Study Guide

The Things They Carried Literature and Writing

By Tim O'Brien

Literature and Writing


I feel guilty sometimes. Forty-three years old and I'm still writing war stories. My daughter Kathleen tells me it's an obsession, that I should write about a little girl who finds a million dollars and spends it all on a Shetland pony. In a way, I guess, she's right: I should forget it. But the thing about remembering is that you don't forget. You take your material where you find it, which is your life, at the intersection of past and present. The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up on your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets. As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come. That's the real obsession. All those stories. (Spin.13)

When Kathleen accuses Tim of being obsessed with war stories, he points out that it's not that he's obsessed with war stories—he's just obsessed with stories, period. Because he's a writer, he uses stories to process memories, and his memories are of war. This plays into his whole thing about story-truth, too: stories are based in memory, not in fact.

And sometimes remember it will lead to a story, which makes it forever. 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 that story. (Spin.34)

O'Brien is shooting for posterity with The Things They Carried. He wants it to be read a hundred years from now. It might sound egotistical (and it is, a little), but it also makes sense if you buy into his ideas of story-truth and happening-truth. The war in Vietnam was important. The lives of soldiers are important. 

In a hundred years, we'll have the happening-truth in all the many documents and videos of the era, but everyone who experienced it and who can tell us what it really felt like will be dead. That means we'll need a record of their memories—we'll need the story-truth. That's what this book is supposed to be.

How to Tell a True War Story
Mitchell Sanders

"Hear that quiet, man?" he said. "That quiet – just listen. There's your moral." (How to Tell a True War Story.62)

The moral of a story doesn't need to make sense for it to work as a moral. Mitchell Sanders's moral here makes absolutely no literal sense, but like Tim O'Brien's stories, it feels right in a way that's difficult to articulate. 

Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong
Mitchell Sanders

"The sound. You need to get a consistent sound, like slow or fast, funny or sad. All these digressions, they just screw up your story's sound. Stick to what happened." (Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.114)

Mitchell Sanders is accusing Rat Kiley of making too many digressions, and of course that's a sin that Tim O'Brien is completely guilty of. Not only does the book as a whole not flow as a story, but Tim is constantly jumping into the middle of stories, jerking the tone around, and showing us that war is the antithesis of consistency. Nonetheless, the point is made—literary technique matters to O'Brien, and he's telling us here that it's something we should notice too.


I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don't. Yet when I received Norman Bowker's letter, it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. (Notes.11)

O'Brien's aversion to therapy here is kind of interesting. If writing helped him process his memories in a certain way, doesn't that count as therapy? Not the sit-on-a-comfy-couch, talk-about-your-feelings kind of therapy, but therapy nonetheless? Regardless, the ability to communicate his war experiences through stories has helped O'Brien avoid PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and other homecoming issues that his comrades are still going through.

To provide a dramatic frame, I collapsed events into a single time and place, a car circling a lake on a quiet afternoon in midsummer, using the lake as a nucleus around which the story would orbit. As he'd requested, I did not use Norman Bowker's name, instead substituting the name of my novel's main character, Paul Berlin. For the scenery I borrowed heavily from my own hometown. Wholesale thievery, in fact. […] Almost immediately, though, there was a sense of failure. The details of Norman Bowker's story were missing. In this original version, which I still conceived as part of the novel, I had been forced to omit the s*** field and the rain and the death of Kiowa, replacing material with events that better fit the book's narrative. As a consequence I'd lost the natural counterpoint between the lake and the field. A metaphoric unity was broken. (Notes.12-14)

Here we learn that while humor, violence, swearing, and everything makes O'Brien a lot more fun to read than, say, Hawthorne, he's nonetheless a Writer with a capital W. He uses terms like "dramatic frames" and "metaphoric unity" when he describes how he writes his story-truths. And this, dear readers, means that he's got to be using symbolism up the wazoo.  Stop on by "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" to see how.

Good Form

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present. I can look at things I never looked at. (Good Form.9-10)

One of the ways that stories help O'Brien process his memories is by making them present. He might be using the word "present" to mean that it makes the memories stay with him, it makes them here, or he might be using it to say that it brings memories into the present (right now) and away from the past. It might mean both. The point is, with stories, he can examine things that he didn't have the nerve to examine the first time around.

The Lives of the Dead

To listen to the story, especially as Rat told it, you'd never know that Curt Lemon was dead. He was still out there… But he was dead. (The Lives of the Dead.95)

Stories don't just bring people back to life as a way of preserving their memory. The act of Rat telling a story brings Curt Lemon back, if only for a little while; those listening to the story feel like Curt Lemon is alive again. Remember: In this book, what something feels like is more true than the scientific truth of what happened.

But this too is true: stories can save us […] in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world. (The Lives of the Dead.1)

O'Brien uses stories to bring the dead back to life. Everyone he's written about—Kiowa, Linda, Curt Lemon, Norman Bowker, the young man on the trail—all of them come back to life while he tells the story. Not only that, they will live forever on the page.

I'm skimming across the surface of my own history… thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story. (The Lives of the Dead)

As the last line of the book, you know this one's important. O'Brien is implying that by bringing people back to life with a story, he's saving his own life. Yeah, he brings Linda and Curt Lemon and Kiowa back, but by saving them, he's also able to save himself. That doesn't mean it's a selfish goal, entirely. He really is bringing those people back. Their memories will live on in this book. But maybe stories are the only reason he's been able to deal with all this death without going completely crazy.