Ian Matthews has taught composition, creative writing, and research at the college level for more than 5 years; he's also been an Instructional Designer for more than 3 years. He holds a Master's of Education in Learning and Technology from Western Governor's University and a Master of Arts in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University.
Setting: Vietnam Jungles
During the Vietnam war, American Tim O'Brien fought in the jungles of Vietnam against the Viet Cong forces, a guerrilla fighting unit from South Vietnam that was on the side of the North Vietnamese. The Viet Cong were much more familiar with the jungles than the American troops were, so they were able to sneak around and arrange ambushes and traps much more effectively than the Americans.
Since he had real-life experience with that area of the war, O'Brien set a fair amount of the stories in The Things They Carried in that jungle. There are booby-traps everywhere, and the jungle itself seems to be hostile to the presence of the Americans.
This leads to an intense feeling of paranoia among the troops that O'Brien describes in the stories set in these jungles. The troops are constantly aware that death is near - they're constantly witnessing their friends getting killed and constantly fighting or killing enemies.
The tension, for those troops that live through it, often proves too much. Some soldiers run away, others go crazy, one man even shoots himself in the foot to escape. The creepy nature of the jungle, and by extension the war itself, is a stark contrast to life for these troops once they all go home to their own small towns.
Setting: Back Home in America
O'Brien uses the stories set in America, both before and after the war, to contrast with the instability in Vietnam. Before they leave, the guys in O'Brien's unit are all used to the American way of doing things, American reliability and stability. They come back from the war totally changed, though.
After the war, all of these troops are used to a constant state of fear, paranoia, and unpredictability. They've existed for so long in limbo that they don't know what to do with a stable situation, and the people around the troops in America don't know what to do with them.
All of this adds up to a tragic situation for the troops that come back home. They're full of memories of the friends they lost, but nobody that stayed home in America can ever really understand. All of those memories, fears, and anger have to stay trapped inside.
Like the Vietnam War occupies an unstable spot in history and geography, The Things They Carried occupies an unstable spot in literary genres. It's not quite nonfiction, but it's not quite fiction, either. The individual parts of the book ride the line between essays and short stories.
The Things They Carried could be accurately described as semiautobiographical, which means it's based on a true story, with varying degrees of truth remaining. But unlike most uses of that term, O'Brien isn't just taking creative licenses with the facts of a situation. He's using details from his own life - that's the autobiographical part - to make a larger point with characters who might not have been there when it really happened - that's the semiautobiographical part.
O'Brien uses that murky relationship with facts to make other commentaries as well. Much of The Things They Carried falls into the genre of metafiction, or fiction that comments on itself or on the nature of fiction in general. This is a similar idea to 'breaking the fourth wall' in movies, TV, or theater. When we finally find out that most of what we've read so far isn't actually true, O'Brien can make an important statement: we often learn true things from things that aren't factual.
O'Brien is able to pull off this switcheroo through a writing technique called verisimilitude - basically, the appearance of something being real. Since he was there, O'Brien knows what went down in those jungles, and he knows what it was like to come back. The super-real feel of his writing makes the reveal that most of it is made up much more shocking, making his metafictional points much more convincing.
The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien's genre-bending Vietnam War book, balances two settings: the Vietnam jungles of the war and the hometowns of the troops that fight in those jungles. In the jungle, O'Brien uses the setting to enhance and explain the troops' paranoia and fear. Back home, O'Brien can explore how being away at war forever changes a person. It exists between the lines of fiction and nonfiction, with a realism-heavy writing style that often comments on the nature of fiction itself.
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