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Plot Structure: The Things They Carried - Author's Style / Theme Analysis

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The novel flows from the typewriter of a middle-aged man who is trying to find meaning and redemption in his war stories. It has neither a conventional narrator not timeline, which makes a plot line difficult to identify in the conventional sense. The incident that begins the rising action is his decision to disregard his conscious, go back to Worthington and report for the draft. This decision leaves him with a cynical view of courage and bravery that develops throughout the book. It also marks the declaration of an internal war, as if he spends the rest of his life trying to atone for his inability to make a pacifist stand. Throughout his tour of duty he develops close relationships with his fellow soldiers and witness the beauty and horror of war firsthand. When he returns home he carries the memories of conflict with him and is haunted by the deaths of both friends and enemies. The climax of the action is not until he returns to the field where Kiowa died and wades in for a symbolic baptism. Twenty years after the Treaty of Paris was signed, the conflict within him is finally over. The conclusion further explores how his writing aided his ability to grapple with the tragic memories and his own complicity in that horrible conflict.

The general theme of redemption connects a series of otherwise unrelated stories. The novel is very much a collection of stories about the truth that war and sorrow and reflection can teach us. Each story has a message, some buried deeper than the others. Stylistically, O’Brien often summarizes a story or a chapter in the final quote in the very last sentence. In the chapter “Church,” a discussion about religion and interaction with the Vietnamese people eventually boils down into the essence of Henry Dobbins final quote - “You’re right,” he said. “All you can do is be nice, treat them decent, you know?” (Page 123) O’Brien’s soldiers have an intuitive wisdom, capturing such truth in their ordinary commentary.

In terms of structure and style, The Things They Carried, breaks from the conventional first-person narrative of the Vietnam memoir. In fact, the book constantly shifts back and forth from first to third person. Thus, the reader is not locked into one perspective. We do not see the war and its aftermath only through the eyes of the Tim O’Brien character. The sequence of events is also jumbled. The book begins is Vietnam, then drives ahead to an episode after the war, reverts back to the summer when he received his draft notice, ahead to the war, reverses to his childhood, etc. Not only are the chapter not connected in time, they’re often not connected by topic Even individual chapters suddenly fragment into sections of one or two paragraphs, memory flashes appear suddenly and the fade. In these sections, O’Brien dumps his memories onto the table as if they were building blocks, then sorts through them to see what he can assemble. O’Brien clearly does not want to give the impression that he has it all figured out, but rather this soul-searching process is what defines him as a writer.


The Power of Language

The emotional immaturity of the GI’s in Vietnam makes it imperative that they find ways to cope with the killing of enemies and the dying of friends. O’Brien writes, “They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness.” (Page 20) The soldiers within a platoon formed intimate relationships, but when death occurred language helped trivialize those bonds to make the separation less painful. They used words like greased, zapped, offed, lit up, to describe the deaths of their friends. When Ted Lavender died, the soldiers in his platoon talked as if it were the tranquilizers that had killed him - blew his mind. They way they described it in the stories he didn’t feel a thing. O’Brien remembers how, earlier in his life when Linda had died, Nick Vorheen had described it as ‘kicking the bucket’. Language is a coping mechanism, a way of making things less painful, or less real.

The Nature of Courage

When he is forced into a decision over whether to report for the draft of run to Canada, O’Brien discovers that his understanding of courage is not quite correct. He had believed that courage was of a finite quantity, something that accrued at a fixed rate. If you emptied your account on one occasion, you would immediately have to begin saving for the next. Thus, he is surprised that the courage he had saved over the years is insufficient to carry him through his test of will on the Rainy River. Later, he reflects back on Nick Vorheen trying to steal away Linda’s red stocking cap, saying that he should have intervened, if only to practice being brave for future reference. Courage, he concludes, is a skill that must be learned like everything else.

Courage is also interlocked with fear and shame. O’Brien believes many of the things we do are not motivated by courage, but by shame. “Men killed, and died,” he writes, “because they were embarrassed not to.” (Page 21) Men did not march up and down the mountains of Vietnam because they were brave, but because they were afraid to be cowards, afraid to be humiliated in the eyes of their peers. This notion is illustrated in the story about Curt Lemon, where he has the dentist pull out a perfectly good tooth just to prove he’s not afraid of the drill. But when Rat Kiley finally shoots himself out of desperation, no one in the platoon labels him a coward. Perhaps O’Brien feels that his action required more courage than to mutely continue marching through the brush.

O’Brien revels in the ironical notion that the decisions which require the greatest courage are those that will cause others to label you a coward. This is the test that he himself cannot pass, the reason he’s so disappointed with himself. He allows fear of ridicule from his parents, his friends, and the townspeople dictate his decision instead of following his conscious.

Happening Truth vs. Story Truth

O’Brien wants his stories to more than inform or educate. His writing style requires an emotional investment from the reader in order to understand the meaning. As such, when he tells a story he doesn’t feel bound by objectivity, or chronology, or even ‘truth’. The reader is often left wondering what really happened and what is invented. If you feel cheated because the story is fabricated, you’re missing the point - there are true war stories that never happened. They are parables, in a sense, conveying a message in a way so that the reader can feel it. For example, the blurb about a soldier who falls on the grenade trying to save his buddies, but they all die anyway. (Page 83) The story asserts the unspoken rule that acts of heroism do not always save lives. Sometimes they are not even remembered at all. This is contrary to what we would like to believe about war, and therein lies the truth. “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.” (Page 78)

But he also points out many people cannot listen or read with their stomachs, they want stories with heroic plots and happy endings. After one reading, a lady approaches him and suggests he put away the sad memories and find new stories to tell. This lady didn’t understand the underlying message of the story. They aren’t really war stories at all, they’re stories that use war as a vehicle for insights about life. None of the stories are true because they never really happened; yet there is truth in the stories that somehow makes them more real than an actual occurrence.


O’Brien’s character is only one of a few characters searching for a way of unloading the emotional gear picked up during the war. His sense of guilt is two-fold. He never completely forgives himself for failing to take a moral stand against the war instead of enlisting. Compounding this original sin are the deaths of the soldiers around him, be they friend or foe, while he somehow survives the war. He obsesses over a young Viet Cong soldier he killed with a hand grenade, imagining the boy to be just like himself. Kiowa’s death is written in such a way as to lead us to believe that he was the young soldier who turned on the flashlight at night, causing the platoon to be mortared. Whether or not this is the case, Kiowa’s death has such a profound affect on him that he returns to the spot twenty years later in an attempt to find closure. O’Brien’s re-immersion back the muck of the shit field is a type of baptism. Though he emerges stained with sewage, he is somehow cleansed within. To further emphasize the chapter as a transitional point in the author’s life, he buries Kiowa’s sandals deep in the mud.

For other characters, the search for redemption is not as successful. Lt. Cross spends most of the war carrying around guilt for the lives lost because he was thinking about Martha instead of watching for ambushes. Each time a member of the platoon dies he takes personal responsibility. When he visits O’Brien’s home after the war, he asks O’Brien to portray him as a heroic leader. He hopes to find deliverance in O’Brien’s writing. Norman Bowker, on the other hand, never finds a release from the painful memories of the war. When he returns home he’s unable to break free from the gravitational pull of the war, a metaphor beautifully captured in the image of driving endlessly in circles around the lake. Unable to move forwards into a new life or return to the war, he eventually commits suicide.

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The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien: Free BookNotes Summary

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