The Things They Carried Suggested Essays
by Tim O'Brien
Suggested Essay Questions
Is the book told in first person or third person? How does this affect the seeming reliability of the narrative?
The Things They Carried is narrated, alternately, in third person and first person. The first person "I" narratives feel trustworthy and personal, but O'Brien warns the reader against this very pitfall. He writes that war stories should always be mistrusted, no matter who is telling them.
What is the role of shame in the soldiers' lives? Does shame propel them to heroism or stupidity?
Shame is the reason that Tim O'Brien decided to go to Vietnam. Many of the characters feel shame as a primary motivator, too. Not only does it lead them to war, but it keeps them there. It is the one thing that keeps them from shooting themselves in the foot so that they would be discharged from the army or some similar such act. But some characters, like Curt Lemon, think that shame impels them to heroism, not stupidity.
In "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong how does gender seem to affect reactions to war?
Mary Anne is one of the few females featured in the book, and her experience seems to suggest that war is a great equalizer between the genders. When she arrives she is innocent, sexy, and very feminine. After the war "gets to her" she becomes a killer like the others.
The central topic of The Things They Carried is the Vietnam War, but the book is also about writing and storytelling. How would you describe O'Brien's conception of the role of fiction?
O'Brien writes that fiction serves a higher purpose than merely recounting what happened. He writes that a good war story makes you wonder "is it true?" It makes you care about the answer to that question. After having provoked that authentic feeling, it does not actually matter if the story is true or not. Fiction is as good as experience.
A reoccuring theme throughout the book is expressed by the title. What do the characters carry aside from physical objects?
The characters carry emotions like sadness and fear. Jimmy Cross carries responsibility for the lives of his men. O'Brien sets up a dichotomy between weight and lightness, with war always described in terms of weight, love in terms of lightness. His characters are condemned to carry the war for the rest of their lives.
What role does Kathleen play in this book? Does she make her father feel guilty?
Kathleen, O'Brien's daughter, is a stand-in for the reader. She listens to her father's stories just as the reader does. But because she is a character she can ask him questions, including whether or not he has ever killed anyone. O'Brien's makes a guilt-tinged decision whether or not to lie, or make up stories for his daughter.
Soldiers' tales are often an opportunity for the teller to swagger, to play the hero, to seem macho. How does O'Brien portray this macho culture?
Because O'Brien is so ambivalent toward the whole project of war, it is not surprising that this book disapproves of macho storytelling. Curt Lemon is the most macho character, a man who asks a dentist to pull out a perfectly good tooth to demonstrate that he is not a sissy. Lemon dies the most horrible death imaginable, but he is still the least likeable character in the book.
Read the dedication page of the book. How is it part of the narrative?
O'Brien dedicated his book to his characters, the men he served with in Vietnam. This exemplifies the uneasy position of the book with regard to fiction and non-fiction. The author insists it is a fictional account. But elements like the dedication continue to point to the reality of what happened in Vietnam.
O'Brien writes that a story is "like a kind of dreaming." How so?
O'Brien tells war stories partly so that he can relive them again and again. He argues that each time time one tells or reads a story one breathes life into the characters. When the story is over, they are dead again, he writes. For O'Brien, fiction also resembles dreamingbecause both are involuntary: he cannot help that his experiences haunt him.
What is the role of death in this book? Is it a release from a nightmarish life, or something to be feared?
O'Brien, the narrator, is a profoundly non-religious man. For him, death is the end of the story. The sense of senselessness pervading this book is rooted in two things: the Vietnam War seems to have no real cause or justification, and the young men killed there reach the end of their lives and effectively disappear. O'Brien's non-belief in the afterlife lends a special tinge of horror to the already horrifying events.
The Things They Carried Essays and Related Content
- The Things They Carried: Major Themes
- The Things They Carried: Essays
- The Things They Carried: Questions
- The Things They Carried: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Tim O'Brien: Biography
- The Things They Carried Summary
- About The Things They Carried
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of "The Things They Carried" and "Love"
- Summary and Analysis of “Spin” and “On a Rainy River”
- Summary and Analysis of "Enemies, "Friends," "How to Tell a True War Story," and "The Dentist"
- Summary and Analysis of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” "Stockings," and "Church"
- Summary and Analysis of "The Man I Killed," "Ambush," and "Style"
- Summary and Analysis of "Speaking of Courage" and "Notes"
- Summary and Analysis of "In the Field," "Good Form," and "Field Trip"
- Summary and Analysis of "The Ghost Soldiers," "Night Life," and "The Lives of the Dead"
- Marijuana and Heroin Use During the Vietnam War
- Related Links on The Things They Carried
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources