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In his masterpiece The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes a collection of heartbreaking, witty, unbelievable stories about a group of young American soldiers trudging through the war against Vietnam. The Things They Carried manages to convey the feelings associated with being in war without telling the reader what to feel. Critics and readers alike ask: what was O’Brien’s goal when he wrote this novel? What message was he trying to convey? Through several stories such as “Speaking of Courage,” O’Brien makes a statement about the fact that people are sensitive to the topic of war. The passing of war stories from soldier to soldier suggests that as taboo of a subject as it is, talking about war is important not only to educate others but to heal those traumatized by it. The use of metafiction throughout the book helps O’Brien to convey these messages. Tim O’Brien wrote The Things They Carried to address the fact that nobody wants to talk about war, but that, it still must be discussed in order to acknowledge the horrors that go on everyday and to help soldiers to heal. The metafiction in this novel is used primarily to convey this importance.
Throughout every story in the novel, it is shown how difficult it is for the soldiers to talk about their war experiences. In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” it is mentioned how U.S. women back home will “never understand any of this, not in a million years” (O’Brien 108), a soldier’s expression of why he would never attempt to explain it to one. At the beginning of “On the Rainy River,” O’Brien expresses extreme shame for the story he proceeds to tell, saying he has never told anyone before. However, I found that the story that most displayed the difficulty of communication about war was “Speaking of Courage,” a story about Norman Bowker, a soldier returning home after years at war in Vietnam. Throughout the story, the reader hears Norman’s thoughts as he an considers telling his father, family, or old girlfriend about his experiences in Vietnam. He drives around his hometown, thinking about how everything seems exactly the same. It is clear to the reader that Norman feels that he has changed, and sees the town in a whole new light as a familiar yet foreign place. Norman feels that he no longer belongs, and no longer has a place in the world. It is expressed that Norman does not want to talk to his loved ones about the war because, while he can predict the exact reactions he would instigate, he knows that nobody will understand anything shares. He also feels that nobody cares.
In this story, O’Brien was trying to show soldiers’ and society’s aversion to talking about the tragedies of war, and the negative effects this has upon Bowker’s character. “The town could not talk, and would not listen. ‘How’d you like to hear about the war?’ he might have asked, but the place could only blink and shrug…The taxes got paid and the votes got counted…It was a brisk, polite town. It did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know” (O’Brien 137). This quote demonstrates Norman’s feelings that there was nobody he could talk to about the war: in his mind, his town “did not care to know.” The town is described as very organized and well-run; a town with all hustle and bustle, but with no emotion. When it comes to facing serious topics, such as what goes on in Vietnam, nobody wants to hear it. O’Brien uses this town to symbolize U.S. society, and Norman as a raumatized American soldier returning home to no place in the world and nobody to talk to about his experiences. This story shows the avoidance of the topic of war in U.S. society. Norman’s struggle with this fact shows the importance of facing it.
Once O’Brien properly conveys the negative affects of lack of conversation about war upon returning soldiers, it becomes clear that he displayed that message in order to show the importance of sharing war stories. This is shown throughout the book through the exchange of stories among soldiers. In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” Rat Kiley tells Mitchell Sanders and Tim O’Brien’s character a story about experiences when he was stationed elsewhere. In “How to Tell a True War Story,” Sanders tells Tim a story about one of his close friends. The way the boys all tell each other stories reveals the importance of talking about the war. It is therapeutic. “‘Why not talk about it?’ Then he said, ‘Come on, man, talk’” (O’Brien 124). This quote shows how the soldiers consider it healing to talk to one another about what they’ve just seen. They feel comfortable talking to one another because all of them have experienced the same things, and it makes them feel understood. Storytelling helps them to remember, and in the remembrance, they are helped towards acceptance of what they have witnessed. The stories told by other soldiers are interlaced with metafiction, an insertion of O’Brien’s own thoughts. This makes his intentions more clear because in the passages of metafiction, O’Brien supports the lessons of the stories told with his own thoughts and opinions.
O’Brien’s use of metafiction in the novel helped to reveal his message more clearly because he was able to tell the readers how he felt. He often uses metafiction to break the reader out of the world of the stories by writing in the first person, referring to himself, addressing the reader specifically, etc. This aids O’Brien because it allows him to show the reader what war has done to him, and how he has been traumatized by the war. “Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now” (O’Brien 36). In this quote, taken from a metafictitious passage, O’Brien is reflecting upon the fact that even twenty years after his time in Vietnam, memories still catch up with him. The following few sentences of that passage support the fact that metafiction allows O’Brien to say that he is helped by the process of writing down his memories and sharing stories: “And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever…Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.” This quote shows how the stories, because they put a kind of untouchable permanence to the war memories, allow relief from carrying those memories in one’s mind. In O’Brien’s opinion, it is easier to handle the memories in the form of stories, where they can be shared and spread. This shows the reader that we cannot avoid talking about war as we do, because of it’s level of tragedy, and also because it advances the healing process for soldiers.
In conclusion, O’Brien conveyed a clear message throughout his collection of war stories: people do not always like to address the sensitive topic of war. Even soldiers who return home after serving avoid the topic because they feel understood. However, O’Brien showed that it is important to share one’s stories because the sharing of stories helps people to accept what has happened to them. O’Brien intended to share this lesson because he has been through it himself, and understands how much the sharing of stories has helped him personally. In that aspect, the book as a whole is an example of how telling stories heals.
The fact that this is O’Brien’s intention is clear through stories such as “On the Rainy River” and “Speaking of Courage.” The stories the soldiers tell one another support this as well, and metafiction plays a very important role in revealing the message. In conclusion, Tim O’Brien’s intention in writing The Things They Carried was to share the message that while people may feel the need to avoid the topic of war, it is very important to address it because of the ways in which it helps soldiers to heal from the trauma they have suffered.
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