary between reality and fiction and enhances the impression of the experience received by the author, and pushes for deep reflection.
The short story introduces readers to many characters that will appear in other parts of the book. The narrator explains that soldiers carry various things with them, depending on their tasks. For example, they have weapons M-14, M-60, M-79, M-16, Chi-Com, and other copies. If they go to the mountains, they take a machete and a mine detector in mined areas. At the same time, soldiers have different things, both necessary for service and personal. Medic Rat Kiley wears pills and painkillers, as well as comics and M&M’s (O’Brien 5). Jimmy Cross is in the center of this story, and he has letters and photos from the girl he likes – Martha.
The characters respect their things since they are often a mascot and help protect themselves from psychological pressure (Moyer para. 3-4). Differences in personal luggage also correlate with the emotional burden of soldiers.
Through material and spiritual things carried by the soldiers, O’Brien reveals the theme of the war’s burden. Lieutenant Cross bears an unrequited love for Martha, and when Ted Lavender dies, the commander bears the guilt. Until his death, Lavender, a little stronger than his colleagues, carries a weight of fear. Gradually, from listing physical things, O’Brien mentions that soldiers carry “ghosts,” “land,” “sky,” “gravity,” “lives,” “themselves,” “memories,” and “emotional baggage of men who might die,” and many other things (9, 14-15, 18, 20). The writer repeats the words “carry” and “carried” many times, enhancing the effect of an enormous burden on the characters’ shoulders, and in the aftermath, “They [soldiers] moved like mules” (O’Brien 14). Lavender’s death and the lieutenant’s guilt also indicate that an emotional burden can cause harm. However, everyone has the right to feel, and in the case of soldiers, emotions help keep connection with another peaceful life.
War creates challenging conditions for people and threatens their lifestyle, physical and psychological health, and lives in general. It is worth remarking that although the soldiers are at the forefront of the war, they are not the only ones carrying their weight. Moreover, the author himself noted that ‘They’ in the title of the story refers not only to soldiers because this burden is also borne by their families and civilians (Gross para. 13). Thus, the first story of O’Brien’s book is his truth about how heavy the war and its burden are.
O’Brien uses a unique tone and writing style in the story The Things They Carried. The narrative is told in the third person and focuses on the thoughts and observations of the platoon commander Jimmy Cross. The author chooses the confident and familiar tone of the story so that readers do not doubt his knowledge of what he writes about. The style of writing is variable and depends on the moment described.
For example, in dialogues, O’Brien represents uncensored soldiers’ communication, and in some moments, the narrative becomes more grandiose. Thus, the writer describes soldiers’ burdens as follows: “They carried the sky” or “They carried their own lives” (O’Brien 14-15). Such interweaving helps to avoid the monotony of non-fiction books, but at the same time conveys the essence of events appealing to the readers’ feelings.
Thus, The Things They Carried, written by Tim O’Brien, speaks of individuals, and their differences, which cannot be hidden even in difficult war conditions and behind the same uniform. Moreover, the story conveys the author’s truth about the burden of war borne by soldiers, their families, and all people the war affects. The story itself stands out by listing the material and spiritual things that the characters carry during their service. They include different objects – from weapons and medicines to fear and soldiers’ own lives.
The Things They Carried is one part of a book with more than twenty interrelated stories, and it shares its features. In particular, the author, using his experience of serving in Vietnam, added fiction to create a book. In this way, O’Brien was able to present the fictional truth and convey his experience in the war in a way that more effectively addresses readers. Using his unique style, the author managed to reveal the themes of war, its pressure on people, and their attempts to stay in connection with their individuality in such circumstances.
Gross, Terry. “Tim O’Brien On Late-In-Life Fatherhood and The Things He Carried from Vietnam.” NPR. 2021. Web.
Moyer, Steve. “The Things They Carried: Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War Novel Endures.” National Endowment for the Humanities. 2018. Web.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Mariner, 2009.
“Tim O’Brien.” Famous Authors. Web.
Young, John K. How to Revise a True War Story: Tim O’Brien’s Process of Textual Production. University of Iowa Press, 2017.