The Things They Carried: Summary, Characters & Themes

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  • 0:52 Characters
  • 3:47 Plot Summary
  • 4:31 Things That Are Carried
  • 5:38 Themes - War
  • 6:40 Themes - Storytelling
  • 7:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

The Vietnam War was a long, controversial military conflict. In this lesson, you'll get a summary of Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War novel, including a breakdown of the main characters and major ideas.

The War in Vietnam

The last decade or so has seen America fight in a series of unpopular wars. Perhaps we find the reality of these conflicts uncomfortable, and so we romanticize the wars of old, particularly World War II, a conflict that we see as a clear battle between right and wrong. If we call the men and women who served their country during this war the 'Greatest Generation,' what does that say about the soldiers who fought and died during one of America's least popular wars?

Tim O'Brien, in his novel The Things They Carried, tells the story of the men of Alpha Company, a squad of soldiers in the Vietnam War. O'Brien cuts through the veil of romanticized war to show these men as heroic, flawed, loyal, afraid, and above all - human.


Here's a breakdown of each of the main characters in the book.

Tim O'Brien is the name of both the author, a Vietnam veteran himself, and a character in the novel, although he clearly states in the opening pages that the book is a work of fiction. He's a largely invisible character in the novel, only really appearing in a few of the stories. By the way, the book is written as a series of short stories that could stand alone and add up to some heavy-duty ideas about war in the end, but more on that later. And just when you're sure that Tim O'Brien the character is Tim O'Brien the author, he mentions some details from his life that are absolutely not true about the book's author. So he's blurring the lines between truth and fiction. More on that in the section on themes!

Rat Kiley is like that uncle who tells the same story every year during the holidays, only the fish get bigger each time. He's the squad's medic, and he saves O'Brien's bacon when Tim gets shot. He's a light-hearted guy, a jokester, and that makes it more troubling when Rat finally snaps. In a crucial chapter in the book, Rat slowly kills a baby water buffalo to relieve the tension from losing his good friend Curt Lemon.

Jimmy Cross is the officer - a young, educated man who is in way over his head. He either spends his time daydreaming about a girl back home or racked with guilt because he believes that his poor decisions have led to the death of some of his men.

Kiowa, a Native American soldier on the team, is O'Brien's best friend, and he's probably the nicest man in Alpha Company. Unlike many of the others, he hasn't let his experiences turn him against the Vietnamese. He calms the other men down and helps them come to terms with their feelings. Ironically, Kiowa drowns in sewage.

Azar is not a likable guy. He plays cruel pranks, cracks cruel jokes, and if that's not enough to make you not like him, he blows up a puppy with a mine.

Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon both die before they're fully developed, but their deaths serve to better characterize the more important players. Jimmy Cross is off in a fog, thinking about the girl from home, when Lavender is shot, and Cross spends the rest of the novel dealing with that guilt. Lemon is Rat Kiley's buddy, and Rat takes his death especially hard.

There's one other minor character who is particularly notable. Mary Anne Bell comes to Vietnam to see her boyfriend who serves in Alpha Company. She's not a naive teenybopper, though; she's an independent and inquisitive woman. She tries to learn the Vietnamese language and culture, and she eventually falls in with a group of Green Berets, the Special Forces tasked with waging unconventional warfare. Alpha Company finds her in a cave, wearing a necklace made of human tongues.

Plot Summary

A book like The Things They Carried is difficult to summarize because each chapter works as a stand-alone story. The men of Alpha Company march, fight, camp, joke, dream, and die. The book tells the story of what the men, particularly Tim O'Brien, did before and after the war so that the reader gets a picture of what makes these soldiers tick and how their experiences in Vietnam affected them later. The reader gets to see them at their best - loyal, heroic, selfless - and at their worst - cruel, petty, and terrified. In The Things They Carried, it's not so much the plot that ties the book together as it is the major ideas of the book, so let's take a closer look at these important ideas.

Things That Are Carried

The title of the book ties in with one of the big concepts O'Brien explores. The soldiers in the book have a lot to carry. Physically, they're lugging rifles, ammunition, food, water, survival gear, and personal gear - comics, candy, letters from home. Emotionally and mentally, they carry much more - the baggage of memories, dreams, demons from the past, hopes for the future.

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