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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien
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In The Things They Carried, how is the setting important, and how is it used to develop the story?

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The novel, The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien , is a collection of war stories that may or may not be true. O'Brien, a drafted soldier, recounts his years in Vietnam in a way that he feels will bring readers into his memories, yet the readers are never...

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The novel, The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, is a collection of war stories that may or may not be true. O'Brien, a drafted soldier, recounts his years in Vietnam in a way that he feels will bring readers into his memories, yet the readers are never sure which stories are real and which have been fabricated.

The setting of the book bounces back and forth between the jungles of Vietnam and the small towns in which he and his fellow soldiers grew up. This contrast helps readers understand the trauma and discomfort the soldiers felt as they embarked on a journey most never prepared for.

  • Vietnam: The American soldiers had no idea what they were in for as they walked into the depths of a hot and humid climate where everything was unfamiliar. The soldiers constantly wondered if they were going to be ambushed which meant no matter where they went, they never felt safe. This aspect of setting acts as another character in O'Brien's stories, constantly provoking fear within the soldiers' minds and hearts. It seems the jungle itself was an enemy to the men, in the same way, the Viet Cong seemed to be lurking around every corner.
  • Home: While home was a safe place for the men before the war, home becomes just as confusing when they return. While they dream of it, even carry nostalgic items to keep them hopeful, they return and see a whole new world. Between depression and PTSD, the men aren't able to reconcile their experiences and find the safety and comfort they once knew. "Home", as a setting, illuminates the theme of shifting from innocence to experience and the realization that the things we once knew begin to look vastly different as we age.

While every story needs setting as a backdrop for anchoring a narrative, the setting in The Things They Carried creates mood and theme. Without the constant terror and symbolic representations of fear, the unknown, and change, we would find ourselves reading a completely different tale.

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In The Things They Carried, the setting is important because Tim O’Brien contrasts the brutality of the Vietnam War with the soldiers' less complicated lives in America.

Fighting Viet Cong forces in the inhospitable jungles of Vietnam was an intensely stressful situation. The Viet Cong, familiar with the land, arranged ambushes and set booby-traps for the soldiers. The troops were constantly reminded that death was near as they watched their friends die. Soldiers were often simply unable to deal with the pressure.

The life which the soldiers left behind is practically the exact opposite of the treacherous jungle. After returning from the war, the men cannot escape the memories of war and death. The towns and the people in them have remained the same, but the soldiers are irrevocably changed.

O’Brien successfully develops the story by demonstrating the stark difference between the troops’ hometowns and the Vietnam War, driving home the point that war changes people.

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The Things They Carried is a story of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. Thus, the majority of the story takes place in the Vietnam jungle, which, to the American soldiers, was a completely unfamiliar and foreboding place. The Viet Cong knew their way around the jungle, and the American soldiers felt hunted. They slept tucked away in foxholes, hidden from the unknown dangers that existed all around them, isolated from each other, but fighting the same enemy. The setting is so much a part of the story, in fact, that it appears to be larger than life, almost a character in itself. The American soldiers were on hostile ground, totally out of their element, across the world where the land itself was a formidable enemy, full of traps and deceptions. The unfamiliarity of the jungle environment pervades the story and defines the soldiers’ experience. Thus, it appears to reflect the uncertainty of the war.

To highlight the unfamiliarity of the setting to the soldiers, O’Brien contrasts the Vietnam jungle to small town America, where everything is familiar and seemingly unchanged by the war. In contrast to the jungle, the hometown setting is the model of predictability and stability. When the soldiers return from the jungle, they feel out of place in this stable setting, as unlike small town America, they have been indelibly changed by the war.

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The setting in the novel The Things They Carried is very important because the stories are set in the Vietnam War and O'Brien blurs the line between made up stories and true stories.  The setting is a part of every story whether it is the "shit field" where Kiowa dies or the daily life of digging a foxhole and trying to stay alive.  The setting develops the story as almost every story needs the setting as the background to what is happening. This Vietnam War is set in the jungle and rice paddies, and each soldier must deal with the fear of what cannot be seen.  They can sometimes hear the enemy, but almost never see through the fog and jungle to actually see the enemy who shoots at them.  The inability to see much beyond their own group adds to the tension each soldier must endure. 

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