The Things They Carried Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

When The Things They Carried appeared in 1990, critics were overwhelmingly positive in their responses. Indeed, this work continues to be O’Brien’s most studied and applauded. Another Vietnam War book, The Things They Carried does not fit neatly into any conventional generic distinction. Scholars are divided over whether to treat the book as a collection of interwoven short stories, as a novel, or as a fictionalized memoir. O’Brien calls the book simply “A Work of Fiction,” refusing to corral the book into one genre or another.

Many of the chapters of the book were at one time published as short stories in a variety of periodicals; five of the stories first appeared in Esquire. The title story, “The Things They Carried,” and “How to Tell a True War Story” are perhaps the most frequently anthologized of O’Brien’s short stories. Something happens in this book, however, that seems to push it beyond a simple collection of stories. The juxtaposition of the stories along with the additional material O’Brien wrote for the book work together synchronistically, and the effect of reading The Things They Carried as a complete work is very different from reading the stories individually. The characters, events, and memories swirl through the stories, turning back on themselves, self-revising as they go. What the reader learns in one story opens possibilities for the later stories.

The first story is, fittingly enough, “The Things They Carried.” On first reading, the story seems to be just a list of the things that Alpha Company carries with them as they trudge through the Vietnamese countryside. However, O’Brien’s attention to both the physical and emotional weight of the items demonstrates that this is not just a catalog of things but rather an inventory of trauma, something short-story writer Charles Baxter notes in a 1999 article in the journal Ploughshares. The items structure both the story and the book; they introduce a cast of characters, and a list of events that the following stories detail.

Although The Things They Carried is not a book that can easily be discussed in terms of plot, it is a book in which a great deal happens. It is essentially the stories of the men (or boys, as they might more appropriately be called) of Alpha Company, generally filtered through the voice of the narrator, a character named Tim O’Brien, who shares with the author not only his name but also his age and his profession. The stories, then, produce a sort of double vision: that of a forty-three-year-old writer, considering the Vietnam War from a distance, and the impressions of a young soldier who finds himself in the middle of war he does not believe in for reasons he does not understand.

The Things They Carried Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A platoon of seventeen American foot soldiers is on the march in the booby-trapped swamps and hills of Vietnam. They have been ordered to set ambushes, execute night patrols, and search out and destroy the massive tunnel complexes south of Chu Lai constructed by Viet Cong guerrillas. Young and frightened, most of the Americans are ill prepared emotionally for the stresses of war. The story does not follow a traditional linear plot but instead offers fragments of their experience, including seemingly unending lists of gear and personal effects that they carry with them. What they carry links them, yet distinguishes them.

Chief among the men and one of the oldest is First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, twenty-four years old and not long out of college, who is smitten with love for a girl back home. He carries with him two photographs of Martha, an English major from Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey, whom he briefly dated. He yearns for her sweatless perfection, her white skin and clear gray eyes, fantasizing a relationship with her that never existed. Although she writes to him and he carries her letters, rereading them each night, it is clear that his passion for her is not reciprocated. When Martha sends him a talisman, a white pebble from the Jersey shore, Lieutenant Cross carries it in his mouth, savoring its salty taste as something almost holy. Dreams of Martha help him escape Vietnam.

On April 16, the men draw lots to see who will wire a Viet Cong tunnel with explosives. The soldier selected to search the tunnel is the one about whom they are concerned, for his risks are great. When he finally emerges, covered with filth, all are relieved, but just as the tension eases they hear a shot. Ted Lavender, who stepped away from the group to relieve himself, is killed without warning by an enemy sniper. The incident stuns the platoon. Death in a firefight is one thing, but this swift and meaningless death is quite another.

Ted Lavender has always carried tranquilizers and top-grade marijuana to numb himself against his own terror, but his obsessive fear and caution do not help him; the twenty pounds of ammunition that he has carried makes no difference. He dies, as his friend Kiowa marvels, without time to react. His horrified comrades place him in a body bag and summon a helicopter. While they wait, they smoke Lavender’s marijuana and crack jokes to mask their emotions. Then they burn a nearby Vietnamese village in retaliation, shooting the dogs and chickens.

That night Kiowa, who carries moccasins and his grandfather’s hunting hatchet, tries to make sense of Lavender’s death and to grieve, but he feels nothing. He pillows his head on the New Testament that he carries with him, a birthday gift from his father, and is glad simply to be alive. This fact comforts him, and he sleeps soundly.

Lieutenant Cross, on the other hand, weeps; he accepts full blame for Lavender’s death, although in truth there is no blame. He suffers with guilt because he was thinking of Martha at the moment that Lavender was killed—he has loved her more than his men. He realizes now that his distant Anglo-Saxon virgin is nothing more than a dream. In his foxhole he burns her letters and photos, surrendering his illusions, and determines to conduct himself as an officer, a leader. He will be strong, tough, and silent—a man’s man. He will protect his men, maintaining discipline and order so that they will live.

The Things They Carried Summary

‘‘The Things They Carried’’ recounts the experiences of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's infantry unit leading up to and following the death...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

The Things They Carried Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

The first story of The Things They Carried is eponymously titled “The Things They Carried.” Set in Vietnam, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and his platoon carry many things while humping across the tropical brush. Besides the machine guns, rations, ammunition, and mines, Cross lugs letters from Martha, a junior studying poetry at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. While reading her letters that discuss poetry and Virginia Woolf, Cross wonders whether she is a virgin. He thinks of the last time he saw her, her gray eyes and the way that he kissed her before he left, and he thinks of the things that he wished he had done when he last saw her. Specifically, he fantasizes about taking her to her room, tying her up, and touching her hand with his knee. In her letters, Martha never mentions the war, except to tell Cross to be careful. She sends him a pebble for good luck, which Cross keeps in his mouth.

Cross’s platoon carries many things. Some of the things the men carry are standard, such as steel helmets, which weigh five pounds. Other things are carried only by one or two members of the platoon. For example, Mitchell Sanders carries a PRC-25 radio, which weighs twenty-five pounds with its battery. Henry Dobbins, a large man, carries the M-60, a machine gun that weighs 23 pounds. Not everything that the men carry is standard issue. For example, Dave Jensen carries extra socks and foot powder to combat trench foot, Norman Bowker carries a diary, and Rat Kiley carries comic books. Kiowa, meanwhile, carries an illustrated copy of the New Testament. Ted Lavender carried tranquilizers and dope before he was shot and killed outside of Than Khe. Before Lavender died, there were 17 men in the platoon.

Lavender was scared, and when he died, he fell like “dead weight.” Kiowa saw it happen, and he cannot stop explaining to everyone around him that Ted Lavender “dropped like so much concrete. Boom-down.” The men now wrap...

(The entire section is 529 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

The second story of The Things They Carried is “Love.” It is set years after the war, and the narrator explains that the former First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross has come to visit his home in Massachusetts. There, he and the narrator drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and talk about all of the things that the platoon carried with them. The war is over, but it is not forgotten. There are photos of the soldiers from the old platoon, including Rat Kiley and Kiowa. Jimmy still carries the guilt he feels for Ted Lavender’s death. The narrator explains that he carries his own feelings of guilt and blame about things that happened during the war.

Jimmy and the narrator start drinking gin and are soon laughing about...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

The third story of The Things They Carried is “Spin.” In it, the narrator admits to being forty-three years old and a writer that only writes about the war. Although his daughter, Kathleen, urges him to write about more frivolous things, the narrator always returns to the war. Oddly, though the memories are often horrifying, and though the horrors seem to live on in the stories, the war was more than horrible. The narrator compares to the war to a ping-pong ball that you can put a spin on. 

Many memories come back to the narrator, and though some are horrifying, others are not. There are memories of Mitchell Sanders peeling lice off his body with a finger nail and mailing it to his draft board. There are...

(The entire section is 434 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

The fourth story of The Things They Carried is “On the Rainy River.” The narrator, Tim O’Brien, explains that he is about to tell a story that he has never told anyone before. It begins in 1968 while O’Brien is in college. O’Brien imagines himself as a hero that would certainly stand up to evil. Though he has not done anything heroic, he tells himself that he could save up his courage for a time when he might really need it, a theory that the narrator looks back on as “comfortable.” 

He is opposed to the Vietnam War and he has even written some articles in the school’s newspaper against it. After all, it was uncertain why the war should be fought, whereas it was certain that men would die. He...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

The fifth story of The Things They Carried is “Enemies.” When the story begins, the soldiers are on patrol in the LZ Gator. It is July, and Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen get into a fistfight. The fight is over something small, like a missing jackknife. The fight is close and it goes back and forth until Jensen, the larger man, eventually wins the fight, breaking Strunk’s nose. However, he continues to throw punches into Strunk’s face and it takes three other soldiers to pull him off. Strunk is taken to the rear by chopper and returns two days later with his nose covered in gauze and held in a splint.

Strunk is back, but Jensen begins to worry since he and Strunk are both soldiers and they are both armed....

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

The sixth story of The Things They Carried is “Friends.” It follows the events of the previous story, “Enemies,” in which Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk get into a fistfight over a missing jackknife. Though the two soldiers appeared to make peace, they do not become close friends. However, they would they go on to learn to trust each other, in part because they would team up on ambushes, cover each other while on patrol, and they shared a foxhole. At night, they would take turns on guard. By late August, they would make a pact that if one of them was ever incapacitated, or given a “wheelchair wound,” that the other would “automatically find a way to end it.” The narrator admits that he was convinced that they...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

The seventh story of The Things They Carried is “How to Tell a True War Story.” It begins with a brief story about Bob Kiley, nicknamed Rat, and an assurance that “this is true.” Rat Kiley loses his friend, Curt Lemon, while on patrol in the mountains. After the patrol, Rat decides to write to Curt’s sister. He explains how heroic and tough Curt was in the letter, and that the two of them were close. He promises to take care of the sister when the war ends. However, the sister never writes back. The narrator explains that a true war story is never about a moral. There are no generalizations that can be taken from it. When Rat tells his story about the letter he wrote to Curt’s sister, he ends saying that “the...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

The eighth story of The Things They Carried is “The Dentist.” The narrator explains that people often feel sentimental about the dead, and so he wants to tell a story about Curt Lemon. The narrator is quick to admit that he found it difficult to mourn when Curt Lemon was killed. Lemon was the sort of person that pretended to be tough, and the best thing that the narrator can remember about Lemon is when the latter dressed up and went trick-or-treating for Halloween. But Lemon was the sort of person that would brag and exaggerate about his accomplishments. Ultimately, the narrator suspects that Lemon either had too high an opinion of himself or else that he had a low opinion of himself that he was trying to erase. ...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

The ninth story of The Things They Carried is “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” The narrator explains that there are a lot of stories from Vietnam, but the best are the ones that rest between the improbable and bedlam. “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is a story he heard from Rat Kiley, who had a reputation for exaggeration, but who swore this story was true. It begins when Kiley was stationed as a medic at an aid station in the mountains west of Chu Lai, near the village Tra Bong. The compound overlooks the river, Song Tra Bong. Though the compound was not very secure, the soldiers enjoyed their duty there because there was little military discipline and no humping. The only soldiers that cared about fighting...

(The entire section is 586 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

The tenth story in The Things They Carried is “Stockings,” and it is about Henry Dobbins. Dobbins, the narrator explains, is like America in many ways: he was a good person, an excellent solider, and he was always plodding along, however slowly. He was not a sophisticated man, he had a roll of fat in his belly, and “the ironies went beyond him.” He was a soldier who was there when needed. He believed in simplicity, direct thoughts, and hard work. And he was drawn to sentimentality.

This sentimentality could be seen in the way that he used his girlfriend’s stockings to bring him good luck. Before leaving camp on ambush, he would always wrap the pantyhose around his neck. At night, he would sleep with...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

The eleventh story in The Things They Carried is “Church.” The platoon is in the Batangan Peninsula when they come across a pagoda that they initially think is abandoned. However, there are actually two monks inside who speak very little English. They have a few broken shrines and maintain a modest garden. The platoon digs foxholes around the pagoda so that they can base their operations out of the pagoda for the next week. When the monks see that the platoon has turned their pagoda into a fortress, one of them makes a washing motion with his hands. None of the soldiers understand what the gesture means. Still, the platoon and the monks get along. They even bring the soldiers watermelons and buckets of water and...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

The twelfth story in The Things They Carried is “The Man I Killed.” The narrator, Tim, stands before the body of a man he has just killed. He looks down at the body and notices that the face is mangled. One eye is shut and the other is a “star-shaped hole.” The man had been a soldier because he had a gun and ammo. However, as the narrator looks down at the man he killed, he notices the dead man’s fine wrists and his arched eyebrows. He is poorly muscled. He wears an ammunition belt and a gold ring. The narrator guesses that he was born in 1946 in the village of My Khe, which is near the coastline of Quang Ngai Province. Perhaps his parents farmed there for centuries and perhaps his family fought for independence...

(The entire section is 456 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

The thirteenth chapter in The Things They Carried is “Ambush.” The narrator explains that his daughter, Kathleen, once asked him whether he killed anyone during the war. She was nine at the time, knew he had been in the war, and knew that he wrote war stories. The narrator explains that it seemed right to tell her that he had not killed anyone, which is what he ultimately told her. However, he hopes that she will someday ask him again. In this story, the narrator explains, he will pretend that she is grown up and explain what he remembers when he killed that man. This is also, the narrator explains, why he continues to write war stories. 

He explains that the platoon had moved into an ambush site outside...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

The fourteenth story in The Things They Carried is “Style.” The story is set against the backdrop of a burning Vietnamese village. In front of one house, a girl stands dancing. The dark-haired girl is perhaps fourteen, her eyes are half closed, and she stands barefoot. She is dancing on her toes, but there is no music playing. Azar wonders why the girl is dancing and Henry Dobbins replies that it does not matter. The narrator explains that the girl’s family is dead. The dead family's bodies were burned when the soldiers discovered them. There was an old woman, a woman whose age the soldiers cannot discern, and an infant. There was also a girl, whom they dragged out of the wreckage, and who is dancing in small steps...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

The fifteenth story in The Things They Carried is “Speaking of Courage.” Norman Bowker is in a small and prosperous American town on the prairie, driving around a lake in his father’s Chevy. It is early evening, the Fourth of July, and as Bowker drives clockwise, repeatedly, around the lake, he thinks of how he almost won the Silver Star for bravery. Bowker is driving alone, but he thinks about the people that he might like to talk to. He used to carry a photograph of Sally Kramer in his wallet, but she is now married, named Sally Gustafson, and lives in a nice house near the lake. It would have been a good time to talk, and Bowker wonders about what he might say to his father.

In the war, Bowker was...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

The sixteenth story in The Things They Carried is "Notes." It is a series of notes about the previous story in the collection, “Speaking of Courage.” The narrator, Tim O’Brien, explains that he got the idea for the story after receiving a letter from Norman Bowker. Three years after sending the letter, Bowker would hang himself in the gym of his local YMCA. In the letter, Bowker explained how he was struggling to find a purpose now that he had returned to America. He had taken on a variety of jobs and he had enrolled in school, but none of these pursuits seemed immediate and meaningful. He slept through the mornings, played pickup basketball in the afternoons, and drove around in the evenings. He wanted to talk about...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

The seventeenth chapter in The Things They Carried is "In the Field." The men are searching for Kiowa, who has just drowned in a field of human waste outside of a Vietnamese ville. They are near the river Song Tra Bong, which has flooded the flat plain where the men were camped. The flood water turned the field to a mix of mud and excrement, and the men were attacked during the night as well. Now, the men consider their role in Kiowa's death as they wade through the field searching for his body.

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross initially blames himself for Kiowa's death. He was ordered to set up camp in the field, but he now tells himself that he could have exercised better judgment. If he had done so, perhaps Kiowa, who...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

The eighteenth story in The Things They Carried is “Good Form.” In this story, the narrator  discusses the nature of truth within his experiences in Vietnam. He reflects on events recorded in previous stories from The Things They Carried like “The Man I Killed” and “Ambush.” The narrator begins “Good Form” by admitting that he is forty-three years old. He now works as a writer, but in his youth he was a foot soldier in a platoon that humped through Quang Ngai Province during the Vietnam War. After that, almost every detail in his stories is invented. 

The narrator thinks about his position as a writer and how he wants to explain why the book is written the way it is. The book is not...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

The nineteenth story in The Things They Carried is “Field Trip.” It is twenty years after the war, and the narrator has returned to Vietnam with his daughter, Kathleen, who is ten years old. The narrator has taken her to regular tourist sites, though he wishes that he could take her to all of the places that keep him awake at night. The only place that he takes her that is connected to his experience in the war is the field where Kiowa died.

Between the two of them, Kathleen has handled the trip much better than her father. The narrator and his daughter have taken a Jeep to the field and they are accompanied by a government translator. At first, Kathleen spends time with the translator, who shows her magic...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary

The twentieth story in The Things They Carried is “The Ghost Soldiers.” Here, the narrator, Tim O’Brien, explains how he was shot twice. The first shot hit him in the side and Rat Kiley was there to take care of him. Even though the platoon was caught in a firefight, Kiley returned to check on O’Brien several times. When O'Brien returned to the platoon, Kiley was injured and had been replaced by Bobby Jorgenson. Jorgenson is so green that when O'Brien is shot again, this time in the buttocks, the medic leaves O’Brien wounded for ten minutes before he works up the nerve to check up on him. Even then he forgets to check for shock. O’Brien is sent to the hospital and as he lies on his stomach, his wound festering,...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Chapter 21 Summary

The twenty-first story in the Things They Carried is “Night Life.” It tells the story of how Rat Kiley was injured during O’Brien’s convalescence from the first time he was shot. Word reaches the platoon that the Russians have supplied the Vietcong with fresh artillery. Fresh troops are supposed to be in the area as well. No one, not even Lieutenant Cross, takes this warning seriously, but they agree to take precautions anyway. They stay off the trails and only hump at night, living the “night life.” Though the soldiers turn it into a joke, it is actually disconcerting to hump during the night, which is pitch-black due to steady cloud cover. There is the sound of insects and the chattering of monkeys. The men...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Chapter 22 Summary

The last story in The Things They Carried is “The Lives of the Dead.” In it, the narrator Tim O’Brien remembers the dead bodies that he has seen. He explains that stories are like dreams in which the dead can sit up and smile at you. Sometimes, he uses stories to dream about the people that he has lost, people like Ted Lavender, Kiowa, Curt Lemon, and a young girl he once loved named Linda.

O’Brien recalls when he first joined his platoon. They call in an air strike and afterward find a dead old man. Each member of the squad walks up to the old man and shakes his hand. They greet him by saying things like “pleased as punch.” They sit him in a chair and give him orange slices to keep him healthy....

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear