Literature: The Things They Carried
"War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead. The truths are contradictory."
— Tim O' Brien, How to Tell a True War Story
"A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth."A bunch of related short stories written by Tim O'Brien that, for the most part, revolve around the experiences of his fictional narrator and the 17 (at first) other men that make up his platoon in The Vietnam War. It includes the short story of the same name.By the way, that fictional narrator happens to be named Tim O'Brien. He has a whole bunch of other things in common with the book's author as well, though certainly not everything—unlike the narrator, the real Tim O' Brien does not have children (at the time of writing) and cannot say with certainty that he ever killed a man. In fact, everything in this book should be taken with a grain of salt with regard to its "truthfulness"; many stories seemingly presented as factual are altered or made up, as the author tries to make an emotional atmosphere that is "truer than true."The book has a disclaimer that it's a work of fiction even on the title page: "The Things They Carried / A work of Fiction by Tim O'Brien."The book also makes comments about the act of writing itself, and, in particular, devotes an entire chapter (source of page quote) to talking about what makes a true war story.Required high school reading in some places.
— the same
Provides examples Of:
- Action Girl: Mary Anne. She learns how to disassemble an M-16, fights with the green berets, and goes native in the Vietnamese jungle.
- Author Avatar: The narrator or Mitchell Sanders, depending on the situation.
- Blow Up The Dog: Azar, Ted Lavender's puppy. He laughs about it and wonders why the others think it's such a big deal.
- When Rat Kiley mutilates the baby water buffalo.
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: At the end of "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," Mary Anne is described as wearing "her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues."
- Communications Officer: Mitchell Sanders. He is also this while also being The Storyteller.
- Corrupt the Cutie: O'Brien, Lt. Cross. Many of the soldiers, really. Azar subverts this, using it as a justification for blowing up a puppy.
- Crucified Hero Shot: Lieutenant Cross floating on his back in the shit field while they're still searching for Kiowa.
- Draft Dodging: Attempted, but not followed through with. The narrator was to afraid of being shamed. Or, as the author puts it, too afraid to be a coward.
- Driven to Suicide: Norman Bowker after the war.
- Dying for Symbolism: A few instances. Some die during the story, some are already dead. The most notable are probably Ted Lavender, Norman Bowker, Kiowa and the Dainty Young Man.
- Females Are More Innocent: Totally averted. See Hero's Muse.
- Going Native: Mary Anne.
- Hero's Muse: Deconstructed to hell and back. Numerous characters that play this role to several of the soldiers end up causing a considerable amount of the conflict of the plot, such as Martha, Henry Dobbins' girlfriend, and the ex-girlfriend of the guy who got Kiowa killed. The men cling to the idealized versions of these women in their heads since they find the notion that innocence and purity still exist somewhere outside of the war to be comforting in a situation that has deprived them of it themselves. Believing in this causes Lt. Cross to fall into even deeper despair after Ted Lavender is killed while he's day dreaming of Martha, and Mary Anne going native and joining the war effectively deconstructs the entire notion of women's innocence.
- Hungry Jungle: Mary Anne falls victim to it.
- Jumping on a Grenade: Deconstructed. "Story of my life man."
- Kill the Cutie: Kiowa, Ted Lavender
- Meaningful Name: Several. Norman ("Normal") Bowker, Ted Lavender, Lt. Jimmy Cross (initials J.C.), Kiowa (name of a famous American attack helicopter), the list goes on.
- Meta Guy: Mitchell Sanders. Of all the characters in the platoon, he's the one who seems most aware of the symbolic significance of the events the platoon goes through. He tries to point it out to the other soldiers."You want my opinion, there's a definite moral here.""Moral?""You know. Moral."
- Pet the Dog: Azar, when he gives the boy the chocolate bar.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: What Norman Bowker eventually becomes. He tells O'Brien that he thinks he really died in the shit field. Or that could just be O'Brien's fabrication. It doesn't matter either way.
- Shout-Out: Mitchell Sanders' story in the chapter Spin about a guy who hooks up with a Red Cross nurse in Danang sounds an awful alot like the plot to A Farewell to Arms. The ending to Sanders version is the big difference though.
- Sociopathic Soldier: Azar's entire role as a character. Until he sees Kiowa's body after they pull it out of the shit field, after which it's revealed his cruelty is all just a facade that helps him deal with the war. Possibly one of the few idealistic moments of the book.
- Surrealism: The entire work is a prime example of a modern Surrealist piece of literature, and is essentially what the entire "truer than the truth" concept boils down to.
- The Storyteller: Mitchell Sanders, again.
- Unreliable Narrator: Midway through the book the narrator admits that the entire section of book detailing Curt Lemon's death was entirely made up. He was never playing catch with Rat Kiley using smoke grenades, he didn't step on a rigged 105 round in the sunlight, and Rat Kiley never reacted that way to his death. The real Curt Lemon was killed by a sniper in a swamp some place. The narrator then notes that just because it's untrue doesn't make it any less real to the guys who saw it. Which is why it's a love story, not a war story.
- The real kicker is when you realize the story of him dying in the swamp is untrue as well. The real Curt Lemon didn't die on the Batangan Peninsula. He was never real, the book is a work of fiction. And the narrator knows it.
- The Ending Changes Everything: The book is written in such a way that many of the events that happen in the book don't fully make sense until the nature of the characters involved is also revealed. Because most of the chapters dedicated to exploring the characters are in the latter half of the book, it makes you look at the events in the first half of the book in a different light when you reread it.
- World of Symbolism: It honestly wouldn't be to ridiculous to call this one of the most heavily symbolic books ever written. The book is written in this way since O'Brien felt that a civilian could never properly understand the real experience of being a soldier without being one himself, so he instead attempted to capture the essence of the experience instead, in a way that a civilian would be able to understand. This is the reasoning behind the "truer than the truth" quote at the top of the page, and the reason it's given such a heavy focus throughout the book.