The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
Everybody, and we mean everybody, knows a guy like Rat. First of all, Rat's real name is Bob, but everybody calls him Rat. He's the guy who loves to tell stories, but makes a lot of stuff up in the stories to make them seem better and more exciting—more like he feels they should be. He's also the guy who keeps interrupting himself in the middle of his stories, digressing all over the place.
As a soldier, though, he's good. Rat's the medic, so he carries all the stuff that medics are supposed to carry, plus comic books and M&Ms—you know, "for especially bad wounds" (The Things They Carried.9). When O'Brien is shot the first time, Rat is great. He dresses O'Brien's wound, gets him out of danger, then pops back into the battle. He then comes back to check on O'Brien four times, cracking jokes and making him feel better.
And Rat is wears his heart on his sleeve... as much as the macho atmosphere of war will let him. When his buddy dies, he writes his buddy's sister a letter:
Rat pours his heart out. He says he loved the guy. He says the guy was his best friend in the world. They were like soul mates, he said, like twins or something, they had a whole lot in common. (How to Tell a True War Story.5)
Rat flips out eventually, though; we knew from the beginning, when Tim the Writer tells us about the stigma of shooting your toe or finger off to get out of battle, that one of the characters would take that route. We were just sad that it turned out to be Rat. But he did it, in part, because he was mourning the loss of his friend.
Rat = Tim?
Rat's pretty important, but deceptively so. At first, he just seems to be one of the guys, the medic, someone who likes comic books. But then comes "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," and we realize that Rat is another stand-in for Tim the Writer.
Rat, just like Tim, has a flexible relationship with the truth when it comes to telling stories. And Rat, like Tim, can't seem to tell a story without interrupting himself to explain and break the narrative flow, much to the annoyance of those who had been enjoying the story. For Rat, it's important that his audience really gets it, that they feel what he was feeling. It's possible that Tim the Writer is using Rat as foreshadowing for his later announcement in "Good Form," or maybe he just needed a substitute for himself in "Sweetheart," or perhaps both. In any case, Rat is way more important as a character than he initially seems.Timeline