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Tim O’Brien wrote The Things They Carried as a short collection of stories about the advance of a platoon of American soldiers during the Vietnamese War. O’Brien had previously written two other books about this period of American history, basing this one about his experience fighting in the 23rd division as part of the general infantry. Unlike other writers, O’Brien usually refrains from voicing his own opinion about this period, usually letting the book speak for itself. Originally, O’Brien’s motivation came from the fact that few people in his hometown knew anything about the Vietnamese war, so this book was partly a response to people’s ignorance on the subject.
Throughout this novel, O’Brien presents a series of challenges that emerge from a complex number of literary devices. O’Brien creates a protagonist who has the same name and uses him to present various ideas of war memories as well as information about his experience; however, the work written is all fictional, not semi-autobiographical as some may think. Vietnam was a troubling time, yet O’Brien aims to guide readers through his memories of the past and shed some light on his experience, bringing them meaning. O’Brien brings out all his friends and fellow soldiers that he fought with, describing them in detail and musing about their relationship. The narrator is soon described at the beginning of the war after setting the scene by describing what many of the characters are carrying. O’Brien’s stories begin after he is reunited with his former leader – Lieutenant Jimmy Cross.
The Things They Carried deals with the fact that O’Brien felt he was being cowardly for fighting in a war that he didn’t believe in. He, originally, was going to avoid fighting and participation by fleeing to Canada, and the audience is told how he once planned to do this. Ultimately, the novel is the result of societal pressures for O’Brien to conform and participate in the war in order to fulfill obligations of duty and order – without this, there would have been no novel here today. The novel is, therefore, much about pressures of the war and an internal conflict of interest that many soldiers faced.
The style of O’Brien’s novel was unique in that it appealed to peoples’ emotion rather than describing literal truth with complete accuracy. O’Brien, in fact, thought that the most important thing to grasp when reading the stories is the emotional content because this is much more striking than the truth and exact details. O’Brien rejected the notion that a war story ought to be told with factual accuracy and that the “truth” of the story is, in fact, the emotion that it conveys. This idea is ironic given the fact that O’Brien was originally motivated to write this particular novel because the public around him had a lack of understanding about the Vietnamese war, yet his style served a purpose nonetheless.
O’Brien takes this attitude by relating his writing to stories that he heard others told about the Vietnamese war, for instance, one of the soldiers who grew terrified after bringing his girlfriend to Vietnam and never returning home as a result. It was dubious as to whether this was factually true, but O’Brien thought to include this because he believed the fact that people were emotionally drawn towards the story made it meaningful and this was the most important thing.
One of the reasons The Things They Carried is such a renowned piece of literature is because of the blur between fiction and autobiography, and the theme of storytelling. What encompasses a good story? Is it the events that influenced it or an appeal to an emotional connection? This is not an autobiographical piece, yet O’Brien makes a reader think it might be, by relating such strong character to the audience that you think were his fellow soldiers in real life. The reader soon after discovers that, in fact, these characters are fictitious and the genre between fiction and autobiography is further blended. All throughout the text, the reader is wondering whether or not the story being told is true and what parts of the story are pure storytelling, and which are parts related to memories experienced.
O’Brien’s novel features an important recurring character that adds to the novel’s central themes of the war being a waste of time. His friend and infantryman at the time, Kiowa, was a Native American that O’Brien was able to form a strong bond with and it is his death within the story that spurs the novel’s several vignettes such as “Speaking of Courage” and “Notes”. He uses his death to drill home the idea that war was a waste of time and lives, and recalls memories of the times that this character had to reinforce this idea.
In the part “Speaking of Courage”, O’Brien introduces the audience to a story about a fellow soldier Norman Bowker who found it difficult to adjust back to normal life after returning home as he left to go fight when he was very young. This story develops up to the end in “Notes” whereby Bowker suggests that O’Brien writes a piece about veteran problems with adjusting their survivor guilt and other intense states of mind. Here we see that O’Brien has realized that he hasn’t managed to put memories of the war in the past and that they are always in the back of his mind as he writes about them all the time. The audience, in fact, realizes that O’Brien is trying to tell these stories to save his life when we read about his childhood sweetheart who passed away as a result of cancer – as he is ruminating about these thoughts, this is the same thing that he’s doing about his Vietnam story writing.
A unique aspect of this novel is one that further stems from the merging of genres. This novel is not autobiographical, yet it is an autobiography of a fictional character. This creates a strong dynamic as the novel’s protagonist is always questioning the truthfulness of his storytelling and all the stories that he has heard and is re-telling. Through this, readers question their own veracity of the stories they’re reading. At one point of the story, we may believe that O’Brien has, in fact, killed a Vietnamese soldier since he describes his mortified feelings towards this act, yet we can cast our doubt about the soldier’s particular characteristics and life as described. This was the novel’s intention, drawing more upon the theme of telling a story rather than factual accuracy of the story itself.
The Vietnamese war sparked a moment of confusion amongst soldiers as they realized the futile nature of the war and questioned what they were fighting for. This brings about the theme of chaos in O’Brien’s novel whereby the main protagonist describes his ill feelings towards his duties and struggles to decide if he should flee to Canada in order to run away from military service. Draft dodging was a big topic of conversation at the time and it was extremely frowned upon in society – O’Brien fights between his ideas of fulfilling his country’s duty and avoiding danger by forgoing fighting for the army. O’Brien is able to take us through both sides of the argument with such detail and thought that the reader is left wondering what the right thing to do would have been. The audience is ultimately left questioning more things, than receiving answers to questions.
Pressure to conform runs deeper as a theme of the novel, especially, as O’Brien is constantly reviewing whether or not he needs to conform to his patriotic duty and if he does, what will this lead to ultimately? At the time of the Vietnam War, many soldiers were reared from families that had previously fought in WWII whereby the motivation for fighting for your country was not questioned as much by the soldiers (everybody knew why they were fighting and the reasons for doing so). The soldiers that went into Vietnam thereby largely entered with the same conceptions about fighting for the country that had been past down and ingrained into them by their parents that had fought, yet many decided, like O’Brien, to question the integrity and motivations of the Vietnamese war. The Vietnamese war brought about a lot of debate in both the military and American society on the whole, so the novel reflects these tensions and debates. O’Brien gives the audience a chance to involve themselves on both sides of the debate over the Vietnamese war, but he always uses striking images throughout each part of the novel in order to remind the reader of the strong reason to be against the war itself, for instance, the images of the young Vietnamese girl who dances in the rubble and corpses or Henry Dobbins who is a strong soldier but has doubts and so wants to become a religious clergyman.
Through this novel, we are reminded about our own recollections and ideas we may have about the war. Although O’Brien does a good job introducing both sides of the debate, it can be argued that he tries to provoke a reader into questioning the use of storytelling as a vehicle to accurately represent something. In “Speaking of Courage”, for instance, the reader is drawn to information about Norman Bowker using the technique of free narration, leaving the reader with no means to doubt the information presented to them. This part of the novel also points out the inconsistency of factual truth, making the audience question their judgment about how much storytelling should be valued or if it should be valued at all. Does a reader really require that a story needs to be factually accurate to believe the story? It seems that O’Brien illustrates that the difference between fiction and fact is rather moot in this regard.
The Things They carried with its storytelling serves as a tool for understanding the Vietnamese War in a different light. Through its use of storytelling, the audience’s understanding is rather ambiguous, and so they can develop an understanding which may or not be factually accurate. O’Brien’s ambiguity about war events offers an interesting outlook on Vietnamese War novels in this respect. This ambiguity in the novel serves well to link to the ambiguity of the war in the first place – why was the war fought and were there good reasons to do so? O’Brien’s work reflects the common questioning about the war at the time whereby many people questioned the motives and the motives were ambiguous, just like the stories in the novel. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese War served to be a dramatic failure of foreign policy for the United States with hundreds of thousands of casualties both for soldiers, native Vietnamese and people in surrounding countries, but this novel is far from a failure.