Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.
Language and Narrative Style
What is the value of stories? Do they merely entertain or do they help us to honor the past? Tim O'Brien explores these questions in his Vietnam war novel, The Things They Carried. O'Brien uses first-person point of view, which suggests that truth is subjective and personal, rather than objective and absolute. He also uses a fragmented form--rather than relate his war stories in chronological order, the narrator gives snapshots and flashbacks. This fragmentary form emphasizes the unreliability of memory. Both of these postmodern themes--the subjectivity of truth and the unreliability of memory--are also conveyed through important quotations.
Quotation and Explanation #1
''To carry something was to hump it, as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps. In its intransitive form, to hump meant to walk, or to march, but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive.''
This quotation is significant because it implies the enormous weight and burden of the Vietnam War on the soldiers' psyches. The soldiers are responsible for carrying their personal objects around with them, but they also carry huge emotional baggage as well. The soldiers carry their fear, terror, love, confusion, and grief everywhere they go. Further, they have been deformed by the burdens they carry. The emotions are overwhelming, and some of the men kill others to relieve the pressure. The narrator notes that, for all the mysteries of Vietnam, one thing would always be certain: 'they would never be at a loss for things to carry.'
Quotation and Explanation #2
''A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.''
This quotation underscores a postmodern theme, which is the myth of absolute truth. Postmodern philosophy embraces a sense of skepticism, always questioning universal claims about reality. In this passage, O'Brien suggests that morals and virtues--particularly those of a war story--are never to be trusted. Like the postmodern subject, the narrator is jaded and cynical. In another passage, the narrator remarks, 'Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.' Again, he reiterates the postmodern notion that there is no absolute truth; reality is a product of the narratives that each individual constructs.
Quotation and Explanation #3
''The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can't help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the harmonies of sound and shape and proportion, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorus, the purply orange glow of napalm, the rocket's red glare. It's not pretty, exactly. It's astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not.''
How can war be both grotesque and beautiful? With this contradiction, the text articulates another postmodern notion--that truth is paradoxical. War has taught the narrator never to trust the surface of things. War is grotesque, but it is also beautiful to the patient observer. There is 'symmetry' and 'harmony' in war, which soothe the spirit. This passage further suggests that violence satisfies some primal instinct, which explains why the narrator's comrades are compelled to inflict violence on others. O'Brien does not try to distinguish between the brutalities and the beauties of war, because he recognizes that they are intertwined. The reality of this fact--what war is comforting--is something he and the other soldiers are reluctant to accept.
Quotation and Explanation #4
''What you have to do...is trust your own story. Get the hell out of the way and let it tell itself.''
This quotation is significant because it underscores the ethics of narrative. The individual has a responsibility to honor the truth of the past, and this means reliving the trauma of the war each time he tells the tale. The narrator, like many of the other veterans, is tempted to forget the horrors that he witnessed in Vietnam. But he has a duty to continue the story. The story controls him, and not vice versa. The story has its own truth, which changes over time.
In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien's 1990 novel about the Vietnam War, O'Brien uses first-person point of view and a fragmented, or flashback, narrative style. While the narrator in The Things They Carried is cynical and often contradicts himself, his words serve to underscore important postmodern themes, such as the unreliability of memory and the impossibility of finding any single truth. We also learn about the emotional baggage and burdens that the soldiers carry with them.
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Important Quotes in The Things They Carried Quiz
Instructions: Choose an answer and click 'Next'. You will receive your score and answers at the end.
The narrator in Tim O'Brien's How to Tell a True War Story analogizes the personal objects that the soldiers carry to _____.
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