Analysis of the Themes in The Things They Carried

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson identifies and analyzes some of the important themes in Tim O'Brien's 1990 book, The Things They Carried, which recounts the author's experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War.

Overview of the Book

The Things They Carried relates the author's experiences as a soldier drafted into the Vietnam War. In this narrative, Tim O'Brien reflects on the brutality of warfare, the pressure to prove oneself to others, and the possibility of narrative form to recreate the past. The book was published in 1990, approximately twenty years after he left his Minnesota hometown to fight in the war.

Acting out of Shame

O'Brien explores how individuals often act out of fear or shame, rather than doing what they think is morally just. For instance, he explains how, as a teenager, he deeply opposed the Vietnam War. When he was drafted, he decided to flee to Canada. He got on a boat and began to cross the river to Canada, but he was suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of shame. He did not want to embarrass his parents, who would certainly be scrutinized for their son's evasion of his duties. So, he turned the boat around and rowed home. O'Brien also depicts the lengths to which soldiers are willing to go to avoid shame. His comrades kill animals and other human beings to escape shame.

The Creativity of Memory

O'Brien's narrative depicts how memory is creative. The author writes, 'What seemed to happen becomes its own happening, in a certain way.' Here, he conveys a postmodern notion of truth, which emphasizes that reality is a product of subjective experience. Postmodernism stresses that truth is defined by ruptures and breaks, rather than by cohesive themes. O'Brien repeatedly observes that memory calls the past into being, rather than simply reflecting on it.

The Internal Logic of Narrative

O'Brien's memoir suggests that narrative creates truth, rather than reporting it. Narrative has its own internal logic. One of his fellow soldiers, Sanders, instructs him about the importance of trusting one's own story. Sanders tells him, 'Get the hell out of the way and let the story tell itself.' By this, he means that the individual's responsibility is to facilitate the story, rather than to authorize the version he would like to be true. For O'Brien, narrative is also ongoing. He claims that true war stories never end. They have no conclusion, at which point one can deduce a moral or lesson. The horror of war is ongoing, and the story, too, must go on in order to bear witness to the trauma. O'Brien keeps telling his stories of war, so that he does not forget them.

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