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Analysis of Storytelling in The Things They Carried by Tim O'brien

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The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a compilation of war stories based off of O’Brien’s experiences during the Vietnam War. These stories are fragments of truth with an underlying falsehood that proves worthy of a closer look. When you peel back the deception and begin to understand the emotional burdens resting upon these soldiers, that can only be described through misconception and exaggeration, you start to realize the truth. The deeper meaning behind these stories is that some things need to be exaggerated and embellished, for them to be real, and accurate. It’s used in such a way that the fear and dehumanization of the characters in this book is so close to the truth, but, at the same time, couldn’t be farther from it. Truth is bent, twisted, and sometimes just completely non-existent.

In the novel The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien consistently stretches the truth in a way that portrays feeling or emotions that would not be clear otherwise. O’Brien uses a form of untrue storytelling about factual events to try to convey certain feelings and emotions that may have been harder for the audience to understand, had he told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In the chapter titled “Good Form,” O’Brien says, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth”. In this chapter, he makes several nods to the notion of true and untrue aspects of the stories he tells. With happening-truth, the feelings he wanted the reader to feel may not have been as easy to understand as the story-truth. In one chapter O’Brien even goes as far as making up his “daughter” Kathleen for the sake of reader understanding. Kathleen was part of an elaborate story about him returning to Vietnam with his daughter, to the spot that his best friend, Kiowa, died. Not only that, but he uses Kathleen in a way to progress the story towards a question that feels he can answer truthfully with two contradicting answers. “‘Daddy, tell the truth,’ Kathleen can say. ‘Did you ever kill anybody?’ And I can say honestly, ‘Of course not.’ Or I can say, honestly, ‘Yes’”. O’Brien completely falsifies Kathleen as a whole, using his fake daughter to ask questions that he feels could have any true answer. To someone not present for what truly happened, the questions may only have one actual answer, yes or no, not yes and no.

O’Brien owns up to all the faculty in his book at the beginning of the chapter “Good Form” saying, “It’s time to be blunt… a long time ago walked Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier. Almost everything else is invented. But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about this book was written the way it was”. This quote is O’Brien directly stating that he wants the reader to understand the truth. Even though what he’s telling you might not be the actual, factual truth of what happened, the way he explains it makes you feel the way he did.

Fear unifies the novel because it shows the commonality between every soldier in the platoon through a mutual feeling none of them want to admit. Fear is something every soldier feels, whether they express their discomfort and undeniable feelings or not. Being afraid is an unavoidable feeling, especially in the heat of war, on foreign soil, watching the men you spend every day with die around you. The soldiers in this novel try to find any way possible to distract themselves from the feeling. In the midst of watching an airstrike level an entire village, they even tell jokes to ease the tense situation, “They were afraid of dying, but they were more afraid to show it. They found jokes to tell”. Every soldier was afraid to die, but they were also afraid of the embarrassment from showing that fear. The jokes they told were only a small method of escape from the bitter reality of what was happening around them. Each soldier found a different way to cope with their fear, Jimmy Cross dug his foxhole and looked at the picture he had of his hometown love Martha. Ted Lavender had a more intense way of relaxing, “Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April”. Lavender even carried around 6 to 7 ounces of premium dope. He used drugs to mellow himself out and relax after days of air strikes, and fighting. They did whatever they could to shield themselves from fear. Ironically enough, they were all afraid to show a feeling, that they all felt.

Dehumanization is not something that happens over night. It’s a process made up of many traumatizing events that ultimately lead to loss of humanity. By the end of the book almost every soldier in the book has had a traumatic event happen to them. For Rat Kiley that was the death of his best friend Curt Lemon. “He stepped back and shot it through the right front knee. The animal did not make a sound. It went down hard, then got up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear. He shot it in the hindquarters and in the little hump at its back. He shot it twice in the flanks. It wasn’t to kill; it was to hurt. He put the rifle muzzle up against the mouth and shot the mouth away. Nobody said much. The whole platoon stood there watching, feeling all kinds of things, but there wasn’t a great deal of pity for the baby water buffalo. Curt Lemon was dead. Rat Kiley had lost his best friend in the world”. Kiley then left the water buffalo to died a slow, painful death. With the loss of his best friend, came the death of an innocent water buffalo, and with that, the loss of Rat Kiley’s humanity. The platoon members later mention that Kiley had gone off the deep end after the death of Curt Lemon. The baby water buffalo is not the only innocent life lost to the dehumanization of these soldiers though. A poor puppy was also collateral damage to the incentive acts of a traumatized and suffering man. “Like when Azar blew away Ted Lavender’s puppy. ‘What’s everybody so upset about?’ Azar said. ‘I mean, Christ, I’m just a boy’”. This desensitization to strapping a dog to a mine has not only war to blame, but likely a troubled upbringing too.

The Things They Carried is full of falsifications and fallacious stories that can make Time O’Brien seem like a liar who takes something as serious as war and turns it into some kind of mind game. But the fact of the matter is that O’brien uses this form of writing to not only convey other themes such as fear and dehumanization, but also to help the reader better understand the feelings of Vietnam War veterans. Though made up or misguided, the stories in this book serve a purpose. The purpose to guide someone through and experience they’ve never had. Fear is an emotion that all the soldiers had, and through this book it’s made clear that fear and traumatic war events have stripped away pieces of these soldiers that can never be put back or replaced. Dehumanization is shown through acts of anger, and hatred. Not only for the people they are fighting, but for anyone, or anything caught in the crossfire.

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Analysis of Storytelling in the Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. (2020, December 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 1, 2023, from
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