The Things They Carried: Short Story Analysis

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

Tim O'Brien's ''The Things They Carried'' is a collection of short stories. Some of the characters appear in several different stories, and the stories often change slightly with each retelling. O'Brien's goal is for the reader to experience the war stories in a way that reflects the experiences of the young soldiers in Vietnam.


Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is a collection of loosely related short stories. The stories are semi-autobiographical, with the writer appearing as both a character and as the narrator of these stories about a platoon of soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. The book's narrative structure allows readers to experience some of the emotions experienced by O'Brien's characters.

Character Development

In this collection of short stories,O'Brien avoids the use of chronological order. Many of the characters appear in more than one of the stories, though all the stories are very loosely woven together. Since the plot does not employ chronological order, readers sometimes learn of a character's death before the character has been fully developed.

In the case of Curt Lemon, the character's death is presented before the character is even introduced to the reader. 'Curt Lemon hanging in pieces from a tree,' the writer says on the first mention of this character. Only later, after the death of the character, does the reader learn more about Curt Lemon. His dental phobia and his trick-or-treat adventure, both revealed in later stories, provide further character development.

Typically, a writer would develop the character before he or she dies so that readers have an emotional investment in the character. However, readers may not care about Curt Lemon's death because they know nothing about him.

When Curt Lemon's remains are splattered into a tree, Dave Jensen sings 'Lemon Tree' as he and O'Brien remove body parts from the tree. The soldiers in The Things They Carried often use this kind of gallows humor to distance themselves from the deaths of their friends. Readers also experience a similar distancing effect as a result of O'Brien's unusual technique in presenting Curt Lemon's death before readers are allowed to know or care about the him.

The Dead Live

Tim O'Brien views storytelling as a way to bestow immortality on his characters. O'Brien tells the story of Linda, who was his girlfriend when he was nine years old. After Linda dies, he discovers that he can bring her back to life for himself in his dreams. He begins to look forward to these dreams and fantasies in which Linda lives again, as opposed to the terrible reality in which she is dead.

O'Brien reports the same phenomenon occurs when Rat Kiley tells stories about Curt Lemon. 'To listen to the story, especially as Rat Kiley told it, you'd never know that Curt Lemon was dead. He was still out there in the dark, naked and painted up, trick-or-treating, sliding from hootch to hootch in that crazy white ghost mask. But he was dead.'


The Things They Carried is a work of metafiction; that is, it is a work in which the writer consciously alludes to the work of literature itself. By including himself in the work, O'Brien blurs the line between fiction and reality. In addition, O'Brien discusses the choices he makes in writing the book. For example, he allows readers to peek behind the curtain as he explains how he has wrestled with Kiowa's story. O'Brien retells the story of Kiowa's death several times in The Things They Carried, varying the details with each retelling in an attempt to get at the truth as he currently understands it.

O'Brien speaks directly to the reader when he explains his goal: 'I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.'

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