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Important Quotes in The Things They Carried

Instructor: Audrey Farley

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

This lesson identifies four important quotations in Tim O'Brien's 1990 novel, 'The Things They Carried'. The lesson explains how these quotations underscore various postmodern themes, such as the unreliability of memory and the ethical burden of narrative.

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.''

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Practice:
Important Quotes in The Things They Carried Quiz

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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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