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Free Study Guide: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - Free BookNotes

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O’Brien wants the reader to know why he is telling the stories this way. He admits that he was once a solider, and once walked a trail near My Khe, but everything else is made up. He wants us to know why story-truth is more real than happening truth. In happening truth, there were many bodies and many faces. In story truth, he was a young man on the trial with a star-shaped hole where his eye used to be. Stories can make things present. Through stories he can face the past, attach grief and pity to the war’s dead, and be brave again.


This is the best explanation of the difference between truth and story-truth in the novel. The Things They Carried has a gritty realism about it, so much so that O’Brien feels compelled to reminds us that most of these stories never happened. And yet there is still a truth to them. By inventing scenarios based on fact, O’Brien hopes to makes us feel how he felt. He wants us to see what he was afraid to look at. Story truth is his way of facing the past and admitting his role in it.



A few months after writing “In the Field” O’Brien returned to Vietnam with his daughter. He visited the site of Kiowa’s death. It was not as he remembered it, the ghosts were gone. The place was at peace, and farmers worked to repair the same dike where they had laid Kiowa’s body. Neither Kathleen nor the government interpreter could understand what this field meant to him. The war was a remote to Kathleen as the dinosaurs. She couldn’t understand why he was there in the first place, and why he couldn’t let go.

As he started at the field he thought about everything it had taken from him. Kiowa. His pride. His courage. His belief in himself. Yet, he felt no emotional connection. For twenty years this field had symbolized the vulgarity and horror of Vietnam. He blamed it for taking away the person he had once been. Now that he was standing in front of it, it was just a field. He went back to the jeep and picked up a small cloth bundle he brought from home. He put on Kiowa’s moccasins and waded into the muck. After finding the place where Sanders must have found Kiowa’s body, he pushed the moccasins down into the bottom, where he left them. He wanted to say something meaningful as a tribute to Kiowa, but all he could do was slap the water. Twenty years ago, he felt like he had gone under with Kiowa. Now he felt as though he’d work himself out.

An old man watched O’Brien as he returned from the field into the car. Kathleen asked if the farmers were mad at him, but O’Brien reminds her that the old animosities have all disappeared.


O’Brien’s return to the field marks the climax in a novel without a conventional storyline plot. The entire novel is full of stories told by O’Brien in an effort to come to terms with his involvement in the war, his visit to the place of Kiowa’s death marks reconciliation with the past. In pure literary terms, Kiowa’s death in the shit field is the event that disrupts the harmony in O’Brien’s world. For almost twenty years, that incident has represented everything ugly and tragic about the Vietnam conflict. O’Brien blames the war (and specifically that night) for a change in him that can never be measured, a loss that can never be restored.

Bringing Kiowa’s moccasins back to the place of his death commemorates the loss of a comrade, but also signifies and end to bitterness. As he shoves the moccasins down into the mud, he also buries the bad feelings, the victimhood, and the guilt that have been plaguing him for the past two decades. Unlike Norman Bowker, who goes down into the lake before his suicide, O’Brien’s comes up out of the field as a sinner ascends from the waters of baptism. He is reborn, free from all the sins of his past. When his daughter asks if the farmers are made at him, he replies “No, that’s all over with now.” This has a double meaning. The war has been over for decades, but O’Brien is finally ready to declare a cease-fire to the conflict within himself.

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Strate, Shane. "TheBestNotes on The Things They Carried". . 09 May 2017