Irony in The Things They Carried

Instructor: Audrey Farley

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

This lesson defines irony in literature and discusses the various uses of this literary device in Tim O'Brien's 1990 novel, 'The Things They Carried.' O'Brien primarily uses postmodern irony to obscure the relation between fiction and story.

Irony in Literature

Irony has many uses in literature. It can refer to the distinction between what a character knows and what the audience knows (dramatic irony) or to an incongruity between an intention and an effect (situational irony) - for instance, when Sophocles' Oedipus accidentally murders his own father in Oedipus the King. Tim O'Brien uses the kind of irony associated with the postmodern style in his novel, The Things They Carried.

Postmodern Irony in The Things They Carried

Postmodern irony refers to a cynical and pessimistic stance, which literary critics credit for the sensibility's subversive potential. The ironist or cynic is critical of establishment values, and is always questioning authority. In postmodern literature, irony is often used in metafiction, which calls attention to the constructed-ness or fabrication of the story. O'Brien's The Things They Carried can be described as metafiction since the narrator admits that the story is not true.

In this novel, O'Brien uses irony to establish critical distance between himself and the story. For instance, he writes, 'Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.' In another passage, he writes, 'In a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.' By confessing that the story is fabricated, the author protects himself from charges of untruth.

Further, by distancing himself from the work that he's writing, the author also shields himself from criticism that he's trite or sentimental. This kind of irony is also enhanced by the genre itself - the novel is semi-autobiographical, meaning that it's based off of the author's own life, but the author is not fully claiming the truth of the events described. O'Brien distances himself from the story by using the genre of fiction, rather than non-fiction.

O'Brien also uses multiplicity, which is another form of irony that literary critics recognize. This kind of irony creates a distance between the audience and the text by putting the events of the narrative into scare quotes (questioning their veracity). For instance, O'Brien changes the details in different versions of his war stories. This causes the reader to be suspicious. The reader adopts an ironic stance, questioning the truth of the story.

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