The Things They Carried By Tim O'Brien Summary and Analysis Notes

Summary

O'Brien discusses the preceding chapter, "Speaking of Courage," and tells the supposedly "true story" behind the fictional story. Bowker, who hanged himself three years after the story was written, suggested to O'Brien that he write the story. In spring 1975, O'Brien received a letter from Bowker describing his struggle to find a meaningful use of his life. Bowker had dropped out of community college and instead spent his mornings in bed, his afternoons playing pickup games of basketball, and his nights driving around aimlessly. O'Brien excerpts long passages of Bowker's letter, which suggested that O'Brien should write a story about a veteran who feels like he died in Vietnam and cannot adjust to daily life.

O'Brien comments on the letter and himself and how it seemed to him that he had a remarkably easy time adjusting to life after the war. He realizes that he has in fact been talking about the war through his writing, and comments that the act of telling stories allows people to objectify their experiences and maybe cope with them a bit more easily.

O'Brien then explains how he tried to work the material of Norman Bowker's story into a different novel, which forced him to omit some elements of the "true" story. This version was published as a short story, which Norman read and felt was terrible.

A few years later, O'Brien received a note from Norman's mother explaining that her son committed suicide. O'Brien clarifies that Norman was not responsible for Kiowa's death, and that the Silver Star portion of the story is made up.

Analysis

"Notes" is the key vignette for unlocking the medium-is-the-message form of O'Brien's novel. Just as the title indicates, in this chapter "O'Brien" offers commentary, or notes, on how the preceding chapter, and more generally, the novel, was conceived and shaped into its final form. Again O'Brien returns to the novel's overarching theme of the relation between fact and fiction and the "truthfulness" inherent in stories that are not necessarily "actual" or "factual."

Though readers can easily mistake the protagonist "Tim O'Brien" for the actual novelist, readers must keep this divide in mind to fully understand this chapter, or the novel as a whole. The most important aspect of the chapter is the description of the process through which the fictional "O'Brien," a middle-aged writer, turns the stuff of memory into stories. In so doing, O'Brien collapses boundaries between the two genres that The Things They Carried occupies: the ("fictional") war autobiography of "Tim O'Brien" and the ("fictional") writer's memoir of "Tim O'Brien."

By walking the reader through the genesis of "Speaking of Courage," O'Brien more thoroughly comments on the running thread of the theme of storytelling. The protagonist "O'Brien" compares himself to Norman Bowker, commenting that he, too, rarely spoke of the war, but that he "had been talking about it virtually non-stop through [his] writing." His writing was a way to issue meaning to the random events that had occurred to him, an ability that Norman Bowker badly needed but did not possess. Bowker looked to "O'Brien" to articulate the feeling of loss that Kiowa's death brought him. "O'Brien's" multiple versions of the story of Kiowa's death stand in contrast to Bowker's; Bowker's is an extremely subjective account, one which claims vast culpability and has the dire result of suicide, the ultimate subjective act. On the other hand, O'Brien outlines the usefulness of storytelling because it allows "you to objectify your own experience." This storytelling ability is exactly what Norman Bowker is incapable of, and also what affords "O'Brien" the vantage, first, to tell the story Norman cannot and, second, to use that story to better understand himself. O'Brien achieves this by describing the landscape "O'Brien" placed in the "Speaking of Courage" vignette: "O'Brien" transplants the details of his native Minnesota to Norman Bowker's Iowa.

As "O'Brien" attempted to wedge the story into Going After Cacciato, incidentally a novel by Tim O'Brien, he realized that its artifice made the story a failure, particularly when paired with his fear to "speak directly" by confronting his memories of the night in the shit field. Norman, with his highly sensitive personalized stake in the story, immediately recognized the story's failure: The night in the shit field had not been truly "objectified" so that it could be understood; rather, O'Brien had avoided the important details of the event because he feared them.

As with most of O'Brien's stories, this one, too, is symbolic on a meta-textual level. Finally, "O'Brien" tells the reader that his objective in "Speaking of Courage" is to make good on Norman's silence, which — despite the sometimes unreliable narrator — it does. The reader can also make this connection for "O'Brien," that he makes good on his silence, and can extend the trope of the usefulness of storytelling to "Speaking of Courage" itself. The story, which does make good on Norman Bowker's silence, does doubly so, because the exercise of writing saves "Tim O'Brien" from a similar fate.

Glossary

Saigon's final collapse April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army, effectively the end of the Vietnam War.

If I Die in a Combat Zone Novel by O'Brien in which he recounts what it was like to be a foot soldier during the Vietnam War: from his induction in Minnesota, to the horrors of boot camp, to the daily terrors of the Vietnam jungles.

flashback A vivid, spontaneous recollection of a past experience.

Going After Cacciato Novel by O'Brien in which a private deserts his post in Vietnam, intent on walking 8,000 miles to Paris for the peace talks. The remaining members of his squad are sent after him.

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