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Essays on The Things They Carried

The things they carried essay topics and outline examples, essay title 1: truth and fiction in "the things they carried".

Thesis Statement: Tim O'Brien blurs the lines between truth and fiction in "The Things They Carried" to convey the emotional and psychological truths of war experiences, demonstrating the power of storytelling as a coping mechanism.

  • Introduction
  • The Nature of Truth in Storytelling
  • Examples of Fictional Elements in the Book
  • The Emotional and Psychological Impact on Characters
  • How Storytelling Helps Characters Cope

Essay Title 2: The Weight of Emotional Baggage in "The Things They Carried"

Thesis Statement: "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien explores the heavy burden of emotional baggage carried by soldiers during the Vietnam War, emphasizing that these intangible loads can be just as impactful as physical ones.

  • The Literal and Symbolic Items Carried by Soldiers
  • Depictions of Emotional Baggage in the Stories
  • The Interplay Between Physical and Emotional Loads
  • The Long-Term Effects on Soldiers' Lives

Essay Title 3: Morality and Ethical Dilemmas in "The Things They Carried"

Thesis Statement: Tim O'Brien raises questions about morality and ethical dilemmas faced by soldiers in "The Things They Carried," illustrating the complex choices and consequences that war imposes on individuals.

  • Situations of Moral Complexity in the Stories
  • Character Reactions to Ethical Dilemmas
  • Exploring the Themes of Guilt and Responsibility
  • The Broader Commentary on the Vietnam War

The Emotional and Physical Burdens of War in The Things They Carried

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The Motif of Love During The Vietman War in The Things They Carried

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The Topic of War and Tim O'brien's Intention in Writting The Things They Carried

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Guilt in The Things They Carried by Tim O'brien: Literary Analysis

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March 28, 1990, Tim O'Brien

Collection of interconnected short stories

Historical Fiction

Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Henry Dobbins, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Tim O'Brien

The narrative unfolds through series of interconnected short stories that depict a platoon of American soldiers' experiences during the Vietnam War, memories, and the items they carry with them. The protagonist, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, grapples with his responsibilities as a leader and his longing for a girl back home. He carries letters and photographs from her, as well as guilt and regret for his preoccupation with her rather than the safety of his men. Other soldiers in the platoon carry personal belongings that hold sentimental value or serve as a form of escapism from the harsh reality of war. Each item carries its own significance, reflecting the unique stories and personalities of the soldiers. The novel explores the psychological impact of war on the soldiers, delving into themes of fear, trauma, loss, and the blurred boundaries between truth and fiction. O'Brien masterfully blurs the line between fact and fiction, emphasizing the power of storytelling and memory as a means of understanding and coping with the horrors of war. The novel serves as a powerful testament to the resilience, camaraderie, and sacrifice of those who have served in armed conflicts, inviting readers to reflect on the enduring impact of war on individuals and society as a whole.

The setting of "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien is primarily during the Vietnam War, specifically focusing on the experiences of American soldiers deployed in Vietnam. The novel takes readers into the harsh and unforgiving environment of the war, transporting them to the jungles, rice paddies, and villages of Vietnam. The story unfolds in various locations, including the dense forests of Quang Ngai Province, the mountains near the border with Laos, and the riverside villages where the soldiers engage in combat and interact with the local Vietnamese population. O'Brien vividly describes the physical landscape, capturing the oppressive heat, the dense vegetation, and the constant sense of danger that permeates the air. In addition to the physical setting, the novel also explores the soldiers' mental and emotional landscapes. O'Brien delves into the interior worlds of the characters, portraying the weight of their experiences, the moral dilemmas they face, and the emotional burdens they carry. The setting becomes a reflection of the soldiers' internal struggles and serves as a backdrop for their personal transformations and battles with their own fears and demons. The temporal setting of the novel spans several years, from the early stages of the war to its aftermath. The narrative shifts back and forth in time, capturing the soldiers' memories, reflections, and the lasting impact of the war on their lives. O'Brien seamlessly weaves together past and present, blurring the boundaries of time and highlighting the enduring psychological and emotional effects of war.

The themes in "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien serve as a lens through which the characters' stories are told, offering insights into the complexities of war, memory, storytelling, and the weight of personal burdens. One of the central themes of the novel is the concept of storytelling and its power to shape and give meaning to our lives. O'Brien delves into the nature of truth and fiction, blurring the boundaries between fact and imagination. The characters use storytelling as a way to cope with the horrors of war, to remember their fallen comrades, and to make sense of their own experiences. This theme highlights the role of narrative in shaping our understanding of the world and the ways in which stories can serve as a form of catharsis and healing. Another significant theme explored in the book is the weight of personal burdens and the psychological toll of war. The characters in "The Things They Carried" carry physical objects that symbolize their emotional and psychological burdens, such as letters, photographs, and personal mementos. These tangible items serve as a metaphor for the intangible burdens they carry, including guilt, fear, and trauma. O'Brien explores the ways in which these burdens shape the characters' identities and influence their actions, highlighting the heavy price they pay for their service. Memory and its unreliability is another prominent theme in the novel. O'Brien examines how memories of war can be fragmented, distorted, and selectively recalled, blurring the line between reality and perception. The characters grapple with the weight of their memories, often haunted by the past and struggling to reconcile their experiences with their present lives. This theme underscores the enduring impact of war on the human psyche and the challenges of preserving and making sense of personal histories. Additionally, "The Things They Carried" delves into the themes of camaraderie, sacrifice, and the moral complexities of war. The bonds formed among the soldiers become a source of strength and support amidst the chaos and brutality of combat. The novel explores the sacrifices made by individuals for the collective good, as well as the ethical dilemmas they face in navigating the blurred lines between right and wrong in the midst of war.

Symbolism plays a significant role in the novel, allowing O'Brien to convey complex ideas and emotions through objects and events. For example, the weighty physical objects that the soldiers carry, such as Lieutenant Cross's letters from Martha, symbolize the burden of their emotional and psychological baggage. The pebble that Lieutenant Cross carries represents his longing for love and connection amidst the harsh reality of war. These symbols enrich the story , highlighting the themes of burdens, longing, and the conflict between love and duty. Imagery is skillfully employed throughout the book, creating vivid and sensory experiences for the reader. O'Brien's descriptions of the Vietnam War landscape, the soldiers' surroundings, and the visceral details of combat immerse the reader in the characters' experiences. Through powerful imagery, the author captures the sights, sounds, and smells of war, enhancing the emotional impact of the narrative. Irony is used to illuminate the contradictions and complexities of war. O'Brien employs situational irony to underscore the absurdities of war, such as the ironic death of Ted Lavender, who carries tranquilizers but is killed in a moment of vulnerability. Verbal irony is also present in the soldiers' dark humor and sarcastic remarks, revealing their coping mechanisms in the face of unimaginable circumstances. Metafiction, a prominent literary device in the novel, blurs the line between fiction and reality. O'Brien acknowledges the act of storytelling and explores the nature of truth, memory, and the power of narrative. For instance, O'Brien admits to fictionalizing certain elements of the story, blurring the boundaries between fact and imagination. This metafictional aspect challenges the reader's perception of truth and invites contemplation on the nature of storytelling and the role of fiction in representing the complexities of war. Other literary devices employed in the novel include repetition, foreshadowing, and paradox. Repetition is used to emphasize certain ideas and motifs, such as the repetition of the phrase "They carried" to highlight the soldiers' burdens. Foreshadowing hints at the characters' fates and adds tension to the narrative, while paradox presents the contradictions and ambiguities of war, such as the notion of killing for the sake of preserving life.

"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien has been adapted and represented in various forms of media, including film, theater, and music. These adaptations aim to capture the essence of the novel and bring its powerful themes and stories to a wider audience. One notable adaptation is the theatrical production of "The Things They Carried," which premiered in 2018. Adapted by Jim Stowell and directed by Sarah Diener, the play incorporates elements of storytelling, music, and multimedia to recreate the experiences of the soldiers in Vietnam. It utilizes the power of live performance to evoke the emotional intensity and psychological impact of war, engaging audiences in a visceral and immersive manner. Another notable representation of "The Things They Carried" is the 1990 short film adaptation directed by Peter Werner. This film, also titled "The Things They Carried," offers a visual interpretation of select stories from the book, bringing the characters and events to life on screen. Through the medium of film, the adaptation captures the visual imagery and the emotional depth of O'Brien's writing, allowing viewers to witness the harrowing realities of war. In addition to these direct adaptations, the influence of "The Things They Carried" can be seen in various songs, music videos, and other artistic expressions. Artists have drawn inspiration from the themes and stories of the novel to create their own works that reflect the experiences of soldiers in war. For example, Bruce Springsteen's song "The Wall" and Pearl Jam's song "I Am Mine" touch upon similar themes of memory, loss, and the weight of war that resonate with O'Brien's novel.

"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien has had a significant influence on literature, academia, and the public's understanding of war and its impact on soldiers. This powerful collection of interconnected short stories has left an indelible mark on readers and has contributed to important conversations about memory, truth, storytelling, and the human experience in times of conflict. One notable influence of "The Things They Carried" is its contribution to the genre of war literature. O'Brien's innovative blend of fact and fiction, his exploration of the subjective nature of truth, and his vivid portrayal of the psychological and emotional burdens carried by soldiers have inspired subsequent authors to tackle similar themes. The book's honest depiction of war's complexities and its emphasis on the human cost of conflict have shaped and influenced subsequent works of literature exploring the realities of war. Moreover, "The Things They Carried" has had a profound impact on the field of literary criticism and academia. Scholars and researchers have extensively studied O'Brien's storytelling techniques, narrative structure, and thematic depth. The book's exploration of memory, trauma, and the power of storytelling has provided rich material for analysis and has influenced the field of narrative theory. Beyond the literary sphere, "The Things They Carried" has resonated with a wide range of readers, including veterans, students, and the general public. Its poignant portrayal of the complexities of war and its lasting effects on individuals has prompted discussions on topics such as moral ambiguity, the dehumanizing nature of conflict, and the importance of empathy and understanding. The influence of "The Things They Carried" extends beyond literature and academia into popular culture. The book has been referenced in songs, films, and other forms of media, further cementing its status as a cultural touchstone. Its enduring relevance and impact demonstrate the power of storytelling to illuminate the human condition and provoke meaningful reflection on the consequences of war.

1. "The Things They Carried" has received widespread critical acclaim since its publication. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1991 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in the same year. 2. Over the years, "The Things They Carried" has remained a staple in literature courses and reading lists across the United States. It is frequently taught in high schools and universities, and its impact on readers has endured. The book's exploration of war, memory, and the power of storytelling continues to resonate with new generations, ensuring its place as a significant work of American literature. 3. In 2018, "The Things They Carried" was adapted into a feature film directed by Rupert Sanders. The movie, starring Tom Hardy and Tye Sheridan, aimed to bring O'Brien's powerful storytelling to the big screen. While the adaptation faced some challenges and has not been widely released, it is a testament to the enduring appeal and cinematic potential of the book's themes and narratives.

"The Things They Carried" is an essential work to write an essay about due to its profound exploration of the human experience in times of war. Through its vivid storytelling and introspective narratives, the book delves into the complexities of the Vietnam War, the weight of personal burdens, the power of memory, and the impact of storytelling itself. By examining the novel, students can gain a deeper understanding of the psychological and emotional toll of war on soldiers, the ethical dilemmas they face, and the enduring effects on their lives. The book raises thought-provoking questions about the nature of truth, the unreliability of memory, and the ways in which storytelling can shape our perceptions and heal our wounds. Moreover, "The Things They Carried" serves as a powerful example of how literature can humanize and give voice to the experiences of those who have served in conflict zones. It provides a platform for discussion on war literature, trauma, empathy, and the power of narrative. Ultimately, studying and analyzing this work allows students to engage with important social, historical, and psychological themes, fostering critical thinking and empathy towards those impacted by war.

"They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment." "He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole." "But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world" "I survived, but it's not a happy ending."

1. Climo, J. (2005). Truth and fiction in Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home and The Things They Carried. Modern Fiction Studies, 51(1), 186-208. 2. Friedman, L. (2013). ‘Dancing the Soul Back Home’: Trauma, storytelling, and truth in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, 25(1/2), 273-296. 3. Heberle, R. (2017). War, memory, and the inescapability of fiction in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. College Literature, 44(2), 225-245. 4. Herzog, T. (2002). Memory, history, and trauma in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 43(3), 259-277. 5. Kaplan, S. (2016). Postmodernism, metafiction, and Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War stories. In The Philosophy of War Films (pp. 135-154). University Press of Kentucky. 6. Kaplan, S. (2017). The Things They Carried: Tim O'Brien's personal debt to Hemingway. The Hemingway Review, 36(1), 71-85. 7. McWilliams, J. (2015). Intimations of mortality: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and In the Lake of the Woods. In The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the Vietnam War (pp. 145-160). Cambridge University Press. 8. O’Brien, T. (1990). The things they carried. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 9. Stenberg, P. (2009). Lyric narrative and the war text: Tim O'Brien's "Speaking of Courage" and "In the Field" as poetic rewritings of The Things They Carried. Contemporary Literature, 50(3), 497-527. 10. Wood, M. (2000). Refiguring the Vietnam veteran: (Dis) locating subjectivity in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 41(2), 107-121.

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the things they carried essay assignment

Worth Its Weight: Letter Writing with "The Things They Carried"

Worth Its Weight: Letter Writing with "The Things They Carried"

  • Resources & Preparation
  • Instructional Plan
  • Related Resources

This lesson pairs reading and discussion of Tim O'Brien's story "The Things They Carried" with a letter-writing activity intended to help students develop the empathy needed to be insightful readers and to give students the opportunity to examine the symbolic weights they carry and, in turn, create meaningful, dynamic, and publishable prose. Students begin by listing all the things they carry, both literal and symbolic, and then think about the symbolic weight of these items. Next, after discussing O'Brien's story and how some of the things listed in the story reveal character, they return to their own lists to add anything they may have forgotten. They next write about three of the most significant weights they carry from their lists, describing the items and their importance to them. Finally, students write a letter to someone with whom they can share the weight of one of these things they carry.

Featured Resources

Letter Generator : This online tool allows students to read about the parts of a letter. They can then write and print their own friendly or business letter.

From Theory to Practice

In "The Things They Carried", O'Brien uses the simple device of the list to organize his story and to make the reader begin to understand the terrible weight young soldiers carried in the jungles of Vietnam (6). The losses and the lessons of that war are part of my own adolescent experience, but, for my students, the war seems a piece of ancient history. Reading Tim O'Brien brings them to the edge of the jungle and makes them care about the lives of those who fought there. It is there that the soldiers' lives intersect with those of my students; it is there that empathy begins. The reading, writing and discussion we do around "The Things They Carried" is intended to help my students see that all of life demands courage and that none of us marches without a burden. Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

Copies of "The Things They Carried" by Tim O’Brien

  • Shared Weight: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried"
  • What Are You Carrying? Letter Assignment
  • What Are You Carrying? Reader Response
  • What Are You Carrying? Reflection Questions


  • Obtain copies of the story “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. Online versions are available, as are print versions.
  • Familiarize yourself with biographical information on O’Brien in order to talk about the autobiographical nature of the story. Online resources about O’Brien are listed in Resources section.
  • Read the related essay “ Shared Weight: Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’ ” for background and student examples related to this lesson.
  • Make a copy of the Letter Assignment , Reader Response sheet, and Reflection Questions for each student.
  • Test the Letter Generator on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed on each computer. You can download the plug-in from the Technical Support page .

Student Objectives

Students will

  • read fiction by Tim O'Brien and determine the characteristics and techniques of his style.
  • make connections between ideas in literature and their own experience in order to grow as empathetic readers.
  • apply their knowledge to write their own pieces in a letter format.
  • employ all the steps of the writing process to create a polished and publishable piece.

Session One

  • How far have you traveled? (e.g., “all the way from the gym,” “down the hill from my car,” “just from the room next door,” etc.)
  • What have you brought with you on this journey? (e.g., “last night’s homework,” “my soccer cleats for practice,” “a bottle of water,” etc.)
  • Using this introductory conversation as stimulus, ask each student to list on a piece of paper all the things—both literal and symbolic things—he or she carries.
  • What do you carry every day in school?
  • What do you carry in the summer?
  • What do you have to bring to work?
  • What things do you carry that are very visible to the world?
  • What things are more hidden?
  • What things are totally invisible, that is, abstract or symbolic?
  • What do others make you carry?
  • What things do you carry that you’d like to put down?
  • Once students have accumulated a long list, ask them to share some of their ideas. Write these ideas on the board. The list likely will include concrete things such as car keys, history books, makeup, skateboards, candy bars, iPods, cell phones, hats, pictures, and good luck charms as well as abstract things such as stress, allergies, a secret, fear of not getting into college, memories of last summer, and so forth.
  • Using the list on the board, ask students to consider various ways of grouping these items into categories such as “Necessities,” “Luxuries,” “Things I Love,” “Concrete Things,” “Abstract Things,” “Things That Make Me ME,” “Things I Wish I Could Put Down.” Emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers here. The intent is to help students see that people carry things for different reasons and that we all have our own burdens.
  • Ask students to estimate the symbolic weight of these items listed on the board. Remind them that there are no right or wrong answers. (For example, one student may be carrying a detention slip that seems to weigh 50 pounds because of the trouble it involves, whereas another student may have a similar slip and find it almost weightless!) Students should begin to realize that we give weight to both objects and ideas depending on their importance and personal significance.
  • Ask students to estimate the symbolic weight of some of the items on their own lists.
  • Tell students they will read the story “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, from his 1990 novel about Vietnam, The Things They Carried .
  • Ask students to share what they know about the Vietnam War before they begin reading. Offer background information as needed. (See the Websites listed in the Resources section for information on Vietnam, O’Brien, and the book.)
  • For homework, ask students to read the story.

Session Two

  • Begin discussion of “The Things They Carried.” Ask students to note the technique O’Brien uses to tell the story, that is, the device of the list.
  • Make a list on the board of the things the soldiers carry (e.g., radios, rifles, comic books, tranquilizers, the soil, the humidity, guilt).
  • Encourage discussion that examines what each soldier carries and how that information reveals character.
  • Ask students to make categories for these things and to consider the possible symbolic weight of the various things the soldiers carry.
  • Tell students to return to the lists they made in the previous class session and to add to their lists anything, concrete or abstract, they may have forgotten. Allow students to share new ideas.
  • On their papers, ask students to circle three of the most significant weights they carry. Note that these things may represent positive or negative weight. The point is that each item is important and has an impact on the student’s life.
  • Give students five minutes to freewrite on each circled item. Suggest that in the freewriting they might try to describe the item, give some background information about it, explain why they are carrying it, explain its symbolic weight, and connect it to someone else in their lives.
  • After they finish freewriting, tell students to use their freewrites to determine which one of the things from their lists they feel most strongly about and want to elaborate on in their upcoming letter writing assignment.
  • Give each student a copy of the What Are You Carrying? Letter Assignment . Explain the activity, telling them that they will write a letter to someone with whom they can share the weight of one of these things they carry.
  • Use the Letter Generator to review the general requirements of friendly letters. Remind students that while their letters will be in friendly letter format and will therefore have an informal tone, the letters still must include details, as well as solid and specific ideas. (Examples: a student might choose to write to his/her mother to explain why he/she feels an enormous and burdensome weight of parental pressure, or someone might write to a best friend to talk about the positive weight of the picture he or she carries of the two of them together.)
  • Students should work on a draft of the letter as homework, which they will use in response groups during the next session.

Session Three

  • During this session, focus students’ attention on responses and revisions of the second drafts.
  • Divide the class into response groups of three to five students, and hand out the appropriate number of What Are You Carrying? Reader Response sheets to each group.
  • Ask writers to take turns reading the drafts of their letters to their groups. After each letter is read, the group should collectively complete a What Are You Carrying? Reader Response sheet for that letter in order to generate material that the student can use to improve/revise the next draft.
  • Ask each group to share a particularly strong letter or part of a letter with the entire class, after obtaining the writer’s permission to do so. Ask the group members to comment on why that piece of writing is especially powerful in order to help students determine qualities of good writing.
  • Allow writers who are struggling with aspects of their letters to ask for class input on specific problems they are encountering in their writing. Encourage a variety of suggestions from the class to help students recognize that there often is not one correct way to present material but rather that much of writing is subjective.
  • Allow students as much time as needed to continue to rework these drafts both at home and in class. Students should have their final drafts ready prior the next session.

Session Four

  • Hand out the What Are You Carrying? Reflection Questions for students to complete and attach to their final drafts before handing them in for grading.
  • After the final draft has been corrected and graded, ask students to do one more draft for “publication.” Tell them that they will mail this draft to the person to whom it is directed (i.e., the “Dear __________” ) (Note: in some cases a student may not feel comfortable doing this or the person to whom the letter is directed may no longer be alive or a direct part of the writer’s life. In this case, an alternative might be to have the student share the letter with someone else closely connected to the weight. If that is not acceptable to the student, he or she simply does not have to send the letter.)
  • If necessary, conduct a mini-lesson on addressing envelopes; in an age of e-mail, this is becoming a lost art!
  • Students will enjoy reading more of O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried . It can be read as a whole work, or chapters can be excerpted to stand as individual stories.
  • Try the ReadWriteThink lesson Love of War in Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” to explore another story from the novel.
  • Students who mail their letters may want to share responses they get from recipients, thereby presenting a valuable lesson in the power of the written word.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Use the elements listed on the What Are You Carrying? Reader Response sheet and students’ responses to the Reflection Questions to assess the final letter.
  • the work done to improve each draft.
  • the quality of the responses to the reflection questions.
  • Calendar Activities
  • Student Interactives

Observed on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day honors the men and women who died while serving in the United States military. In addition to having celebrations with family and friends, many people visit cemeteries and memorials and place flags on the grave sites of fallen servicemen and women.

The Letter Generator is a useful tool for students to learn the parts of a business or friendly letter and then compose and print letters for both styles of correspondence.

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the things they carried essay assignment

The Things They Carried

Tim o’brien, everything you need for every book you read..

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Tim O’Brien's The Things They Carried . Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

The Things They Carried: Introduction

The things they carried: plot summary, the things they carried: detailed summary & analysis, the things they carried: themes, the things they carried: quotes, the things they carried: characters, the things they carried: symbols, the things they carried: theme wheel, brief biography of tim o’brien.

The Things They Carried PDF

Historical Context of The Things They Carried

Other books related to the things they carried.

  • Full Title: The Things They Carried
  • When Written: 1980s
  • Where Written: The United States
  • When Published: 1990
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: War Novel
  • Setting: Vietnam; Minnesota; central Iowa

Extra Credit for The Things They Carried

Film Adaptation. "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" was made into a movie in 1998. It was titled A Soldier's Sweetheart and starred Kiefer Sutherland.

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The Things They Carried

64 pages • 2 hours read

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Chapter Summaries & Analyses

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Stories 7-9

Stories 10-13

Stories 14-16

Stories 17-19

Stories 20-22

Character Analysis

Symbols & Motifs

Important Quotes

Essay Topics

Discussion Questions

The Things They Carried is made up of 22, tightly related short stories. Why do you think the author chose to break up his narrative into individual stories rather than writing a traditional novel?

In several stories throughout the book, the narrator says, “I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now” (171). Why do you think the narrator repeats this phrase so often? Does it change the way you read the stories and if so, how?

As the men travel through the war zone, they encounter many helpful locals, such as the women who tries to warn them not to camp by the field and the old man who guides them through the minefields. Why does the author bother to include portraits of such characters? How do they affect the overall moral tone of the book?

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the things they carried essay assignment

  • My Preferences
  • My Reading List
  • The Things They Carried

Tim O'Brien

  • Literature Notes
  • Book Summary
  • About The Things They Carried
  • Character List
  • Summary and Analysis
  • On the Rainy River
  • Enemies and Friends
  • How to Tell a True War Story
  • The Dentist
  • Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong
  • The Man I Killed and Ambush
  • Speaking of Courage
  • In the Field
  • The Ghost Soldiers
  • The Lives of the Dead
  • Character Analysis
  • Tim O'Brien
  • Lt. Jimmy Cross
  • Norman Bowker
  • Mary Anne Bell
  • Henry Dobbins
  • Tim O'Brien Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • The Things They Carried in a Historical Context
  • Narrative Structure in The Things They Carried
  • Style and Storytelling in The Things They Carried
  • The Things They Carried and Loss of Innocence
  • The Things They Carried and Questions of Genre
  • Full Glossary for The Things They Carried
  • Essay Questions
  • Practice Projects
  • Cite this Literature Note

Summary and Analysis The Things They Carried

An unnamed narrator describes in third person the thoughts and actions of Jimmy Cross, the lieutenant of an Army unit on active combat duty in the Vietnam War. Lt. Cross is preoccupied by thoughts of Martha, a young woman he dated before he joined the Army. He thinks about letters she wrote him; he thinks about whether or not she is a virgin; he thinks about how much he loves her and wants her to love him. Her letters do not indicate that she feels the same way.

The narrator lists things that the soldiers carry with them, both tangible and intangible, such as Lt. Cross's picture of and feelings for Martha. Other members of the unit are introduced through descriptions of the things they carry, such as Henry Dobbins who carries extra food, Ted Lavender who carries tranquilizer pills, and Kiowa who carries a hunting hatchet. O'Brien introduces readers to the novel's primary characters by describing the articles that the soldiers carry. The level of detail O'Brien offers about the characters is expanded upon and illuminated in the chapters that follow, though O'Brien distills the essence of each characters' personality through the symbolic items each carries. Henry Dobbins carries a machine gun and his girlfriend's pantyhose. Dave Jensen carries soap, dental floss, foot powder, and vitamins. Mitchell Sanders carries condoms, brass knuckles, and the unit's radio. Norman Bowker carries a diary. Kiowa carries a volume of the New Testament and moccasins. Rat Kiley carries his medical kit, brandy, comic books, and M&M's candy. The narrator offers additional detail about selected items; for example, the poncho Ted Lavender carries will later be used by his fellow soldiers to carry his dead body.

This device is an example of the author and narrator embedding small details in the text that will be further explained later in the book. It is important to note, too, how the details are selective; they are recalled by a character, the unnamed narrator of the chapter. The details of what each man carries are funneled through the memory of this narrator.

O'Brien details at great length what all the men carry: standard gear, weapons, tear gas, explosives, ammunitions, entrenching tools, starlight scopes, grenades, flak jackets, boots, rations, and the Army newsletter. They also carry their grief, terror, love, and longing, with poise and dignity. O'Brien's extended catalog of items creates a picture in the reader's mind that grows incrementally. O'Brien's technique also allows each character to be introduced with a history and a unique place within the group of men.

Lt. Cross is singled out from the group, and O'Brien offers the most detail about his interior feelings and thoughts. Many of these soldiers "hump," or carry, photographs, and Lieutenant Cross has an action shot of Martha playing volleyball. He also carries memories of their date and regrets that he did not try to satisfy his desire to become intimate with her by tying her up and touching her knee. O'Brien stresses that Lt. Cross carries all these things, but in addition carries the lives of his men.

Even as O'Brien opens The Things They Carried, he sets forth the novel's primary themes of memory and imagination and the opportunity for mental escape that these powers offer. For example, as Lt. Cross moves through the rigorous daily motions of combat duty, his mind dwells on Martha. Importantly, as he thinks about Martha, he does not merely recall memories of her; instead he imagines what might be, such as "romantic camping trips" into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. O'Brien describes these longings of Lt. Cross as "pretending." Pretending is a form of storytelling, that is, telling stories to oneself. O'Brien underscores the importance of Lt. Cross's actions by emphasizing the artifacts — Martha's letters and photograph — and characterizes Lt. Cross as the carrier of these possessions as well as of his love for Martha.

O'Brien moves from employing the literary technique of describing the soldiers' physical artifacts to introducing the novel's primary characters. The minute details he provides about objects that individuals carry is telling, and particular attention should be paid to these details because they foreshadow the core narratives that comprise the novel. This technique of cataloging the things the soldiers carry also functions to create fuller composites of the characters, and by extension make the characters seem more real to readers.

This aesthetic of helping readers connect with his characters is O'Brien's primary objective in the novel, to make readers feel the story he presents as much as is physically and emotionally possible, as if it were real. Though the minutiae that O'Brien includes — for example the weight of a weapon, the weight of a radio, the weight of a grenade in ounces — seems superfluous, it is supposed to be accretive in his readers' imaginations so that they can begin to feel the physical weight of the burdens of war, as well as, eventually, the psychological and emotional burdens (so much as it is possible for a non-witness to war to perceive). O'Brien's attention to sensory detail also supports this primary objective of evoking a real response in the reader.

With Lavender's death, O'Brien creates a tension between the "actuality" of Lt. Cross's participation in battle and his interior, imagined fantasies that give him refuge. In burning Martha's letters and accepting blame for Lavender's death, Cross's conflicting trains of thought signal the reader to be cautious when deciding what is truth or fantasy and when assigning meaning to these stories. While he destroyed the physical accoutrements, the mementos of Martha, Lt. Cross continues to carry the memory of her with him. To that memory is also added the burden of grief and guilt. Despite this emotional burden, O'Brien, as he continues in the following chapter, begins to highlight the central question of the novel: Why people carry the things they do?

rucksack A kind of knapsack strapped over the shoulders.

foxhole A hole dug in the ground as a temporary protection for one or two soldiers against enemy gunfire or tanks.

perimeter A boundary strip where defenses are set up.

heat tabs Fuel pellets used for heating C rations.

C rations A canned ration used in the field in World War II.

R & R Rest and recuperation, leave.

Than Khe (also Khe Sahn) A major battle in the Tet Offensive, the siege lasted well over a month in the beginning of 1968. Khe Sahn was thought of as an important strategic location for both the Americans and the North Vietnamese. American forces were forced to withdraw from Khe Sahn.

SOP Abbreviation for standard operating procedure.

RTO Radio telephone operator who carried a lightweight infantry field radio.

grunt A U.S. infantryman.

hump To travel on foot, especially when carrying and transporting necessary supplies for field combat.

platoon A military unit composed of two or more squads or sections, normally under the command of a lieutenant: it is a subdivision of a company, troop, and so on.

medic A medical noncommissioned officer who gives first aid in combat; aidman; corpsman.

M-60 American-made machine gun.

PFC Abbreviation for Private First Class.

Spec 4 Specialist Rank, having no command function; soldier who carries out orders.

M-16 The standard American rifle used in Vietnam after 1966.

flak jacket A vestlike, bulletproof jacket worn by soldiers.

KIA Abbreviation for killed in action, to be killed in the line of duty.

chopper A helicopter.

dustoff Medical evacuation by helicopter.

Claymore antipersonnel mine An antipersonnel mine that scatters shrapnel in a particular, often fan-shaped, area when it explodes.

Starlight scope A night-vision telescope that enables a user to see in the dark.

tunnel complexes The use of tunnels by the Viet Cong as hiding places, caches for food and weapons, headquarter complexes and protection against air strikes and artillery fire was a characteristic of the Vietnam war.

The Stars and Stripes A newsletter-style publication produced for servicemen by the U.S. Army.

Bronze Star A U.S. military decoration awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement or service in combat not involving aerial flight.

Purple Heart A U.S. military decoration awarded to members of the armed forces wounded or killed in action by or against an enemy: established in 1782 and re-established in 1932.

entrenching tool A shovel-like tool, among its other uses, used to dig temporary fortifications such as foxholes.

zapped Killed.

freedom bird Any aircraft which returned servicemen to the U.S.

sin loi From Vietnamese, literally meaning excuse me, though servicemen came to understand the term as meaning too bad or tough luck.

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“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien Essay

Introduction, war as the central theme of “the things they carried”, works cited.

The main theme of “The Things They Carried” by O’Brien is the events that were happening during the Vietnam War. The war does not revolve around things such as heroism or tactics. It is characterized by boredom and terrific moments. Apart from that, it is a backdrop that defines the force against the lives of the soldiers.

O’Brien emphasizes the fact that it is not easy to generalize what is entailed in war. The short story addresses different themes, but war is among its central topics. Tim O’Brien is among the characters that play essential roles in the story. There is a close connection between OBrien and the theme of war. This essay will discuss the relationship between O’Brien as a character and the war as the central theme of “The Things They Carried.”

O’Brien focuses on telling war stories. TTTC is a work of fiction. Throughout the story, there is an interplay between fact and fiction.

O’Brien tells the story authoritatively because he was there during the actual war. That is the connection between O’Brien’s biography and the story’s central theme that was mentioned in the above paragraph of the essay. The examples of it in “The Things They Carried” are numerous. Regarding the Vietnam War, no one can tell the story better than a person like O’Brien, who witnessed the action. Assuming a position of authority, O’Brien goes ahead to define the parameters characteristic of a true war story.

He says that a true war story lacks morals. It never instructs nor encourages virtue and does not even suggest models of the right human behavior nor restrain men from doing the things they always do.

T. O’Brien does not agree with the thesis that war stories are vehicles for restitution or change. He represents war as hell, mystery, terror, and discovery.

He adds that it is a nasty and thrilling experience that makes people men and also leaves them dead. He says that the irreconcilable opposites need to be together because their oxymoronic togetherness articulates the reality of war. He writes that the recollection of the death of Curt Lemon is possible when the ‘surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which represents the hard and exact truth is seemed’ (O’Brien 78).

The above quote shows that O’Brien deals with the challenge of representation, the weakness of language to convey meaning, flavor, boredom, and the feelings of war. Inscription and re-inscription are the only ways through which he hopes to pass the message on the truth of war appropriately. That is what makes the theme of war in the story a circular and repetitive idea.

For every assertion of truth, it is essential to qualify and represent it for it to be considered authentic. O’Brien creates a situation that conveys the message that no heroism or morality is derived from the experiences of war. It is the source of guilt and shame only. O’Brien presents war as a disembodied presence with a life of its own, where deadly equipment like napalm and white phosphorus undergo a magical transformation into morally acceptable objects of beauty.

He portrays astuteness to the extent that he acknowledges the fact that describing such destruction as beautiful is in itself ugly truth. However, the justification for the truth bases on the role the truth plays.

Ugly truths like the fascination that war begets are bound to be expressed, although in expressing such truths, war is anesthetized and domesticated. The absolute moral indifference that O’Brien relates to bombing raids and artillery barrages is only defendable if the attacks or bombardments have no human agencies behind them (O’Brien 80).

The fact that there are always human agencies behind war and the eloquent portrayal by O’Brien that war maims and kills makes it challenging to uphold an opinion of the moral or aesthetic perspective of war. The unleashing of such negative impacts of war trivializes any morality in war. In presenting an alternative moral view, O’Brien perpetrates a mythic fascination with the horrific occurrences associated with war.

O’Brien says that although war is hell, it is comprised of many other contradictions. A firefight is followed by a mysterious experience of surviving the ordeal.

He says that war is ambiguous and concurs with a story told by Sanders of men who heard things in the forest during the war. He, therefore, concludes by saying that a true war story does not tell the absolute truth. He recalls the circumstances that led to the death of Lemon as he smiled and talked but was killed within a second.

His body was thrown into a tree, and they were instructed to retrieve it with Jensen. O’Brien says that true war stories are identifiable by the questions that follow the war. He retells the story of a man who has nearly killed a grenade as he tried to protect his friends. His message is that war stories that seem true never actually happened.

This essay analyzes Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”. It is a compelling short story of the Vietnam War. In summary, war is its central theme, as shown in numerous researches. This paper on “The Things They Carried” aims to connect O’Brien’s biography with the main issue of the plot.

In the story, different characters are used to express various themes, such as emotional and physical burdens, among others. However, the issue of war runs throughout the story. O Brien is himself one of the characters in the story and tells the story of the war as a person who witnessed it. He is closely connected with the theme of war in the story, such that without him, the issue cannot be brought out so clearly.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried . New York: Broadway Books, 1998. Print.

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"“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien." IvyPanda , 28 Oct. 2023, ivypanda.com/essays/the-things-they-carried-by-tim-obrien/.

IvyPanda . (2023) '“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien'. 28 October.

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1. IvyPanda . "“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien." October 28, 2023. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-things-they-carried-by-tim-obrien/.


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Literary Theory and Criticism

Home › Literature › Analysis of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

Analysis of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on May 26, 2021

In the short story cycle The Things They Carried (1990), Tim O’Brien cemented his reputation as one of the most powerful chroniclers of the Vietnam War, joining the conversation alongside Philip Caputo ( A Rumor of War ), Michael Herr ( Dispatches ), David Halberstam ( The Best and the Brightest ), and the poet Bruce Weigl ( Song of Napalm ), among others. Comprising 22 pieces—some little more than vignettes, others more “traditional” stories—the collection details the experiences of the soldier Tim O’Brien, who returns to his native Minnesota after a tour of duty in Vietnam. In his subsequent role as author, O’Brien records his recollections in a false memoir of sorts as a way of reconstructing the war’s elusive “truth.” O’Brien’s goal in The Things They Carried, he tells Michael Coffey, “was to write something utterly convincing but without any rules as to what’s real and what’s made up. I forced myself to try to invent a new form. I had never invented form before” (60).

“In the Field” follows Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and his platoon of 17 remaining men as they search a Vietnamese muck field for Kiowa, a lost comrade. Cross, who figures prominently in several of the book’s pieces—including the eponymous “The Things They Carried,” the collection’s most anthologized story—feels tremendous guilt over Kiowa’s death, not the least because the previous evening, just before an ambush, Cross refused to disobey orders and to move his men to higher, and therefore safer, ground. Kiowa, buried when a fellow soldier inadvertently gave away the platoon’s position to the enemy, was a popular soldier. Out of respect for their fallen comrade, the men dutifully wade through waist-deep sewage searching for his remains; they sustain themselves with a morbid sense of humor, making light of the situation in order to quell their fear of random, sudden death at the hands of a faceless enemy. Cross quickly realizes that he is ill suited for the military, having been shipped to Vietnam after joining the officer training corps in college only to be with friends and to collect a few college credits. “[Cross] did not care one way or the other about the war,” O’Brien intones, “and he had no desire to command, and even after all these months in the bush, all the days and nights, even then he did not know enough to keep his men out of a shit field” (168).

the things they carried essay assignment

Tim O’Brien/The Austin Chronicle

War is a great leveler in O’Brien’s fiction. In the field where Cross and his men search for Kiowa, “The filth seemed to erase identities, transforming the men into identical copies of a single soldier, which was exactly how Jimmy Cross had been trained to treat them, as interchangeable units of command” (163). The young lieutenant, however, suspends his humanity only with great difficulty. Ruminating on Kiowa’s death, he imagines writing a letter to the soldier’s father before deciding that “no apologies were necessary, because in fact it was one of those freak things, and the war was full of freaks, and nothing could ever change it anyway” (176). Cross’s rationalization may absolve him (at least in part) of his guilt over Kiowa’s death, though it is also a tacit admission of his lack of control over the war’s daily life-and-death struggles. Cross’s desire to organize the details of Kiowa’s death in his own mind is an extension of O’Brien’s attempt in The Things They Carried to construct a coherent narrative that finds the essential truth of war (a notion that the author confirms in the ironically titled “How to Tell a True War Story” which acts as an interpretive key to his recollections).

Upon the discovery of Kiowa’s body, the men properly mourn the loss of their fellow soldier, though “they also felt a kind of giddiness, a secret joy, because they were alive, and because even the rain was preferable to being sucked under a shit field, and because it was all a matter of luck and happenstance” (175). Cross, yearning for war’s end, imagines himself on a golf course in his New Jersey hometown, free of the burden of leading men to their deaths. O’Brien examines the onus of responsibility often, and in the related story “Field Trip,” which details the author’s return to Vietnam two decades later to the field where Kiowa died, O’Brien finds a world barely recognizable as the one he left behind. “The field remains, but in a form much different from what O’Brien remembers, smaller now, and full of light,” Patrick A. Smith writes of O’Brien’s visit. “The air is soundless, the ghosts are missing, and the farmers who now tend the field go back to work after stealing a curious glance in his direction. The war is absent, except in O’Brien’s memory” (107). But it is memory, O’Brien makes clear, that supersedes experience and haunts soldiers long after the shooting has stopped.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Coffey, Michael. “Tim O’Brien: Inventing a New Form Helps the Author Talk about War, Memory, and Storytelling.” Publishers Weekly, 16 February 1990, pp. 60–61. O’Brien, Tim. “In the Field.” In The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Smith, Patrick A. Tim O’Brien: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.

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The Things They Carried Lesson Plan

Reading assignment, questions, vocabulary.

Read "The Things They Carried," "Love," and "Spin."

Common Core Objectives


Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.


Analyze the impact of the author's choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).


Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires...

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The Things They Carried Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for The Things They Carried is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

is this a war story, per se? if so who is the main character, and why?

This particular story is more about sexual longing than war. Mark Fossie seems to be the main character who wants to import his girlfriend.

What is it that Jimmy cross carries with him? What do they represent?

Jimmy always carries letters from Martha. His identity and hopes for the future are part of those letters.

How does Tim kill his first enemy

I think with a grenade.

Study Guide for The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried study guide contains a biography of Tim O'Brien, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

  • About The Things They Carried
  • The Things They Carried Summary
  • Character List

Essays for The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.

  • Rationalizing the Fear Within
  • Physical and Psychological Burdens
  • Role of Kathleen and Linda in The Things They Carried
  • Let’s Communicate: It’s Not About War
  • Turning Over a New Leaf: Facing the Pressures of Society

Lesson Plan for The Things They Carried

  • About the Author
  • Study Objectives
  • Common Core Standards
  • Introduction to The Things They Carried
  • Relationship to Other Books
  • Bringing in Technology
  • Notes to the Teacher
  • Related Links
  • The Things They Carried Bibliography

the things they carried essay assignment

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Ransom Center Magazine

The textual “truth” behind Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

June 20, 2017 - John Young

Tim O’Brien’s  The Things They Carried is a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling. The book depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer. The Harry Ransom Center holds the author’s archive .

the things they carried essay assignment

Two of the most poignant stories in The Things They Carried are “On the Rainy River” and “Field Trip.” “Rainy River” portrays a young O’Brien, weeks removed from his college graduation, leaving his home in Worthington, Minnesota, for a fishing outpost on the Canadian border, agonizing over whether to report for Army induction or to live as a draft dodger. In “Field Trip,” O’Brien returns to Vietnam many years after his tour of duty as a foot soldier and radio operator, now with his ten-year-old daughter, Kathleen, as he seeks some measure of peace from the traumatic memories of a close comrade’s death. Because these stories are removed from the daily realities of the war, they tend to be more accessible to O’Brien’s audience. But in the original version of Things , readers would have turned the page to discover that neither of these stories is “true.”

Throughout The Things They Carried , O’Brien famously distinguishes between “happening-truth,” or an accurate and verifiable account of historical events, and “story truth,” or readers’ genuine experience of the story, even if the details are invented. The book blurs the lines between fiction and truth even further in its dedication to a group of soldiers who turn out to be fictional characters throughout the rest of the book, and in the appearance of “Tim O’Brien” in several stories, a figure who seems very similar to, but not quite identical with, the author. Many readers, and most of my students over many years of teaching the book, take the circumstances of “Rainy River” and “Field Trip” to be at least more or less true (in the conventional sense): they assume that O’Brien made some sort of trip away from his family while deciding whether to honor his draft notice, even if not precisely the one portrayed here, and that O’Brien and his daughter went back to Vietnam years after the war, even if, again, the “real” version of that event differs from its fictional representation. (That is, they take these stories to be relatively conventional instances of fiction based on episodes from the author’s life, even if contained within a much more complex metafictional narrative.)

In fact, while O’Brien did agonize about serving in a war he vehemently opposed, he never made any trip like the one in “Rainy River;” his worries played out entirely in Worthington. And, while O’Brien did return to Vietnam in 1994, accompanied by his then girlfriend—this trip is the subject of his well-known piece for The New York Times Magazine , “The Vietnam in Me”—his daughter did not go with him, because he had no children. In the typescript for the book that O’Brien sent to Houghton Mifflin, the chapter titled “Good Form,” which discusses O’Brien’s interactions with the (ostensibly real) veteran Norman Bowker, also included a long passage disavowing any happening-truth in “Rainy River” or “Field Trip,” or in various other events in the book, such as O’Brien’s empathetic imagination of the Vietnamese life he has ended by shooting an enemy soldier on patrol, or a postwar visit from his former company commander, Jimmy Cross. Here is a portion of that early version (I have retained the cross-throughs as they appear in the copy at the Harry Ransom Center):

I don’t have a daughter named Kathleen. I don’t have a daughter. I don’t have children. To my knowledge, at least, I never killed anyone. Jimmy Cross never visited me at my house in Massachusetts, because of course Jimmy Cross does not exist in the world of objects, and never did. He’s purely invented, like Martha, and like Kiowa or Mitchell Sanders and all the others. I never ran way to the Rainy River. I wanted to—badly—but I didn’t .

I came across this typescript during a month-long fellowship at the Ransom Center, poring through as many of O’Brien’s papers as I could, and have written about it more extensively in How to Revise a True War Story: Tim O’Brien’s Process of Textual Production (University of Iowa Press, 2017). Ever since my first encounter with this aspect of O’Brien’s papers, I have been fascinated by the question of how readers would interact differently with the book if passages like this one (and another deleted chapter, “The Real Mary Anne,” which takes the opposite tack of insisting that the heroine of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” was, against the odds, an actual person) had been retained. Or, to put that counterfactual question another way: how might O’Brien’s real readers have responded to the version(s) of The Things They Carried that could have been published, but weren’t? We can start to think through those questions by looking back further than the typescript, to the magazine versions of several chapters that appeared before the book.

O’Brien’s Magazine Readers

Snapshot of O'Brien in Vietnam. Unknown date and photographer.

While the relationship between fiction and truth is questioned elsewhere in The Things They Carried for readers to at least reasonably doubt the veracity of stories like “Rainy River” and “Field Trip,” some of O’Brien’s original readers would have had no such contextual cues, as they found these stories in magazines. “Rainy River” appeared first in two periodicals: Macalester Today , O’Brien’s college alumni magazine, and Playboy , which paid $5,000, the largest magazine check of O’Brien’s career to that point. Macalester Today heightens the sense of autobiographical reality with its subheading, “A writer remembers the summer of 1968, when he found himself in desperate trouble. A month after graduating from Macalester, he was drafted to serve in Vietnam.” But O’Brien’s own introduction to the story immediately undercuts this impression, as he explains his choice to use a character who shares his name but is otherwise “almost entirely invented”: “Personally, I can’t see that it matters in the least—what counts is the artifact, the work itself—but nonetheless, with this book in particular, people seem interested in knowing what’s ‘real’ and what isn’t. As with all fiction, the answer is simple: if you believe it, it’s real; if you don’t, it isn’t.” O’Brien here deftly sidesteps the question of what’s “real,” at least as most of his readers would understand it, or why they might be especially concerned about such issues with this book, for an answer that bleeds into his more developed sense of “story truth” in the book. But given the context of an alumni magazine, we might easily assume readers who are at least relatively predisposed to take the events in “Rainy River” as closer to “real” than they are, based not only on the question of whether they “believe it,” but also on the types of stories one expects to find in this venue.

“Field Trip” appeared in the August 1990 issue of McCall’s , part of the magazine’s “Summer Fiction Special,” with a readership presumably attuned to the father-daughter relationship as much as the memories of wartime trauma. Indeed, the pull quote on the story’s first page highlights O’Brien’s supposed daughter as if she were the story’s central consciousness: “Kathleen was only ten, but her father wanted her to understand Vietnam, the place where he’d lost so much, and to witness what it was he’d find there.” McCall’s readers, had they encountered a version of the book with the passage above from “Good Form” intact, might have been especially surprised, even dismayed, to discover Kathleen’s fictionality. Of course, that’s often the point in The Things They Carried , as in the famous ending of “How to Tell a True War Story,” when the reader learns that the savage killing of a baby water buffalo was an overtly fictional episode. Identifying with O’Brien as a father, and/or with his young daughter’s attempt to make sense of a war she doesn’t understand, only to have the fictional rug pulled out, seems on its surface like the same kind of effect that the book goes to considerable lengths to create in its other chapters.

Snapshot of O'Brien in Vietnam. Unknown date and photographer.

So, why did O’Brien remove these elements of The Things They Carried ? That is, why did he render the narrative less overtly metafictional, and how does this revision impact readers of the editions actually published? Part of the answer is that O’Brien’s editor at Houghton Mifflin, Camille Hykes, felt the collection would be stronger without its tricks exposed quite so much. “Why should the magician pull up his sleeve & tell us—Look, this is where the birds come from—when really, deep down, we knew it anyway?” she wrote to O’Brien. And O’Brien himself clearly decided this version of the book would more subtly, and more effectively, generate its metafictional effects.

But I’m not so sure. Much of the real power of The Things They Carried , for me, comes precisely from the process of building emotional investments in its characters, and then rebuilding those relationships on different terms once we have been told, in no uncertain terms, that the “people” we have come to care about don’t “exist in the world of objects.” We probably knew it all along, as Hykes suggests, but the best magic tricks, after all, are the ones where you know it’s an illusion but still can’t quite figure out what’s really “true.”

John K. Young is a professor of English at Marshall University and author of Black Writers, White Publishers (2006); Publishing Blackness , co-edited with George Hutchinson (2013), and How to Revise a True War Story (2017). His fellowship at the Ransom Center was supported by the Norman Mailer Endowed Fund.

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'The Things They Carried' Prompts

Prompt 1: what they carried. what i do..

“The Things They Carried” represents more than their tangible belongings. It also reflects upon the weight they bare, for example their trauma. The item first listed was another example: the weight of the war. I was most surprised by the fact that Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried pictures of a woman who rejected him, Martha, just because they remind him of his personal goal: to survive the war and see her again. He reads these letters every night. Kiowa carries a copy of the New Testament, with religion holding a strong place in his heart. Ted Lavender carried tranquilizers due to his poignant sense of constant fear… until he gets shot in the head. I’m not religious, but Kiowa’s attachment and loyalty to his beliefs is what struck me the most interesting. So many soldiers turn to the loss of their faith when shipped off to war, finding no humanity or godly presence in the acts of war. The fact that Kiowa stuck it out so long is greatly inspiring even to someone without the faith. Personally, I carry very little with me. On a daily basis I always have my phone, wallet, and keys with me. That’s really all I need to feel ready to take on the day. Speaking more of intangible items, the list is much longer. While the weight bearing on me will never compare to that of the characters, it is still heavy. I hold the responsibility of my grades, maintaining my social life, preparing for college, working every single evening, taking care of my very old car, and driving my mother to and from work daily. The ladder most definitely weighs more than my three objects.

Prompt 2: War Stories.

O’Brien gives a detailed description of what a true war story is, regardless of whether or not it really happened, throughout this entire chapter. True war stories contain obscenity and evil; no sign of any true morals. They sound too absurd to be believed by any sane person. They aren’t general, for example, “War is hell,”, but instead make your stomach believe more than your mind. True war stories are never about war, he says, but rather instead turns out to be what happened when they were not fighting the “enemy” directly or in face-to-face combat. This leads into a story he tells of a baby water buffalo killed by Rat — no, tortured. He tells this story only after telling us about Lemon, Rat’s best friend. Lemon was playing with Rat under a tree, tossing a smoke grenade back and forth in the joyous sunlight. All of a sudden the sunlight took a hold of Lemon and lifted him off the ground into the tree. Presumably, he had stepped on a mine. As a result, bits and pieces of Curt Lemon were hanging from the tree. O’Brien and Dave Jensen had to ascend up the tree and throw all the bits down. The water buffalo story is what sticks in my head the most. Lemon’s death is expected to some degree as human fatality is a given in these stories. The baby buffalo, on the other hand, was needlessly and mercilessly shot repeatedly, being mauled and ripped apart by Rat’s emotional trauma. O’Brien goes on to explain how war is like a love story. After all the damage is done, and the bullets are shot, everyone starts to love the feeling of living; they start to enjoy the little things like seeing a water buffalo, or seeing the sunset. They start to love the war because of the little things war has to offer, so a true story of war is actually a love story.

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The Loss of Things I Took for Granted

Ten years into my college teaching career, students stopped being able to read effectively..

Recent years have seen successive waves of book bans in Republican-controlled states, aimed at pulling any text with “woke” themes from classrooms and library shelves. Though the results sometimes seem farcical, as with the banning of Art Spiegelman’s Maus due to its inclusion of “cuss words” and explicit rodent nudity, the book-banning agenda is no laughing matter. Motivated by bigotry, it has already done demonstrable harm and promises to do more. But at the same time, the appropriate response is, in principle, simple. Named individuals have advanced explicit policies with clear goals and outcomes, and we can replace those individuals with people who want to reverse those policies. That is already beginning to happen in many places, and I hope those successes will continue until every banned book is restored.

If and when that happens, however, we will not be able to declare victory quite yet. Defeating the open conspiracy to deprive students of physical access to books will do little to counteract the more diffuse confluence of forces that are depriving students of the skills needed to meaningfully engage with those books in the first place. As a college educator, I am confronted daily with the results of that conspiracy-without-conspirators. I have been teaching in small liberal arts colleges for over 15 years now, and in the past five years, it’s as though someone flipped a switch. For most of my career, I assigned around 30 pages of reading per class meeting as a baseline expectation—sometimes scaling up for purely expository readings or pulling back for more difficult texts. (No human being can read 30 pages of Hegel in one sitting, for example.) Now students are intimidated by anything over 10 pages and seem to walk away from readings of as little as 20 pages with no real understanding. Even smart and motivated students struggle to do more with written texts than extract decontextualized take-aways. Considerable class time is taken up simply establishing what happened in a story or the basic steps of an argument—skills I used to be able to take for granted.

Since this development very directly affects my ability to do my job as I understand it, I talk about it a lot. And when I talk about it with nonacademics, certain predictable responses inevitably arise, all questioning the reality of the trend I describe. Hasn’t every generation felt that the younger cohort is going to hell in a handbasket? Haven’t professors always complained that educators at earlier levels are not adequately equipping their students? And haven’t students from time immemorial skipped the readings?

The response of my fellow academics, however, reassures me that I’m not simply indulging in intergenerational grousing. Anecdotally, I have literally never met a professor who did not share my experience. Professors are also discussing the issue in academic trade publications , from a variety of perspectives. What we almost all seem to agree on is that we are facing new obstacles in structuring and delivering our courses, requiring us to ratchet down expectations in the face of a ratcheting down of preparation. Yes, there were always students who skipped the readings, but we are in new territory when even highly motivated honors students struggle to grasp the basic argument of a 20-page article. Yes, professors never feel satisfied that high school teachers have done enough, but not every generation of professors has had to deal with the fallout of No Child Left Behind and Common Core. Finally, yes, every generation thinks the younger generation is failing to make the grade— except for the current cohort of professors, who are by and large more invested in their students’ success and mental health and more responsive to student needs than any group of educators in human history. We are not complaining about our students. We are complaining about what has been taken from them.

If we ask what has caused this change, there are some obvious culprits. The first is the same thing that has taken away almost everyone’s ability to focus—the ubiquitous smartphone. Even as a career academic who studies the Quran in Arabic for fun, I have noticed my reading endurance flagging. I once found myself boasting at a faculty meeting that I had read through my entire hourlong train ride without looking at my phone. My colleagues agreed this was a major feat, one they had not achieved recently. Even if I rarely attain that high level of focus, though, I am able to “turn it on” when demanded, for instance to plow through a big novel during a holiday break. That’s because I was able to develop and practice those skills of extended concentration and attentive reading before the intervention of the smartphone. For children who were raised with smartphones, by contrast, that foundation is missing. It is probably no coincidence that the iPhone itself, originally released in 2007, is approaching college age, meaning that professors are increasingly dealing with students who would have become addicted to the dopamine hit of the omnipresent screen long before they were introduced to the more subtle pleasures of the page.

The second go-to explanation is the massive disruption of school closures during COVID-19. There is still some debate about the necessity of those measures, but what is not up for debate any longer is the very real learning loss that students suffered at every level. The impact will inevitably continue to be felt for the next decade or more, until the last cohort affected by the mass “pivot to online” finally graduates. I doubt that the pandemic closures were the decisive factor in themselves, however. Not only did the marked decline in reading resilience start before the pandemic, but the students I am seeing would have already been in high school during the school closures. Hence they would be better equipped to get something out of the online format and, more importantly, their basic reading competence would have already been established.

Less discussed than these broader cultural trends over which educators have little control are the major changes in reading pedagogy that have occurred in recent decades—some motivated by the ever-increasing demand to “teach to the test” and some by fads coming out of schools of education. In the latter category is the widely discussed decline in phonics education in favor of the “balanced literacy” approach advocated by education expert Lucy Calkins (who has more recently come to accept the need for more phonics instruction). I started to see the results of this ill-advised change several years ago, when students abruptly stopped attempting to sound out unfamiliar words and instead paused until they recognized the whole word as a unit. (In a recent class session, a smart, capable student was caught short by the word circumstances when reading a text out loud.) The result of this vibes-based literacy is that students never attain genuine fluency in reading. Even aside from the impact of smartphones, their experience of reading is constantly interrupted by their intentionally cultivated inability to process unfamiliar words.

For all the flaws of the balanced literacy method, it was presumably implemented by people who thought it would help. It is hard to see a similar motivation in the growing trend toward assigning students only the kind of short passages that can be included in a standardized test. Due in part to changes driven by the infamous Common Core standards , teachers now have to fight to assign their students longer readings, much less entire books, because those activities won’t feed directly into students getting higher test scores, which leads to schools getting more funding. The emphasis on standardized tests was always a distraction at best, but we have reached the point where it is actively cannibalizing students’ educational experience—an outcome no one intended or planned, and for which there is no possible justification.

We can’t go back in time and do the pandemic differently at this point, nor is there any realistic path to putting the smartphone genie back in the bottle. (Though I will note that we as a society do at least attempt to keep other addictive products out of the hands of children.) But I have to think that we can, at the very least, stop actively preventing young people from developing the ability to follow extended narratives and arguments in the classroom. Regardless of their profession or ultimate educational level, they will need those skills. The world is a complicated place. People—their histories and identities, their institutions and work processes, their fears and desires—are simply too complex to be captured in a worksheet with a paragraph and some reading comprehension questions. Large-scale prose writing is the best medium we have for capturing that complexity, and the education system should not be in the business of keeping students from learning how to engage effectively with it.

This is a matter not of snobbery, but of basic justice. I recognize that not everyone centers their lives on books as much as a humanities professor does. I think they’re missing out, but they’re adults and they can choose how to spend their time. What’s happening with the current generation is not that they are simply choosing TikTok over Jane Austen. They are being deprived of the ability to choose—for no real reason or benefit. We can and must stop perpetrating this crime on our young people.

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