Literary Criticism of The Things They Carried

Instructor: Audrey Farley

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

This lesson outlines the critical reception of Tim O'Brien's 1990 novel, ''The Things They Carried''. The novel is about the author's experiences in combat in Vietnam.

The Things They Carried

Tim O'Brien's 1990 novel, The Things They Carried is a postmodern novel which blurs the boundary between truth and fiction. The narrative is fragmented, consisting of a collection of vignettes, rather than a linear storyline. O'Brien's style and technique reinforce the theme of subjective truth, suggesting that reality is a matter of perspective.

Postmodern Metafiction

Metafiction refers to fictional texts that purposely draw attention to their own story to obscure the distinction between fiction and reality. Metafiction is popularly used in postmodern fiction, which is the style that emerged after World War II. O'Brien's novel can certainly be described as a work of metafiction since the author playfully confesses to making up the stories in the book. The narrator distinguishes between two kinds of truths: 'story-truth' and 'happening-truth'--or what happened in the narrative and what happened in real life. By blurring the distinction between these two, O'Brien expresses a postmodern notion of truth, which suggests that reality is a product of fragmented and distorted memories. Like other postmodern novels, O'Brien prioritizes narrative over any objective, external reality.

The novel also blurs the boundary between fiction and non-fiction by virtue of its genre. A novel typically refers to a fictional narrative, yet the narrator and the author share the same name and professions. It is not clear what O'Brien is making up or what actually happened. Some critics have classified the book as a memoir since it is somewhat autobiographical.

Fragmentary Form

The Things They Carried is also typical of postmodern fiction in its fragmentary form. The narrative is a collection of vignettes, rather than a chronological plotline. The narrative moves between the past and the present, and the narrator, while maintaining first-person voice, closely aligns with certain characters at times. The fragments are disconnected; it is the reader's job to sort through them and make sense of the parts.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account