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The Things They Carried

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Daniel Konopasek

on 30 July 2013

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Transcript of The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien

Basic Overview
-a collection of stories: the stories of the men of Alpha company before during and after the Vietnam War

-Couple of topics: 1. the surreal and ambiguous nature of the war 2. the inadequacy of plain facts in communicating truth 3. the alienation of the Vietnam War veteran

The Things They Carried is a work of fiction, meaning that the stories essentially are not real.

This is hard for many readers to believe because some of the stories are told from a first person perspective, and plainly, they seem so real.

Still, there is always some sort of truth and author's experience in all stories.
Why does this book matter?
Hopefully, with every book you read, you will discover the themes and messages in it that matter to you.

Soldiers are a part of every war. This book deals with people as individuals and not just cogs in a machine to fight a war.

War is more than just the pictures or the movies you see.
Tim O'Brien
born in 1946
...more on O'Brien
He was an army infantryman from 1968-1970, and received the Purple Heart.

After his time in the service, he studied at Harvard, worked as a reporter for the Washington Post, and began writing novels.

All of his novels have ties to the Vitenam War.

The Things They Carried was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
He started writing at a young age after a humiliating incident on the baseball field. It made him feel better.

Writing helped him escape loneliness and frustration and fiction helped him experience what could have been or should have been.

Was drafted for the Vietnam War. Considered fleeing, but fought in the war, instead.
"The Things They Carried"
Soldiers carry necessary items that they need.

Soldiers carry personal items.

Soldiers carry specific items based off of their rank and position.
And soldiers carry metaphorical, non literal baggage.
For example: Jimmy Cross now carries the death of Ted Lavender. He blames himself because he was thinking of Martha.
Big Theme in this chapter: Guilt
Jimmy Cross's role: The Leader

Lavender's death should have never happened, according to Cross.

Make this connection: What are the two references to rocks and Jimmy Cross in this chapter? How are they used and described?
Literary Stuff
Point of View: Third person (one of the few times it's used)

Characters are identified by their props.
Literary Stuff
The point of view switches to first person.

Tim O'Brien's Role: The Observer

Three O'Briens: Tim the soldier, Tim the writer, and Timmy the kid
The Story and Interpretation
t's really just an epilogue to the first chapter.

Cross puts his faith in Martha as a lot of soldiers put their faith in what they have waiting for them at home.

To make matters worse, Martha was never in love with Cross.
What's up with the ambiguous ending?
Could O'Brien be betraying Cross's trust or is it really something that O'Brien truly won't share?

Maybe it could be the fact that some people can't share memories or stories because they are just too painful.
One could treat the war and stories like a ping pong ball. Put a little spin on it and make it dance.
The Story
The war isn't just about terror and violence. There are some nice moments to it too.

The chapter is a list of these mini-stories. They are unbalanced and fragmented, not like checkers.

Character Points
O'Brien reveals the death of two more characters. Notice that this book is not in chronological order.

Characters are described by actions in this chapter, not by the props.

Daughter Kathleen represents the outsider who doesn't understand what it was like to be in the war.
More on Stories
Chapter has a big emphasis on Tim the Writer.
Stories are for joining the past to the future and making sure memories last forever.
When the war wasn't humping, it was waiting...a terrified waiting.
"On the Rainy River"
Analytical Points
Chapter focuses on the role of shame, but it does so in a non traditional way.

Even though, this is fictitious, there is truth as it relates to emotions.

Soliders' dilemma: the demands of the country and community conflict with the demands of their principles and conscience. AND The guilt of avoiding the draft vs. the guilt of committing atrocities against other humans.
More Analysis
The role of Elroy Berdahl: father figure.

He isn't an invasive, confrontational man. He more serves as a mirror to O'Brien. He doesn't say anything to O'Brien about possibly dodging the draft.

O'Brien still has to make his own choice.
"Enemies" & "Friends"
The War distorts typical social behavior: These two guys are on the same side. They shouldn't be fighting each other. It's no suprise that since they are on the edge the entire time, they have no choice BUT to take out frustrations on each other.

At the end of "Enemies," both men take a certain measure of responsibility, but it is done out of guilt not integrity.

What burden is relieved of Dave Jensen at the end of "Friends?"

Facing death is a game changer. All bets are off. Fantasies and notions of honor don't matter. The war will do that.
"How To Tell a True War Story"
Rat Kiley
Rat Kiley's Role: Storyteller

He is very similar to O'Brien. He tells stories based off of what feels right.

He has breaks from narration to editorialize, which drives people crazy.
A true war story is not a moral story. It is true if it contains obscenity and evil.

A true war story sounds too crazy to be believed.

A true war story doesn't have moral, but if by some chance it does, it's not a coherent message that can be separated from the story.

A true war story is about instinct.

A true war story makes the stomach believe.

No war story is completely true because there is no clarity in war.

Sometimes there isn't even a point in a true war story.

If you feel cheated or betrayed by a war story, because it didn't happen, then it's not true.

The chapter explores the complex relationship between the war and storytelling. Half of it is from the role of O'brien the soldier. The other half is from O'Brien the writer.

War and storytelling can distort or shape perceptions, experiences, and opinions.

The story of Curt Lemon is not a war story. It's a love story. The focus in on the sunlight and not the carnage.

O'Brien and Sanders ignore the advice to get out of the way of a story and just let it be told.

The truest part of a war story is the listener's reaction to it.....making the stomach believe.
This is all about bravado.

Lemon has some sort of need to show that he is brave and can face adversity.

Whether or not the fear of the dentist is real, Lemon needs to show that he isn't weak and pathetic.

When his tooth is removed, he shows pride.

The big problem is that there is no threat of anything. It's just Lemon feeling like he needs to prove something to show how bad he is.

Lemon and Lavender play the simple role of existing in this book to represent the dead.

They are still mentioned and remembered because the dead stay with us.

Ironically, Lavender who is scared to die is the first that we learn died. Also, Lemon tries to show this great strength and pride by having his tooth pulled out and he also dies.
This chapter also shows that mental anguish is more difficult than physical suffering.

The fear of the unknown is awful. Lemon is afraid to know the pain of a toothache. Once he experiences the pain of a pulled tooth, it eases him a bit.

Oddly enough, these small victories are needed amid a chaotic and senseless war.
"Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong"
Basic Rundown
Rat Kiley tells the story. Remember that this is his role.

Before Alpha Company, Rat was stationed in the Tra Bong.

One of the guys, Mark Fossie, makes expensive arrangements to have his girlfriend, Mary Anne visit him.

Everybody loves having Mary Anne there. She boosts moral.

More Rundown

She also begins to get involved in the war, especially with the Greenies/Green Berets.

She starts to disappear at times, and Fossie begins to worry.

As he tries to make arrangements to send her home, she disappears for three weeks.

One night, she returns with the Green Berets. Rat Kiley and Mark Fossie enter their tent and discover a lot of creepiness including Mary Anne wearing a necklace of tongues.

Rat Kiley is transferred and he heard from third hand that Mary Anne disappeared one night.
Chapter Analysis
Chapter is a comment on an American's acceptance of the culture and land of Vietnam. Fossie has no interest of it, but Mary Anne fully embraces it. There is no in-between. It's all or nothing.

Ironic role of women: Fossie invites Mary Anne to be a comfort, but she becomes interested in all around her and completely does not fulfill that role.

Vietnam actually empowers Mary Anne. She wants to make future travel plans and is drawn away from a conventional life.
More Analysis
And now about the tongue necklace-a possible interpretation: it represents consumption (eating): She wants to consume Vietnam and the culture (she actually says it), and Vietnam eventually consumes her.

She makes it very clear that Fossie doesn't belong with the Green Berets or Vietnam.
Mitchell Sanders's Role: Truth Seeker

He always wants there to be a moral to the story. Even if it isn't a great moral, he has to find some sort of truth in everything. This makes sense because he is the RTO-Radio Telecommunications Operator. He is all about communication.

Rat Kiley, our storyteller, believes in story truth, not happening truth. He tells stories for emotions.

Kiley drives Sanders crazy by diverting so much from the story. This is something that O'Brien does when he is writing in first person.
"Stockings" and "Church"
Character Roles:

Henry Dobbins: The Gentle Giant

Kiowa: The Moral Center
(although at times, this is a little compromised)
The role of women is different in this chapter than in "Song Tra Bong." In Stockings, the memory of a woman can comfort a soldier during times of war.

Of course, this is treated as a superstition, which is kind of like Song Tra Bong.
More Analysis
For some, superstition holds more weight that rationality and sometimes it can be treated as a religion.

Dobbins's girlfriend turns into more of a figure than a real person.

The stockings take Dobbins away from reality and help him psychologically cope with the war.
.....rationally thinking men can think irrationally in order to preserve their well-being.
Kiowa and Dobbins question their involvement in being stationed in this church, similarly to many Americans questioning if they should be involved in the Vietnam War.

"All you can do is be nice." The monks treated Dobbins well. Dobbins acted in the same way. Here is a great example of being the gentle giant. Many soldiers in Vietnam did not act that same way. They were violent and awful to innocent people.

definition: a character whose actions or emotions contrast with and thereby accentuate those of another character

Kiowa is a thoughtful Native American. Dobbins is an ambitious American.

For Kiowa, religion is close to his heart. For Dobbins it is about inward reflection and the power of belief.
"The Man I Killed" & "Ambush"
Contrasting these Stories
Point of View: In "The Man I Killed," O'Brien never uses the word, "I," except in the title. (3rd person) In "Ambush," he uses the word "I." (1st person)

Tone: Despite the point of view, in "The Man I Killed," the writing feels personal and written in real time. In Ambush, the writing is almost historical, clinical, professional, and disconnected. It's a memory story and O'Brien's memory is crystal clear.

Audience: If you consider the intended audiences, the point of view and tone makes sense. In "The Man I Killed," the audience really could be anyone except for his daughter. In "Ambush," O'Brien imagines what he MIGHT say to his daughter. He definitely could not say to her what he says in "Killed."
"The Man I Killed"
O'Brien says a lot to identify with the young man.

The man represents the faceless Vietnamese dead. O'Brien gives these people dignity and somewhat of an identity.

O'Brien's guilt focuses and points to the young man. The chapter focuses on the young man and not on O'Brien's presence.

We don't get to know O'Brien's feelings, which is similar to Gene's narration in A Separate Peace.
More Analysis
O'Brien's focus and rememberance is similar to the death of Curt Lemon. With Lemon, O'Brien remembers the sunlight. With the death of the young man, he focuses on the flowers on the side of the road. This begs the question: How can there be so much beauty among so much tragedy?

Also, the beautiful pictures help O'Brien find safety in his guilt

The chapter ends with the feeling of continuance. The mentioned butterfly still flies and the flowers still grow. Beautiful life goes on.
Character's Responses
Azar's response ignores O'Brien's guilt and pain.

Kiowa responds by trying to comfort, but he can't relate. He tries to him O'Brien understand that what he did was right, but he doesn't address his emotions.

O'Brien just stares in silence.
"Style" and "Church" go together.
Both of these stories contrast the good and bad intentions of soldiers.

Dobbins is our gentle giant. He does some great things, but he isn't completely blameless. He defends the girl when Azar mocks her, but he was just a part of the company who burned down the village, ultimately killing the girl's family.

Dobbins, like many Americans, doesn't explore the human side of the Vietnamese. He would have to confront his guilt from inflicting pain.

The girl's dancing represents a human's ability to find pleasure in moments of horror.

The girl's dancing is similar to Dobbins's stockings. They both seem to help and heal in the midst of the war.

Another comparison: the stockings can't stop a bullet. The dancing won't bring back her family.

"Speaking of Courage"
Norman Bowker's Role: The Haunted Vet

Bowker is suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

Bowker doesn't feel like he can talk about the death of Kiowa to anyone because that means that he would be reliving it. On the other hand, not talking about it causes him to never move on from it.

Naturally, Bowker is effected by Kiowa's death. He feels like betrayed his friend because he didn't save him. He just didn't have the stomach to be able to do so.

Sidenote on Kiowa: Don't forget that his role is the moral center. He is a gentle and peaceful man. As a reader, we should kind of feel like he is the odd man out in all of this.
As readers, we are removed two levels from this story:

We are reading O'Brien talking about Bowker who can't talk about Kiowa's death.

Also, we don't know how Kiowa died. That story hasn't been told to us....yet.

This technique allows the reader to be clued in on Bowker's emotions. Kind of a change of pace for us!

Big Contrast between O'Brien and Bowker:
O'Brien uses story telling and writing to heal. He is able to talk/write about the death of other soldiers to an audience despite re-living it. This helps him heal and move on.

Bowker doesn't have an audeicne. He doesn't feel like he can share which may make him feel safe, but in the end, he can't move on in a healthy way.
In "Spin, there was a reference to Bowker's father and his desire for his son to earn war medals.

Conflict: Too often, the expectations of others determine what is meaningful for individuals. For many, including Bowker, what is meaningful looks a lot different.

Bowker can't really accept his father's admiration because his father's expectations are clearly different than his own.
As far as the sewage field is concerned it represents that one cannot escape the effects of the war. It is disgusting and gross; there is nothing good about it. For someone like Bowker, there is nothing heroic in the war.

Bowker wades in the lake at the end of the story. This demonstrates a desire to return to Vietnam and change the course of events.
If you feel like O'Brien is screwing with your mind, then you are right.....because he is.
"Notes" is the second part in a three part story of Kiowa's death.

It's mostly about O'Brien's struggle in authentically telling the story of Kiowa's death.

This is the only one of the three that is written in first person.

Storytelling is not helping him relieve his mental anguish (conflict from last chapter). After all, he tries to take out the 'important' parts of the death.
"Notes" is a companion and sequel to "Speaking of Courage."

Bowker's letter to O'Brien shows how seriously the war effected him culminating with his suicide.

"O'Brien likes to blur the lines of what is real and what is fake. He does this because he believes that a true war story is not based on real facts. It's based on what's called "story-truth." This refers back to "How to Tell a True War Story."

He uses actual titles of his other books in this chapter of this fictional book.

He blurs the lines of real people with fake people. He says that Norman Bowker wrote him and said that he recognized himself in one of O'Brien's other books.

Also, at the very end. he says that Bowker didn't let Kiowa go. He did. Wait! What?

"In the Field"
The "young boy" is most likely O'Brien the soldier from what we realize in the last chapter.

This is part three in the trilogy of Kiowa's death. In this part, we see all the other soldiers commenting on his death.

This chapter addresses how one's direct experience of death will change him.

When Cross talks to the young solider and finds out what happens, one would think that he would be angry, but he isn't.

Cross can identify with the young man. Think about what he goes through in the chapter "The Things They Carried."

Now, Cross has matured and grown. His matter of fact response shows that his priorities are more clear.
Again, Cross never wanted to be the leader. His heart is not into this war.

He didn't listen to his instinct, so naturally, he blames himself.

He understands that part of responsibility is accepting blame.

Notice that he deals with Kiowa's death the same way that O'Brien dealt with the death of the man he killed.
Both O'Brien and Cross compose a narrative/story. Again, for these men, stories help alleviate guilt.
Oddly enough, the story still has optimism: 1. Dobbins comments that things could be worse. 2. They soldiers feel happy to be alive. 3. Azar undergoes somewhat of a transformation.
Good Form
Time for a mind explosion: Everything is made up.

Also, you can't trust that because in a book of fiction O'Brien could be lying about everything being made up.

The only thing that matter is how the reader feels after a story (How to Tell a True War Story).

If you relate and identify, then who cares if it is real?

Kathleen and the reader are kind of the same to O'Brien. He wants to tell her stories like he tells the reader. The emotion and the experience is what matters.
Field Trip
This chapter addresses two broad topics: 1. the personal nature of memory. 2. the expanding difference/distance between O'Brien and his daughter, Kathleen/us.
Expanding Differences
In viewing the land: O'Brien is filled with memories and possible opportunities with which he has to deal.

Th challenge for us is to take in the history and let it affect you. (more happening-truth than story truth, it seems)
O'Brien is interested in the truth he can gain by returning to the field.

Kathleen is interested in magic tricks
O'Brien wades in the water. Why???

To demonstrate a profound act like some sort of symbolic ritual cleansing?

To alleviate guilt?

To honor Kiowa?

Kathleen sees it as dirty and immature.
Notice the connection: Bowker wades in the water at the end of "Speaking of Courage." Back then, we thought that Bowker was the cause of Kiowa's death.
Other Points
Ironic title

O'Brien's possible goal is to conquer his past.

Side note on story telling: O'Brien creates some space between himself and us. Every story has some sort of "space" between the author and the reader.
Ghost Soldiers
The chapter focuses on the tension between a soldier needing to find friendship and the difficulty in doing so.
Azar's Role: The Tough Guy-He represents a casual brutality that is the War. He shoots Rat Kiley's puppy and helps O'Brien seek revenge against Jorgensen.

At one point, O'Brien says that he has a keener sense of justice. How twisted is that!?!

As far as Jorgensen is concerned. Oddly enough, the reader goes from despising him to liking him, even a little more than O'Brien by the end of this chapter.
O'Brien and His Revenge
When O'Brien is shot a second time, the focus is on his anger toward Jorgensen and not the actual gun shot wound.

Revenge cycle: Instead of feeling relief from danger, he feels like he is missing something.-----> He no longer feels a part of the group----->He feels alienated and envious.
Contrasting "On the Rainy River" & "Ghost Soldiers"
In Rainy River, O'Brien has idealistic feelings of doing the right thing.

In Ghost Soldiers, the cruel and uncertain war has caused him to feel no obligation to others and has also caused him to seek revenge as a possible opportunity.

Like before, we kind of dislike O'Brien through this chapter.
Interesting thoughts and quotations
O'Brien says that he "was Nam, the horror, the war."
He is identifying with the atrocity of it. No wonder we may not like it in this chapter. He isn't bringing up his stories with memory or respect. It's for revenge, so the feeling is very different.

Also, the friendship of soldiers is referred to as being "part of a tribe." They "shed the same blood."
Because of the intensity, it seems like using the word, "friendship" doesn't give those relationships enough credit.
"Night Life"
This chapter focuses on one's drive for survival vs. social acceptance.

First, connect what O'Brien said in "Ghost Soldiers" concerning a soldier's mind and reactions during the night to this chapter.

Back to the focus: As mentioned before, there is a debate between which is worse: The fear of being killed or the actual pain of a war injury. (The Dentist)

For the men in Alpha Company-the refusal to serve is as undesirable as death itself

Instead of the men addressing Kiley's injury, they talk about other unrelated matters, and for another time in this book, we read of the men's focus on women as a comfort to them in the midst of war.

Ironically enough, the men shun and envy Kiley's injury. They kind of wish that they were in the same spot that he was in.

"Lives of the Dead"
Interesting structure: O'Brien's main story is about being a kid in love with Linda and her subsequent death. At times, he digresses and talks about other deaths in Vietnam.

The chapter culmintates with O'Brien essentially stating that writing helps him make sense of his life, especially in relation to the deaths of others

Linda represents the loss of innocence. She is is O'Brien's first love and his first important death. Consequently, when she dies, O'Brien loses his innocence too.

By the way, when do we first read of Linda?

Realize that her death is different from all of the men/fellow soldiers because nothing provoked Linda's death.
So, here's the sad part:
1. Just like O'Brien's other soldiers/friends, his dad tries to distract him. Of course, it looks a lot different; however what they have in common is that neither of them clearly address death.

2. So, in order to cope, O'Brien's subconscience helps him cope with the loss of Linda in his dreams. He goes to sleep so that he can talk to her. She tells him to address the difficult and unknown through imagination.

3. O'Brien finds comfort in the unreal that the real can't offer.
So, here is the point of it all:

1. People find ways to cope with the difficult and unknown. Sometimes it is unhealthy (drug/alcohol/sex/spending addictions and many other unfortunate avenues. Sometimes it is healthy...like telling stories. O'Brien tells stories.

2. This was mentioned a long time ago, but it makes a lot more sense now. Stories keep people alive. Stories connect the past to the future.

3. O'Brien's "story-truth" stories make his war stories actually love stories and life stories.
Full transcript