The Things They Carried
is a powerful meditation on the experiences of foot soldiers in Vietnam and after the war. The work is simultaneously a war autobiography, writer's memoir, and group of fictional short stories. Subtitled "A Work of Fiction," O'Brien immediately and deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction by dedicating the novel to individuals that the reader soon discovers are the novel's fictional characters. To further complicate the genre blending and blurring between fiction and reality, O'Brien creates a protagonist, a Vietnam veteran, named "Tim O'Brien." The creation of this fictional persona allows O'Brien to explore his real emotions as though they were fictional creations, and simultaneously challenges us when we dismiss a story as fiction when it could just as easily be true. The originality and innovation of O'Brien's invented form are what make the novel particularly compelling because its main theme — more so than even the Vietnam War — is the act of storytelling. Storytelling becomes an expression of memory and a catharsis of the past. Many characters in the novel seek resolution of some kind.
Readers should note the designations used in this study guide to distinguish between the author, Tim O'Brien, and the fictionalized character, "Tim O'Brien," who is the main character of the novel. While O'Brien and "O'Brien" share a number of similarities, readers should remember that the work is a novel and not an autobiography of the writer who wrote it. Instead, the novel is presented as the autobiography of the fictional character.
The medium becomes part of the novel's message; the unreliable protagonist "Tim O'Brien" continually questions the veracity of the stories he tells and the hearsay he retells, causing, in turn, the readers to question the veracity of the very stories that O'Brien confronts them with. For example, at one point we believe O'Brien, such as when he describes his fear and shock after killing a Vietnamese soldier, but he then challenges us by casting doubt on the soldier's life and existence. The act of storytelling becomes more important than the stories told. This quality is a characteristic of many fiction and non-fiction works that comprise the Vietnam War literature genre.
The Vietnam War era was a historical moment marked by confusion and conflict, from the disagreement over the war to the inconsistent and unstructured war of attrition that soldiers were asked to fight. This confusion and conflict is often experienced by individuals in Vietnam War literature as well, a sort of microcosm of the larger macrocosm of disorder and chaos. This theme of chaos leads to the tone of uncertainty present in The Things They Carried. For example, O'Brien describes how "Tim O'Brien" struggles to decide whether he should avoid military service by fleeing to Canada. The historical issue of draft-dodging, that is, escaping from the country to avoid the military draft, was a high pressure topic about which many contemporary organizations felt strongly. O'Brien takes us through both sides of the issue, feeling the fear of a young man facing military service and possibly death to one feeling a patriotic duty toward his country. Many of O'Brien's stories in The Things They Carried highlight important historical tensions regarding Vietnam and present multiple perspectives, leaving the reader with more questions than answers.
One of the important themes O'Brien confronts in the novel is the pressure caused by feeling the need to adhere to some cultural or community standard of duty, courage, or patriotism. Commonly referred to as "jingoism," this notion is a frequent theme in Vietnam War related fiction, as most soldiers who fought in Vietnam were born and reared just after World War II. (Soldiers in World War II are thought of as having a much less conflicted sense of their place in the war and their duty to their country, although it was by no means without debate.) Soldiers in Vietnam, therefore, absorbed the mores and values of their parent's generation — that is, the so-called G.I. generation who fought World War II — including duty, patriotism, and service.
Many young men who enlisted or were drafted found, once in Vietnam, that what they saw there and what they did there contradicted the message of service they had absorbed as they grew into their political consciousness during the Kennedy administration and the continued expansion of the Cold War. These feelings of confusion were fueled in large part by social action in the U.S., including peace rallies, the Hippie movement, and resistance music of the 60s and 70s. Prominent examples of this growing pressure are the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, a gathering of music and people that supported peace and opposed war, and the violent anti-war protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
Even at its time, the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War brought on strong debates for and against, from within the War community and from without. O'Brien inserts himself and his characters into this discussion, using pressing images such as a young Vietnamese girl dancing in the midst of rubble and corpses, as well as the character of Henry Dobbins who, although an effective soldier, harbors thoughts of joining the clergy. O'Brien gives his readers the opportunity to take sides on many of these debates, but always reminds readers that their thoughts are products more of themselves than any intrinsic meaning in the stories of war.
O'Brien demonstrates this — the reminder that what we think is a product of our own perceptions and recollections — through his innovative form. He sets out deliberately to manipulate the audience as they read his work, an act intended to provoke his audience into forming an opinion not about the Vietnam War, but about storytelling (or more precisely, story hearing). For example, O'Brien sets his reader up for a confirmation as he sketches out "Speaking of Courage," a seemingly traditional narrative about a soldier's difficulty readjusting to civilian life. O'Brien uses a narrative style called free indirect discourse, where the narrator supplies necessary information about Norman Bowker, and readers have no reason to doubt this information.
But, in the next chapter, "Notes," O'Brien invites his readers into his writing studio, so to speak, by describing how the story of Norman Bowker came to be written. In doing so, "O'Brien" explains that some of the information he provided in "Speaking of Courage" was true and some was invented. By pointing out this inconsistency of factual truth, "O'Brien"/O'Brien challenges readers to make judgments about how much they value storytelling and why they value it. For example, do readers need a story to be actual and factual to believe it? Is a story that is fantastical (such as "The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong") valuable? Should it be believed? O'Brien's choice of form raises a fact or fiction debate and also answers it: Any distinction between fact and fiction is a moot point.
For O'Brien, the "factuality" or "fictionality" of a story is, by far, secondary to the effect of the story on the reader. If the work evokes an emotional response, then it is a truth. For "O'Brien"/O'Brien, the primacy of emotion is a metaphorical comment on war: "In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it's safe to say that in a true war story, nothing is ever absolutely true." O'Brien's form, an amalgamation of the choices to share his protagonist's name, to write a series of related vignettes, and the deliberate blurring of the boundary between fact and fiction, is meant to create a loss of the "sense of the definite" in the reader. Literary critic Toby Herzog suggests that "the ambiguity and complexity of the book's form and content also mirror for readers the experience of war."
While part of O'Brien's objective is to create an aesthetic that simulates the chaos and uncertainty that characterized soldiers' experiences, within the genre of
War literature, specifically Vietnam War-related Literature, O'Brien's novel does the opposite. The Things They Carried, with its stylistic ambiguity, is also a tool for understanding the Vietnam War. Literature has often been used as a path to understanding history, and O'Brien follows the tradition of literary precursors such as Wilfred Owen, Ernest Hemingway, and Graham Greene.
O'Brien's novel originates at an important post-war moment, one which differed greatly from the post-World War I era in which Hemingway wrote. The main differences and obstacles for Vietnam veterans were the divisiveness of the war and the tide of public opinion opposing the war. Vietnam veterans' return from the war — unlike the return of soldiers from World War I and World War II — was not celebrated or lauded. As the Nixon administration transitioned to the Ford administration, the general public wanted to forget about the longest foreign military involvement by the U.S. and the failure of this engagement to bring about its intended agenda. In short, the United States had not clearly won or lost, and the esteem of veterans suffered. Throughout the late 70s and early 80s, veterans struggled to receive recognition and to bring attention to the problems of post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt from which many veterans suffered. Vietnam veterans such as Tim O'Brien, John Delvecchio, and Al Santoli helped to spark and maintain interest in a public discourse on the war.
The ambiguity of The Things They Carried reflects the lack of resolution of the war and illuminates the necessity to use fact, fiction, or fictionalized fact to tell the stories of Vietnam.