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Analysis of Tone of The Things They Carried by Tim O’brien

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Tone is a very important piece when writing any type of work because it determines how the audience should feel when reading it. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a novel based in the Vietnam War. It is a compilation of war stories told by the narrator, who is also the author. The novel has many tones, but two prevalent tones are guilt and sympathy. Guilt and sympathy are shown in many instances throughout the book, the author does this to show the emotions soldiers experience during war. During the war, Tim only mentions killing one person. It is a vietenemese male that he throws a grenade at.

In the chapter “The Man I Killed”, he goes into very specific detail about how the man had a star-shaped hole in his head and what his life could’ve been hadn’t he been killed. He repeats the injuries of the man multiple times and I think he does that to signify the tone of sympathy. He even goes as far as giving him a future life and this also shows how terrible experiences can cause the mind to become so imaginative.

Even though he killed the man to save himself he sympathizes with him saying, “He was not a fighter, his health was poor, his body small and frail. He liked books. He wanted someday to be a teacher of mathematics”. After he has killed the man, his friend tries to convince him that there was nothing else for him to do, but he remains speechless, this is just one of the many ways the characters in the book deal with death. Another tone that is prevalent in the book is guilt. After Lavender dies, Cross feels guilty and that he was responsible for his death. Cross thinks, “He has loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war”. Cross thinks getting rid of his distractions will stop something like that from happening again, so he burns his letters and pictures from Martha. Like Cross many of the other soldiers also carried guilt. Most of the soldiers feel guilty about Kiowa’s death.

Bowker carries his guilt of not being able to save Kiowa even after the war was over, this guilt eventually causes Bowker to hang himself. Cross thinks it’s his fault for stationing them in a terrible spot. Even Azar feels guilty about making fun of the way Kiowa died. There was really no way for a soldier to be in a war without feeling guilty about something, even the people who survived felt guilty for living when their friends didn’t. One story that combines both tones of sympathy and guilt is Lee Strunk and Dave Jenson’s pact. Their pact was that if either of them got seriously injured the other would kill them to end their misery. Strunk gets his leg blown off after stepping in a trap. Lee tries to convince Jenson saying, “Really, it’s not so bad. Not terrible. Hey, really — they can sew it back on — really”.

Dave sympathizes with Lee and decides not to kill him, but console him and try to make him feel better about his situation. Jenson also feels guilty for not honoring their pact and killing him. In order to convey a different side to soldiers, the author uses tones like guilt and sympathy to show their emotions. Tim shows sympathy when recollecting about the man he killed in the war. Cross shows guilt after both Lavender and Kiowa’s death. Finally, both sympathy and guilt are shown in Strunk and Jenson’s pact. It is important for the author to show the more vulnerable side of soldiers because it gives the characters more character and helps them to not be one dimensional.

The tone of trauma and regret built by strong diction and personification, sends the message to the audience that this is not an event one creates; it is one that is experienced and re-experienced every day in the mind of O’Brien. It is the truth of post-war O’Brien, and the truth that the audience will value. As O’Brien writes “ I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth” we as readers agree, and thus alter our own sense of the truth in the novel.

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Analysis of Tone of The Things They Carried by Tim O’brien. (2022, March 21). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 28, 2022, from
“Analysis of Tone of The Things They Carried by Tim O’brien.” GradesFixer, 21 Mar. 2022,
Analysis of Tone of The Things They Carried by Tim O’brien. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 Sept. 2022].
Analysis of Tone of The Things They Carried by Tim O’brien [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Mar 21 [cited 2022 Sept 28]. Available from:
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