The Things They Carried Essay

The essay below was written in an exam and it looks at Tim O’ Brien’s book as a composite novel.

Most novels are written to reflect real events in real worlds. Discuss the features that make a novel you have studied seem realistic (unrealistic) and explain why realism is appropriate (inappropriate) to the novels main themes.

Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam novel The Things They Carried was written in many respects to reflect real events and while we soon come to the realisation that the actual event is in the end irrelevant, these events still provide a vital backdrop for the reader to initially absorb then realise that they don’t actually matter. The Things They Carried is not a text book nor in any respects is it an accurate historical account, it is a collection of memories, feelings and actions and with O’Brien staying clear of stereotypical themes such as heroism and bravery we are presented with a more compelling, realistic and appropriate view of an ambiguous war fought by young and unsure men.

The Things They Carried views and presents realism very differently to a lot of other Vietnam literature, the facts are not at the heart of the book nor are they even important what is important is what the narrator Tim or Mitchell Sanders or Bob ‘Rat’ Kiley felt in that split second of heat, whether they saw someone killed, they killed, or something changed forever and that is what is real and true and forever relevant. O’Brien himself sums it up best in the chapter ‘Good Form’ as he tries to explain the structure of his book, “story truth is often more relevant than the real truth,” O’Brien is simply saying that in order for us to feel what he has felt, the facts often have to be changed but if we do feel his anger, his rage, cowardice or guilt then we as an outsider and reader have seen the truth. It is this unique approach with events being moments and realism being feelings that make the novels themes still relevant to any audience anywhere to this day.

While Vietnam literature often takes the approach of showing the fearless and brave hero that conquered all despite the overwhelming odds against him O’Brien has chosen to concentrate on more human ideas and themes. Guilt, shame and embarrassment prove to be very central in a book the deals almost entirely with emotions. Guilt comes in the form of Tim’s best friend Kiowa, Kiowa probably the most honourable man in Alpha Company ironically dies in a field muck and sewage due to the misjudgement of others. Norman Bowker talks about this guilt in the chapter ‘Speaking of courage’, he talks about how he almost wins the Silver Star for uncommon valour but he couldn’t get over the stench of the field in order to pull Kiowa up from the muck, he talks about how he wanted to more than anything but was paralysed by the stench. In ‘Notes’ after we are told Norman Bowker commits suicide Tim makes a confession that “the last part of the story was mine”, when we realise Tim was the one who froze, the facts become distorted and all we are left with is a feeling of guilt nothing else but guilt and that is exactly what O’Brien wanted as to feel.

Strangely enough shame and embarrassment are prominent throughout as well, it’s a focussing point with Curt Lemon in ‘The Dentist’, Lee Struck and Dave Jensen in both ‘Enemies’ and ‘Friends’ and Tim himself in ‘On the rainy river’. ‘On the rainy river’ is the battle Tim is having with himself after receiving his draft notice, he doesn’t want to fight a war that he believes is unjust but at the same time is scared of the rejection from his peers and community. What Tim was facing was a very real problem for a lot of people and as he was effectively stuck in a ‘Catch 22′ problem everyone can relate on some level. With the ease at which everyone can relate to this story and the obvious realism that precedes it the story is that of a thousand people and therefore hugely powerful.

With realism being the truth and truth being a feeling Tim O’Brien successfully conveys every theme major or minor leaving us simply with one overwhelming feeling. As he constantly backtracks, re-writes and retells stories the facts become more and more distorted but the truth and relevance of all the stories are stronger with every page you read. While it is important to know that the soldiers were fighting an unjust war with unthinkable consequences the fact will always remain that whether someone died in 1968 in Vietnam or 1980 in New York the feelings will always be the same and in the end with time distorted facts the only truth is the felling you have.

Have a read and will discuss the essay in class on Monday.


3 thoughts on “The Things They Carried Essay

  1. this essay is very informative in terms of realism and the the differences between O’Brien’s stories and other war novels.

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