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Quotes: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - Quotation Analysis

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The novel makes strategic shifts back and forth between first and third person. The first chapter is entirely third person, laying the groundwork for the themes of the book with generalizations and insights. By the second chapter O’Brien shifts to first person, inserting a version of himself as a character, as he discusses the war with his former commanding officer. He continues to fluctuate back and forth between the two voices throughout the novel, producing an interesting effect. A new theme often begins with a few pages of musings and memories, written in third person, which is immediately followed by a first-person story that provides examples of the same theme. Thus, we have a fluid transition from general to specific.

Within the first person narrative there are also major transitions in time. Most stories involve O’Brien as a young soldier, told in real time as if he’s back in Vietnam. He describes the sights, sounds, and his emotion as if he’s still in his early twenties. Later in the chapter, however, he will jump ahead twenty years and share his feelings and impressions of the same incident. The Man I Killed is the best example of this time warp.


1) “They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march.” (Page 15)

Commentary: This quote, coming early in the book, explains how the Vietnam War was different from WWII. Instead of engaging in open battle with a distinct front, Vietnam was more about search and destroy. Locating the enemy was more difficult than killing him. The endless monotony of the march deprives the soldiers from feeling as though they’ve accomplished anything - no battles won or lost. This increases the sense of ambiguity in the war and in the book.

2) “They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness. Greased they’d say. Offed, lit up, zapped while zipping. It wasn’t cruelty, just stage presence. They were actors. When someone died, it wasn’t quite dying, because in a curious way, it seemed scripted, and because they had their lines mostly memorized, irony mixed with tragedy, and because they called it by other names, as if to encyst and destroy the reality of life itself.” (Page 20)

Commentary: See Themes - The Power of Language

3) “They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory and dishonor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor.”

Commentary: See Themes - The Nature of Courage

4) “Right then, with the shore so close, I understood that I would not do what I should do. I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life. I would not be brave. That old image of myself as a hero, as a man of conscience and courage, all that was just a threadbare pipe dream.” (Page 57)

Commentary: While out fishing on the Rainy River, O’Brien reaches a crucial point of self-realization. See Themes - The Nature of Courage

5) “True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis. For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can’t believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside. It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.” (Page 78)

Commentary: See Themes - The Power of Language

6) “Mary Anne made you think about all those girls back home, how clean and innocent they are, how they’ll never understand any of this, not in a billion years. Try to tell them about it, they’ll just stare at you with those big round candy eyes. They won’t understand zip. It’s like trying to tell someone what chocolate tastes like.” (Page 113)

Commentary: Rat Kiley talking about the sense of isolation soldiers feel from their peers back in the United States. While friends are working at fast food restaurant of going to college, these boys are killing people and blowing things up. They have little in common with former friends when they return.

7) “The town could not talk and would not listen. “How’d you like to hear about the war?” he might have asked, but the place could only blink and shrug. It had no memory, therefore no guilt. The taxes got paid and the votes got counted and the agencies of the government did their work briskly and politely. It was a brisk, polite town. It did not know shit about shit, and it did not care to know. (Page 143)

Commentary: A scathing criticism of attitudes towards the war on the home front. America grew increasingly weary of a war that seemed to make no progress and be no closer to the end than to the beginning. Many Americans who had supported the war and expected young people to fight, then gave these young soldiers a thankless homecoming years later. Since the war was ultimately not successful, many people chose to pretend it had never happened at all. Unfortunately, for the soldiers who had killed, and bled, and sacrificed years of their youth, this was not as easy.

8) “He wished he could’ve explained some of this. How he had been braver than he ever thought possible, but how he had not been so brave as he wanted to be. The distinction was important.” (Page 153)

Commentary: Another exploration into the nature of bravery. Each of us has a different standard for courage. When Norman reflects on his past deeds, he realizes he has outdone his own expectations for himself, yet he was not brave enough to pull Kiowa out of the muck or earn the Silver Star. This, of course, does not mean that he wasn’t brave, only that he won’t be recognized for bravery.

9) “Twenty years. A lot like yesterday, a lot like never. In a way, maybe, I’d gone under with Kiowa, and now after two decades I’d finally worked myself out. A hot afternoon, a bright August sun, and the war was over.” (Page 187)

Commentary: See Themes - Redemption

10) “Azar shrugged. After a second he reached out and clapped me on the shoulder, not roughly but not gently either. ‘What’s real?’ he said. ‘Eight months in fantasyland, it tends to blur the line. Honest to God, I sometimes can’t remember what real is.” (Page 204)

Commentary: Azar exemplifies the problems created when you give an American teenager an automatic rifle and throw him into a situation where normal laws of civilization do not apply. Because of his youth and immaturity, Azar begins to forget the established norms of everyday life and accept Vietnam as his new reality - a fantasyland for violent youth.

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