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Themes

For O'Brien, something isn't true unless it feels true. Whether or not it actually happened is beside the point; something can even have happened and not be true. While we feel betrayed when we realize that Rat and Kiowa and Mitchell Sanders are all fictional creations, O'Brien's trying to tell us that even though they're made up, there's a lot of truth to their characters. True stories and true characters don't fit neatly into a narrative or into character roles. The best way for O'Brien to communicate his Vietnam experience in The Things They Carried is to give us the "story-truth," not the "happening-truth."

Questions About Truth

  1. Did you feel betrayed when you learned that Kiowa, Rat & Co. weren't real? If not, why not? If so, what is it about us as readers that accounts for this feeling of betrayal?
  2. What do you think is more real, story-truth or happening-truth? Why? When you tell stories, which do you use? How come? Where in the text are these ideas of story-truth and happening-truth embedded?
  3. How do story-truth and happening-truth play into the soldiers' difficulties in communicating their Vietnam experience to civilians?
  4. What is the effect of O'Brien giving his main character his own name and basic biographical details? What purpose does it serve? Do you think it worked? Why or why not?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

O'Brien's use of story-truth reflects the shifting nature of reality in wartime.

Story-truth is an unsuccessful attempt to connect with the reader on the subject of Vietnam. Rather than connect the reader to O'Brien's experience, it alienates, breaching the trust between reader and writer.

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