The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried Summary and Analysis of “Spin” and “On a Rainy River”

Summary of “Spin”

“Spin” is a collection of disjointed memories. Azar, a soldier, gives a crippled boy a chocolate bar. Mitchell Sanders pries off his own body lice and puts it in an envelope to send to the draft board in Ohio. Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins play checkers every night to restore a sense of order into their lives. Lavender takes too many tranquilizers and says “we’ve got ourselves a nice mellow war today.” But aside from a few colorful events, O’Brien mostly remembers being bored and intermittently scared when he was at war.

The war was like a Ping-Pong ball, O’Brien writes: “You can put a fancy spin on it.” He is a 43-year-old writer. He can’t remember some things about the war. But the bad memories, like Kiowa sinking into a field or Curt Lemon being blown to pieces, keep playing over and over. O’Brien feels guilty about remembering these things and only writing war stories. His young daughter, Kathleen, tells him he should find a new topic and learn how to write a happy story. But O’Brien thinks that this task is almost impossible.

O’Brien tries to think of a happy war story. All he can remember is a man who deserted the army and went to live with a Red Cross nurse. But even that soldier eventually went back to the war because he wanted something to which to compare all the peace and quiet. O’Brien says the contrast made the soldier enjoy peace more.

Some of O’Brien’s strongest memories involve the personal quirks of his company of 19- and 20-year-olds. Bowker said he wishes his dad would write him a letter and say it’s ok if he doesn’t win any medals. Kiowa taught a rain dance to some of the other soldiers, who were disappointed when it didn’t instantly produce rain. Lavender adopted a puppy and fed it by hand until Azar took it, strapped it to a grenade, and pulled the pin. The grenade exploded, killing the dog.


“Spin” is a classic accusation usually made against journalists. When a journalist “spins” a story, they highlight certain facts and leave out others in order to manipulate the reader into believing whatever the journalist wants them to believe. Writing is inherently an act of exclusion. By stringing together a series of fragmented images and seemingly random memories, O’Brien demonstrates that spin is unavoidable.

The Things They Carried is of course related to works of journalism, as “Spin” points out with its very title. But it was published at a crucial time for journalism, when the medium itself was changing. Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and others were introducing a “new journalism,” where the reporter and his or her biases were an integral part of the story. The influence of this on O’Brien's journalistic fiction is clear. New journalism also affected Michael Herr’s novelistic and intensely personal journalism about the Vietnam War. O’Brien was not the only writer testing boundaries at this time and with this subject matter.

“Spin” is made up of sentence fragments, figments of ideas, and bits and pieces of stories. But many of the fragments foreshadow later events in the collection. Bowker turns out to be obsessed with medals (see “Speaking of Courage”), Kathleen turns out to be the most difficult audience for her father’s war stories (see “Field Trip”), Kiowa’s death is the emotional crisis of the book (see “Notes”), and Azar’s cruelty foreshadows his complicity in O’Brien’s most shameful act (see “The Ghost Soldiers”). The most poignant symbol in this story is that of the checker board. O’Brien implies that the soldiers play the structured game in order to bring order into their chaotic life. But war is not like a game of checkers. As it becomes increasingly clear, there are no fixed rules.

Summary of “On The Rainy River”

O’Brien prefaces this story by saying that it is a hard series of events for him to recount. He thinks that the story proves him to be a coward. It is the story of how he ended up serving in Vietnam.

After graduating from Macalester College in 1968, O’Brien planned to attend Harvard University. But on June 17, 1968, he received a draft card. He had to make the decision whether or not to go to war.

O’Brien had protested the war, but not strongly enough to be considered a pacifist. O’Brien is shamed to remember that he thought he was too good, too smart for the war -- so he considered running away to Canada. He was split between the instinct to run, and the instinct to do what everyone expected: go to war. At the time, he worked at a meatpacking factory hosing down pig carcasses. O’Brien recalls that summer that he always smelled of pig. He felt depressed and alone. He was angry that everyone in his town expected him to go to war, but no one knew the first thing about Vietnam or its history.

O’Brien recounts that he decided to run away to Canada. He left a note for his parents, and took the car and headed north. He found a fishing resort called the Tip Top Lodge, and the owner, Elroy Berdahl, took him in without asking questions. Berdahl never asked O’Brien questions, he just played Scrabble with the boy, gave him odd jobs to do, and ate meals with him. But O’Brien concluded that the old man read the paper, he was “no hick;” he knew that O’Brien was contemplating dodging the draft.

One day Berdahl took O’Brien out fishing one. Berdahl steered the boat all the way to the border with Canada and then waited. He even turned around, away from O’Brien, while the boy made his decision. The boy thought, Now’s my chance. He almost jumped out of the boat. He considered fleeing.

But he imagined a huge crowd of people in the mountains around the river. O’Brien writes that he imagined his parents watching, his town watching, Linda watching, all of the people from his past and future watching him make his decision. He imagined being hunted down by the FBI. In the end he couldn’t bring himself to jump out of the boat. O’Brien cried, but told Berdahl to take him back to the lodge. He paid Elroy for the room and drove home to his parents. “I was a coward,” he writes. “I went to war.” (55)


The story is told in a mix of first person narrative and flashback. The narrator telling the story is the mature O’Brien, but he sometimes slips back into the voice and tone of his younger self. The younger O’Brien’s voice is less mature, more entitled, and less morally complex. The tension between the two narrative voices, the young and the old O’Brien, gives dramatic intensity to a story that would otherwise merely relate a young man’s thoughts about an important decision. The interplay between the young and the old O’Brien lend dialogue to a story in which there isn’t much other dialogue.

“On the Rainy River” contains the main existential and moral crisis of the book. The turning point at the river is a classic Freudian scene. The boy wants to jump out of the boat, his ego and his id (his authentic desires) strain to go. But his superego (what society orders) constrains him. In this story, the superego is symbolized by O’Brien imagining large crowds of people watching him make his decision. The scene takes place on a river; water for Freud often symbolizes the unconscious, where the battle between the superego, id and ego takes place.

Ultimately others’ expectations of him are more powerful than O’Brien’s own moral compass. His deference to his superego is O’Brien’s tragic flaw. Tragic heroes in Greek plays also have a tragic flaw: the one shortcoming from which all of their other misdeeds flow. O’Brien’s tragic flaw is caving to society.

The image of O’Brien working at the meatpacking factory foreshadows of what is to come in Vietnam. The stench of dead pig hangs on the boy, just as the stink of death will permeate war. But both are tragic-comic situation. The troops joke around; O’Brien with a hose washing down dead pigs is absurd in a humorous way. Both the experience of the factory is isolated by both experiences, and finds it hard to talk to other people about them afterwards.

After a long buildup, and the climactic decision in the boat, O’Brien ends the story with a paradox. The fact that he was a coward made him do the bravest thing imaginable: place himself in a life-threatening situation. The New York Times book review of O’Brien’s book was titled “Too Embarrassed Not to Kill." Embarrassment and shame turn out to be the pervasive themes of the book.