Study Guide

The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried Introduction

Maybe you feel like you've had it with the Vietnam War. You've seen Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. You've heard your parents or grandparents talk about life during that insanely long period of fighting. You've heard the stories. It was bad. It was awful. War is hell.

And you know the adages. You know that all we are saying is "Give Peace a Chance." You've asked the question "War? What is it Good For?"

But what if the experience of war was a little more nuanced than that? What if the most hellish thing about being an American soldier in the Vietnam War was that it wasn't always completely hellish? What if the truth is more slippery than most people can grasp? What if it's so slippery, in fact, that it becomes... fiction?

These musings might sound kind of hippie-dippie to you (another relic from the age of the flower children, right?), but rest assured: The Things They Carried ain't. In Tim O'Brien's book of short stories, these questions are posed in the middle of the muck, blood, and guts of the battlefield—as well as from his writing desk twenty years later.

The Things They Carried is a set of connected short pieces that tell the stories of the men of the Alpha Company (foot soldiers in Vietnam) before, during, and after the Vietnam War. And these stories deal with with the surreal and ambiguous nature of this war, the inadequacy of plain facts in communicating certain essential truths, and the alienation of the Vietnam War vet.

Tim O'Brien served in Vietnam as a foot soldier from 1968 to 1970. He's well-known as pretty much the writer who tackles the Vietnam War from an American soldier's perspective: If you Google "Vietnam War books," O'Brien probably pops up first.

And The Things They Carried is his most famous work. It was published in 1990 and became a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger.

Before you read it, we want you to look at something, though. Turn to the title page. What does it say right after the title, and right before the author's name? That's right: "a work of fiction." One of the reasons O'Brien is touted as a brilliant writer—and one of the reasons that he is considered one of the best authors tackling the intensely snarled and surreal Vietnam War—is that he intentionally blurs the line between nonfiction and fiction.

Nope, O'Brien won't feed you pithy sentiments like "War is hell." But he will feed you: You'll get some serious intellectual nourishment from The Things They Carried.

What is The Things They Carried About and Why Should I Care?

The Vietnam War: It's a tough pill to swallow. Maybe you're sick to death of hearing yet another Doors' song in yet another Vietnam War-era movie... or just bummed out by the never-ending stories of relentless carnage.

Or maybe you just feel alienated by the subject matter. You can't really comprehend it. You want to read something that speaks to you.

The Things They Carried is about war, sure. But, first and foremost, it's about a dude named Tim O'Brien struggling with two super-universal issues: communication and memory.

Tim O'Brien saw some horrific stuff, and now he's trying to communicate with a wider audience. And even if you've never been to war or seen anything truly hair-raising, you know what that's like. Have you ever tried to communicate what love/fear/sorrow/getting wasabi up your nose really feels like? And have you ever failed?

We're guessing the answer is yes.

Tim O'Brien lost some beloved people both before and during the war, and now he's trying to remember them with such clarity that they're resurrected. Even if you've never seen anyone die (or killed anyone), you should know what that's like. Have you ever stared at a picture of someone you've loved and lost—a grandmother, a first love, a summer camp buddy—and tried to burn their face into your memory?

We're guessing the answer is yes.

So while you might not be able to comprehend the horrors that Tim O'Brien has seen, you understand in a larger, human way what he's going through. Sure, he's not trying to communicate the feeling of getting wasabi up his nose... he's trying to communicate the feeling of pulling a dead friend's corpse from a lake full of raw sewage. But he's still trying and still failing. And maybe he's not trying to resurrect a summer camp pal... he's trying to resurrect a Vietnamese academic whom he killed. But he's still trying to make that person live again via memory.

What makes The Things They Carried tick is the fact that it manages to be comprehensible and alien all at once. So while you might never understand what war looks like, smells like, or sounds like, The Things They Carried will allow you to (begin to) understand how soldiers feel after returning from war: scarred, but shockingly relatable.

The Things They Carried Resources

Websites

Tim O'Brien's Home Page
O'Brien's home page has a bibliography and a ton of good links. Note that it's not run by O'Brien himself, but by someone who claims to have access to him. (Also note the unintentionally hilarious editorial comments from the webmaster that are strewn throughout the page.)

Vietnam War Glossary
This is a comprehensive glossary of Vietnam War jargon and terminology. If you were wondering what a Bouncing Betty, M-60, or Freedom Bird was, this is your site.

Time Photo Essay
If you have a Time magazine subscription, check this out. They published a photo essay that shows what American soldiers in Iraq "carry." It's fascinating stuff, and references O'Brien.

The Things They Carried Index
A super useful index to the book, assuming you have the correct edition.

Military History of the Vietnam War
PBS presents a site dedicated to the military history of the Vietnam War. It includes detailed descriptions of weaponry and strategies used on the battlefield.

Movie or TV Productions

A Soldier's Sweetheart (1998)
A made-for-TV movie adaptation of "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," starring Skeet Ulrich and Jack Bauer. (Whoops, sorry. Kiefer Sutherland.)

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Released in 1979, this classic movie about the Vietnam War is obviously not an adaptation of O'Brien's work, but it's worth watching anyway to really enrich your understanding of O'Brien's world.

Historical Documents

New York Times Interview
An interview O'Brien gave to The New York Times right after the publication of The Things They Carried, in which he discusses his storytelling style.

Time Magazine Review
Time's original review of the novel in 1990.

New York Times Review
The original review of the novel by The New York Times.

Video

Tim O'Brien Reading
Tim O'Brien reads from "The Lives of the Dead." The man apparently never takes off his hat. We think he might be bald.

Audio

"The Things They Carried"
Dylan Baker reads the title story aloud. From Public Radio International's Selected Shorts podcast.

"Things They Carried" Back From Vietnam
NPR's Terry Gross interviews Tim O'Brien on Fresh Air. (May 31, 2010)

The Things They Carried 20 Years On
NPR's Talk of the Nation discusses The Things They Carried 20 years after the book was published. (March 24, 2010)

Images

Tim the Soldier
Here's another picture of O'Brien while in Vietnam.

Tim the Writer
And here's a picture of the man now. He's always wearing a baseball hat. We swear.

Map of Quang Ngai
Here's a map of Quang Ngai, the province that O'Brien marched through as a soldier.