The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien

General Notes on the Novel


First and foremost: This is a novel. This is fiction.

I know the narrator's name is Tim O'Brien. But the author, Tim O'Brien, created a character called Tim O'Brien.

I know that the book is dedicated to the people who are named as characters in the novel. But the author does this to give a sense of reality to the story.

Remember The Blair Witch Project? Everything about that film was there to make the viewer think that the deaths in the woods really happened. There was an introduction that indicated that the film students were never found, but their video tape was. Everything was there to set you up to create the atmosphere of reality. But it wasn't real, was it? Tim O'Brien does the same thing in this novel and he does it effectively. He includes many realistic details. This is called verisimilitude.

Remember that the novel is an art form. The purpose of art is to give you a view of reality. The creators of art want you to understand reality a little better than you did before. To do this, one artist may give you a realistic view to help you see her point or another artist may give you fantasy. Either one is just an impression of reality. Real life is real life. Everything else, a picture,-- a poem, a song, or even a newspaper article, or even a news video,-- is just an interpretation of reality. The picture an artist paints is just a picture the way the artist sees it. A poem uses only the words the artist wants to use. Even a news video shows you only what the reporter wants you to see. It is not the same as real life.

Tim O'Brien, the author, wants to play with your head. He wants you to believe that what he says about the characters is true. If you believe that what he says about the characters is true, you will also tend to believe that his view points are true. If that happens, he has you! He has written a story that makes you think the thoughts he wants you to think and he may just change your mind about some things you once thought were true. The artist wants to change your mind. He wants you to see the world the way he sees the world. This is his intent. But, he is not being diabolical about this. He is merely doing what all artists, writers, singers, actors, dancers, painters, musicians, advertisers, teachers, students, friends, parents do every day.

Didn't you know? People have been working to take control of your mind and thoughts since you were born. It's about time you started to make darn sure you were aware of it.  It is OK to change your mind. It is OK to let someone convince you that you should change your mind. But you should be aware it is happening. That is your responsibility.


"The Things They Carried"


Glossary of Military Terms Used in the Story:

AO: Area of Operation

PFC.: Private First Class

RTO: Radio and Telephone Operator

PRC-25: Pronounced "prick 25"

M & Ms: I am told that M & Ms were just that: candy given as a placebo for serious wounds where there was no hope. 

Psy Ops: Psychological Warfare (Ops = operations)

R&R: Rest and Relaxation

SOP: Standard Operating Procedure

US KIA: United States Killed in Action

USO: United Service Organization (Volunteer Entertainment and Morale)

VC: Vietcong


Savior Motif in "The Things They Carried"

Hints in the Story:

Jimmy Cross: Initials are J. C.

Jimmy Cross: Last Name is Cross

Martha: Jesus had a friend named Martha

Lee Strunk: Jimmy Cross is there when Lee Strunk rises from the dead. Okay, Strunk did not literally rise from the dead, but that is the way the narrator describes it and that is even the way that the other characters (created by the author) tell it. "A few moments later Lee Strunk crawled out of the tunnel. He came up grinning, filthy but alive. Lieutenant Cross nodded and closed his eyes while the others clapped Strunk on the back and made jokes about rising from the dead." (O'Brien 13)

Jimmy Cross suffers the grief for the platoon: "One thing for sure, he said. The lieutenant's in some deep hurt. I mean that crying jag -- the way he was carrying on -- it wasn't fake or anything, it was real heavy-duty hurt. (O'Brien 17)

And again: "Lying there, Kiowa admired Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's capacity for grief. He wanted to share the man's pain, he wanted to care as Jimmy Cross cared. And yet when he closed his eyes, all he could think was Boom-down, and all he could feel was the pleasure of having his boots off and the fog curling in around him and the damp soil and the Bible smells and the plush comfort of night."

Jimmy feels what the platoon cannot feel. Because he feels this pain, he sacrifices the memory of Martha and burns the letters and pictures.


What is the purpose of a savior motif?

There is something special about human beings. Human beings have the capacity to sacrifice themselves for others. Not all do it and many do just the opposite: some people make others suffer so that they can have better lives. But there is the ability of some people to make the lives of others more bearable, more worthwhile, more livable, even if those some people have to suffer and die for the others. Where does this desire to self-sacrifice come from? It can't be instinctual. It runs contrary to the survival instinct. Yet it happens all the time. Look at examples of real life from our text book. Roger Rosenblatt writes about the unnamed man who kept giving a lifeline to others though he must have felt that he was in trouble and needed the lifeline himself in "The Man in the Water" on page 471 in the Elements of Literature  textbook. In "R. M. S. Titanic," Hanson W. Baldwin describes the many instances of people who steadfastly stayed on the doomed ocean liner because "women and children" came first. There was the band which played continually though they must have known they were minutes from their own deaths. There was the captain, passengers, crew who were gallant at the time of their deaths so that others would not die in fear. What is it about humans that makes this possible?

Because this theme is such an important one, authors have been exploring it for millennia. The Greeks told the story of Prometheus who suffered ignominy and torture in order to bring the fire of enlightenment to humanity. Christianity had the story of Jesus Christ who died for the sins of humanity. Other cultures have their stories of self-sacrifice, each trying to explore the theme of what it is that a person would die for. The aim of these stories is really to discover what it is that a person has to live for and the  answer to what it is that we will live for is not discovered until we discover what it is that we would die for. To explore the savior motif in its many incarnations is to explore our own purpose in life. To that end, the understanding of this particular motif is most valuable.

Dynamic Character: Please notice that Jimmy Cross is a dynamic character in this story. By the end of the story, he has determined that he will forsake his feelings about Martha and will concentrate his attention on the company in his charge. He will shift his focus. He burns Martha's pictures and letters and he will dispose of the pebble. All these things he will do because he is a changed man.


In "Love" Tim O'Brien, the author, begins to play with you, the reader. After the war Jimmy Cross and Tim O'Brien, the narrator meet. The narrator is a writer which makes you think that he is the author, doesn't it? The narrator says, "I told him that I'd like to write a story about some of this." Now, you are reading a story that is about some of this, aren't you? Doesn't that seem as if it  must have been a real conversation between two real people? That is the author's trick. It must be real because you are reading about it. Now here is the purpose of the author's trick: If this conversation really happened between Jimmy Cross and Tim O'Brien, what is Cross referring to when he says, "Do me a favor. Don't mention anything about --"? Is Cross referring to something that is in the story and O'Brien betrayed him or is he referring to something that is not in the story and O'Brien was loyal to his war buddy? The point is, if you are at all curious, O'Brien, the author, has got you. He has manipulated you into thinking about and caring about two fictional characters.

Could this all be based on real events and real people? The answer is, Yes. But "Based on" and "True" are two different things.

Does this "author's trick" mean that O'Brien is a bad writer? The answer is, No. I use the word "trick" facetiously. I should properly use the word "technique." I use the word "trick" because I want you to understand that what O'Brien is doing with his technique is fool you into thinking that the fictional story you are reading is not fiction at all. O'Brien is supposed to manipulate you. He is an artist who is attempting to bring you to a new point of view. He is attempting to make you see reality in a whole new way. It is his obligation to try and change the way you think. It is your obligation to recognize what he is doing. In fact, recognizing what O'Brien is doing is part of what he has to teach you. Later in the novel he will try to explain the concept of Truth and what we must do in order to understand the truth in a fictional story.

Another tool you have been taught about evaluating novels and stories is to examine the title of the work. With this in mind, why is the story called "Love"? Love between whom? What kind of love are we talking about? Is it Jimmy and Martha? Jimmy and the men in the platoon? Jimmy and Tim? Annmarie B., Class of '04 suggested that it might be the love between Tim and his writing. This would add to the tension of the last sentences. Does Tim betray Jimmy because telling the truth in his writing is more important than his fidelity and loyalty to Jimmy? Of course, this only works if you suspend your disbelief and think of  both characters as real as would do anyway with a truly good work of fiction.

Static Character: At this point in the story is Jimmy Cross still the dynamic character he was in the first story? Dennis W., Class of  '04, believes that he is not. Dennis believes that since he still loves Martha in this story, because he got a new picture of her and because we don't really know about a change in Lt. Cross's leadership after the day Ted Lavender was shot, we should be looking at Jimmy Cross as a static character.



"Spin" is made up of a group of interesting vignettes that reveal the characters and the setting to the reader. Through these vignettes we begin to see the inhumanity of Azar, that Kiowa has a philosophical side and Rat Kiley is a bit dense. Ted Lavender's character is fleshed out a tiny bit more. The war itself is described. So is the fear that the soldiers feel while being in action. These are vignettes, but grouped together, early in the novel, they help to set the stage for the stories that come later.

Norman Bowker plays checkers. The narrator likes the game of checkers and describes what it is he likes. Through his description of what the game of checkers is, we discover what life in Vietnam is because we understand that Vietnam was everything that checkers is not.

The boredom of the war is described in a way that makes the reader understand the constant fear that a soldier experienced. The irony of O'Brien's use of the word boredom is devastating.

In some of the vignettes, the war is described as unexpected contrasts. "You're pinned down in some filthy hellhole of a paddy, getting your ass delivered to kingdom come, but then for a few seconds everything goes quiet and you look up and see the sun and a few puffy white clouds, and the immense serenity flashes against your eyeballs -- the whole world gets rearranged -- and even though you're pinned down by a war you never felt more at peace." (O'Brien 39) The best film I have seen that reflects this idea is The Thin Red Line. I would hazard a guess that the filmmakers were aware of Norman Mailer, James Jones and Tim O'Brien when they made the movie.

One of the most telling lines in this chapter is a single sentence that describes a metaphor for the war in Vietnam: "A field of elephant grass weighted with wind, bowing under the stir of a helicopter's blades, the grass dark and servile, bending low, but then rising straight again when the chopper went away." (O'Brien 40) This is what is was to fight the Vietcong.  The helicopters would come in and the enemy would give way, but as soon as they left, the Cong would come back in to fill the void.

The last vignette attempts to give a definition of a story: "That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story." (O'Brien 40)


"On the Rainy River"

This is one of the most traditional of the short stories in The Things They Carried. The climax of this plot depends upon the irony of O'Brien's final decision. Your understanding of this irony depends upon your ability to understand the narrator's point of view. To understand the narrator's point of view, you must really understand why he would have thought that the war was wrong.  

"How to Tell a True War Story"

"How to Tell a True War Story" is the center piece of the novel. It's theme is about everything that O'Brien has been building toward with his tricks and slight of hand regarding the accuracy of the stories. The novel is dedicated to the men of Alpha Company. He names their names and they are the men who appear in the stories. Were they real people? Is the narrator really Tim O'Brien? Did these events really happen? No. They did not. These people are not real. These stories are fiction. But fiction has truth. How can this be?

The story of Adam and Eve and the apple tree is a fable. It is fiction. It did not happen. There was no Adam. There was no Eve. There was no tree of knowledge. But the story has truth. How can this be? Because the story of Adam and Eve is about more than just those two people and their relationship with their creator. It is a story about people who grow up. It is about people who gain experience and knowledge. It is about people who exercise their freewill by disobeying authority. It is about all these things and more. These things do happen in life. These themes are true.

Tim O'Brien creates an intentional paradox for his readers when he writes a wrenching, violent, but gripping story about Rat Kiley and then at the end of the story, tells the reader that the characters and events of the story did not happen as he has just described them, but rather they happened in an entirely different way to other people. But he insists that the story is true. Thus O'Brien challenges the reader to discover what the truth of the story really is. O'Brien asks the reader to discover what the nature of fiction is.

First, did O'Brien cheat the reader when he said that the events did not happen after the reader became involved in those events? No. No more than any other writer. There is no Freddy Kruger. There is no Godzilla. There is no Red Riding Hood. Readers have known this all the time and the reader should have known that there was no Rat Kiley. But O'Brien makes a point of it to write this in his story specifically. Why? He wants specifically to  point out that the events are fiction. But he also points out strongly that there is truth in the story. Where is the truth? It lies not in the plot or the character or the setting, but in the theme. That is the theme of this story.

The Dentist

"The Dentist" is another vignette that gives insight into the experience of being in the war and with a company of people not of one's own choosing. Curt Lemon seems to be the type of person who is constantly testing himself and gauging himself against some inner criteria he has about what it means for a person to be brave or what it takes to be a man. Each time he passes one of these inner tests he feels the need to brag about it, probably because he is the one most surprised by the exploit. The narrator's final conclusion is that, "Maybe it was a low opinion [of himself] that he kept trying to erase." In any case, when he fails the test of the dentist, he is embarrassed to the point where he needs to create an even more difficult situation than the one he failed. He wakes up the dentist and forces him to extract a healthy tooth just so Lemon could show he could endure the pain and the fear.

The first line of the story indicates that its purpose is to excuse the fact that the narrator does not really mourn Lemon's death and does not want become sentimental about him now that he is dead. To prevent this, this story is told. This story is placed immediately after "How to Tell a True War Story." So, is it true? If the answer matters, says the narrator, you have your answer. But maybe there is a better reason for this story's placement. In "How to Tell a True War Story" the narrator has just finished spoiling all of his plots and characters, telling the reader that none of what he has been telling the reader is real. So now he needs to draw you back again. By telling a story about Curt Lemon and why he was not a person to get sentimental about, the narrator once again establishes his character as a real person.

"The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong"

"The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" is not my favorite story, but it is one of the most popular stories in the novel and it has important and teachable themes. My objection to the story lies in its plausibility. A civilian girlfriend of a GI was not going to visit her boyfriend in an area of action in Vietnam. The plot seems juvenile to me, a fantasy of the mind of someone who wanted it to happen. Tim O'Brien distances himself from the story somewhat by making the narrator have the story come from the character of Rat Kiley, but he does not succeed.

A motif found by one of my classes in 2001 depends on the oral tasting and swallowing metaphor. Mary Anne wears her necklace of tongues. Rat Kiley describes her as a person who has "tasted" the war as other civilians back home have not. Mary Anne says, "Sometimes I want to eat this place. Vietnam. I want to swallow the whole country -- the dirt, the death -- I just want to eat it and have it there inside me." For Mary Anne, coming to Vietnam irrevocably changed her. She found something in life she wanted to consume and in the end the country, the jungle, the war consumed her.

Please note: The "Greenies" of the story are Green Berets, special forces of the army. They are the army equivalent of Navy SEALS. They are elite troops who possess special combat and survival training. I have assumed in the past that everyone would have known this, but I have recently discovered that I am in error about this.

"The Man I Killed"

The title of "The Man I Killed" alludes a powerful poem by  Thomas Hardy called "The Man He Killed." Please read this story carefully because it will be mentioned several more times in the novel. The verisimilitude used in this story, this vignette, is concentrated on making you aware of O'Brien's guilt in the death of this Vietnamese soldier. He wants you to believe the guilt is real. Later on in the novel, the narrator, O'Brien, will tell you that he was not the one who killed this man. If this is so (as anything can be so in fiction), what is O'Brien's guilt? Why does he feel guilt about this dead man?


In "Ambush," O'Brien again relates the story of the man he killed in the war. This time the emphasis is on the memories he has of the event "really happened" and not the event as a story. Because it is a reflection given the reader by the "author" (really by the author's persona), the story now seems more real. As we will learn later on or should have learned previously with "How to Tell a True War Story," this sense of reality is an illusion.

"Speaking of Courage"

"Speaking of Courage" is an important tale if only to read "Notes" with more insight. On its own it is the troubling tale of a young man who is unable to speak about his experiences in the war and thus is forced to relive them and the guilt they inspire. Norman Bowker circles the lake in his hometown in Iowa over and over again because, as one of my brighter students has said,  "he can't get to the center of his problem so he always has to go around it." The lake is the correlative setting to the latrine in Vietnam where Kiowa is killed. As the story goes back and forth between postwar Iowa and Vietnam, Norman can only imagine having conversations about what he has gone through. He cannot have a real conversation, not with his father, not with his old girlfriend, not with a stranger on a speaker at a car hop.  Because he cannot confess his pain, Norman relives it over and over again.

Please keep this story in mind when reading The Scarlet Letter next year.


Here in "Notes" O'Brien tries his technique of giving you "the real story." He has just presented "Speaking of Courage" and now wants to give you the inside scoop of the "real" Norman Bowker. It is effective. The reader feels as if he has been given the logical outcome of what would happen to the repressed Bowker who cannot express the guilt he feels from the war. However, the reader is admonished to remember that there was no Norman Bowker. Bowker is a fictional character.

"Notes" uses this technique of "the story about the story" in order to deliver the real punch of the plot here. In explaining the origin of the story, the persona named Tim O'Brien gives the history of where the story came from. The setting came from his memory of a Minnesota lake, the inspiration came from a letter from Bowker after the war. Finally, the narrator says, the part about how Kiowa died and who let him die, "[t]hat part of the story is my own." If we forget that the narrator too is a fictional character, we are tempted to believe that the real Tim O'Brien is purging his guilt in a confessional story. It is powerful. It is well done manipulation on the author's part.

"In the Field"

"In the Field" takes "the story about the story" technique one step further. Now that the reader knows the "true" story about what happened to Kiowa, she can view the aftermath of the evening with a sense of dramatic irony. The reader is shown several characters who feel responsibility and guilt over the death of Kiowa. Lt. Jimmy Cross, a young soldier, Azar and Norman Bowker. Norman at one point says, "Nobody's fault. . . . Everybody's." The added irony that only comes from the knowledge the reader has received from "Notes" is that it is Tim O'Brien, the narrator, who should express the personal guilt, but is not saying a word in this story. Norman Bowker's comments take on a profounder meaning because we see that the pain he will eventually not be able to cope with comes from his association with the events and not from the actual abandonment of Kiowa. But none of this really matters because it is all a fiction. The events in fiction do not matter because they are made up. They do not matter. What does matter is that the theme is true. Everybody needed to share in the responsibility.

When a man died, there had to be blame. Jimmy Cross understood this. You could blame the war. You could blame the idiots who made the war. You could blame Kiowa for going to it. You could blame the rain. You could blame the river. You could blame the field, the mud, the climate. You could blame the enemy. You could blame the mortar rounds. You could blame people who were too lazy to read a newspaper, who were bored by the daily body counts, who switched channels at the mention of politics. You could blame whole nations. You could blame God. You could blame the munitions makers or Karl Marx or a trick of fate or an old man in Omaha who forgot to vote.

The author O'Brien will reinforce this theme in his next vignette, "Good Form."

"Good Form"

In "Good Form" O'Brien explains what he has been trying to communicate about the difference between the plot and the theme. Norman Bowker felt responsible. Jimmy Cross felt responsible. Azar did. And so does O'Brien. We all should. "For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was enough."

"The Lives of the Dead"

The major question about"The Lives of the Dead" is, Why is it here in this position in the novel? When the rest of the novel focuses on Vietnam, --life prior to Vietnam, life during, and life following the war,--why does O'Brien now choose to focus on a nine year old girl? Is this a mistake in construction? Maybe. You may just come to that conclusion, but you at least need to know what O'Brien was intending. Whether it works for you is then your own decision.

O'Brien begins his story with one of his last shots at the game of Truth or Fiction that he has been playing with the reader throughout the novel. "But this too is true." If an author has been repeating a phrase until it becomes a refrain, we must pay attention to it. There is truth in this story, but it will have nothing to do with the facts. This is a lesson we have learned back in "How to Tell a True Love Story" and some of the stories that have followed. The truth in this case is about how people deal with the past. By showing the reader why he remembers Linda and writes about her, the narrator is explaining a fundamental truth about fiction and the creation of stories. In this story Linda says, "[Death]'s like being in a book that nobody's reading." Logic will tell us that therefore reading a book is like bringing the elements of the book to life. When we read, we give life to the places, events and the people in the work. Atticus Finch is alive and living because I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was fourteen. My children were taught certain things in certain ways because I thought that Atticus would have done the same. Atticus will live on in my children whether they read the book or not. "Once you're alive," Linda says in the novel, "you can't ever be dead."

Writers create characters and events and settings in order to teach readers points of view and lessons about life. Through these elements theme is born. With theme comes new ideas and learning. Stories can help us learn about ourselves and others. Stories enrich our lives by giving us new lives to vicariously live through, new settings to explore. In the interaction between the story and what we bring to it, comes truth. It doesn't matter that the narrator informs us that the character in "The Lives of the Dead" is "not the embodied Linda; she's mostly made up, with a new identity and a new name, like the man who never was." The last phrase, a reference to the movie Linda and Timmy saw on their "first date" is also an ironic bit of humor by O'Brien. We learn that the Linda in the story is not a real person, but one made up to fit the story, but we learn it from another man who never was, the narrator named Tim O'Brien. This is a fine ending to a novel that is not just a war story, but also about the nature of fiction and by extension about the nature of life.