Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried

Tim O'Brien

This collection of related short stories about a platoon of soldiers in Vietnam (which was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize) is described by O'Brien as fiction. Meanwhile O'Brien admits that his experiences in Vietnam are the source of his accounts. He also purposefully blurrs the line of reality by having an eponymous narrator telling the stories. The narrator (Tim O'Brien) is a fictional character, but obviously the author is drawing parallels that cannot be denied.

As we read this short story, we are practicing the following skills.

1. Describing an author's style.

2. Analyzing an author's argument.

Describing an Author's Style

These narratives, are quite striking in their stylistic approach. O'Brien does not record the internal lives of characters often (with the exception of Jimmy Cross). Instead, he shows the emotional and psychological worlds of his characters by bringing to life the details (mostly sensory) of items they carry - the physical burdens therefore become a symbol for the mental burdens.

Jimmy Cross' letters for example are a physical manifestation of his need to have something to prove his being meaningful (to someone). His pretending that these letters are love letters when he knows in fact they aren't, shows the sad irony of the fact that this (meaningfulness) is in fact a lie. With details like these being repeated (like Cross' obsession over Martha's legs being "virgin" legs) we see the Cross' internal state. We learn who he is, just as we learn what kind of soldier would bring comic books, or dope, or a finger of a corpse with them as they march.

The fact that the details rule the description affects the stories' tone as well. The tone of the writing is matter of fact, not emotional or sentimental. When he describes in dead pan, the violence and destruction that they are experiencing, he is drawing the readers attention to it by his matter of fact attitude. They survive an attack, they torch a village, a fellow soldier dies, they sit down and smoke his dope. This matter of factness, highlights the numbing experience they are all sharing, and of the feeling of futileness of the war itself. This stylistic dead pan also produces a black humor that offsets this as they struggle to find meaning.

Analyzing an Author's Argument

As you all wrote your arguments, I gleaned from several essays what seemed to be common interpretations of the author's argument.

Looking at O'Brien's style of writing and particularly his use of tone and diction (word choice) as described above, we can infer the piece's main ideas have to do with the numbing effect of war, the futility of the Vietnam war particularly, and the fact that soldiers become burdened psychologically with what they must do in war.