Critical Essays Narrative Structure in The Things They Carried


The Things They Carried is not easily characterized as a novel or autobiography or short story collection. The book is comprised of 22 short pieces that are referential to one another. Though individual pieces can stand alone, and some were published singly or anthologized, the distinct pieces are meant to comprise a whole meditative novel.

One narrative technique that O'Brien uses is repetition. O'Brien frequently retells certain incidents, often adding incremental detail with each telling. One example of this is the scene of Kiowa's death, which, retold five times, is the core of most of the novel's action and the catalyst for most characters' development. Students often overlook the importance of this repetition by mistaking it as redundancy. Instead, the repetition is a stylistic technique O'Brien employs to illuminate the truth of a story by adding and subtracting telling detail. The effect of this for an astute reader is a feeling that simulates "O'Brien's" intense obsession with the stories he tells and retells because they run through his memory almost constantly.

O'Brien's novel is untraditional in a second narrative sense as well, due in part to the non-linear presentation of the novel's action. O'Brien does not maintain temporal continuity; he jumps from the past to the present and then to the distant past and then back to the present. In a way, this constant memory shifting leads the reader down a path of memory similar to O'Brien's. In other words, O'Brien forces an experience of recollections leading to other memories and new insights on his reader, creating an emotional response to the novel in the reader. This path of memory — which is congruent to O'Brien's own — more actively involves the reader in a constant dialogic interplay with the novel. For readers, as for O'Brien, certain events and details recall the details and events of other stories. By using a narrative technique that constantly generates new contexts in which to revisit stories, such as that when O'Brien recalls Linda when contemplating a dead body he sees in Vietnam, he creates new meanings through shifting juxtapositions.