According to O'Brien, in The Things They Carried, why are stories important?What do we, as people, need from stories-both reading them and telling them?

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Jane Ames eNotes educator| Certified Educator

O'Brien's The Things They Carried addresses the purposes of storytelling and fiction to convey multiple, seemingly conflicting truths. The Vietnam war was the first war ever reported on using television. As a result, the American people were exposed to scenes of carnage they had never witnessed before, and the overall tenor of the nation was politically volatile. O'Brien pierces all of this political and historical noise to deliver the truth of the soldiers, the main characters in this book and this war. "The things they carried" were not merely books and pantyhose, but memories and profoundly conflicting feelings about where they were and what they were doing. The book is filled with complex statements which reflect this tension between reality and perception, between truth and deceit: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” The existence of these tensions could only come to the reader through these stories. Not from the newspapers, television, or history books, but from the memory and consciousness of a person who was in the thick of it.

The above paragraph speaks to why we must read stories, but O'Brien also calls attention to why we feel compelled to write (or otherwise to tell) stories:

I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don't. Yet when I received Norman Bowker's letter, it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse.

While many would refer to writing as a means of "therapy," the fact that O'Brien shrugs off this identifier is beside the point. O'Brien suggests what many other writers, storytellers, and artists have in the past: that conveying a narrative is a means of catharsis. To release the memories and conflicting truths within is to purge or cleanse the mind of what plagues it; to help resolve the seemingly unresolvable. Because O'Brien writes out the turmoil within, he does not end up "in paralysis or worse." 


mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien says that storytellers are those with long memories--they keep the past alive, even the lives of the dead.  That's why Norman Bowker, Jimmy Cross, Rat Kiley, and O'Brien's own daughter go to O'Brien as a source for making sense of the chaos and senselessness that was the war: his stories serve to protect and validate memories and truth.

As a piece of metafiction, O'Brien's writes stories about stories: he writes stories that take place before the war ("Lives of the Dead"), during the war ("Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," and after the war ("Speaking of Courage"), all of which attempt to "heat up the truth"--to paradoxically find more truth in fiction than so-called "realism."

For O'Brien, Vietnmas was an organic, living place, and he has a primordial connection with the land, "Vietnam was full of strange stories" (O'Brien 89).  For example, Mary Anne in "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," becomes a killing machine after taking a dip in the jungle water.  I find "Sweetheart" very biblical, a creation story and a cautionary tale like the fall of man in Genesis.  Others might find it mythological, an homage to the epic heroines of Vietnam yore.  Still others find the story rooted in storytelling and gender.  For Rat Kiley, it is a means of heating up the truth.  For others still, it is escape.  It is O'Brien's mutli-faceted and paradoxical approach to character and story which allows "Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong" to flood its banks and envelop so many readers, despite its inherent unbelievability.

After all, in "How to Tell a True War Story," O'Brien says:

I want you to feel what I felt.  I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth. (179)

The best and only way to "make the stomach believe" any story is to tell it and re-tell it and revise it and change it until it works on a gut level, even if it takes twenty years to finally get it right and some of the "facts" have been lost along the way...

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The Things They Carried

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