Give an example of these literary terms--paradox, dramatic irony, allusion, and ambiguity--from The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The creative story “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien was written as a tribute to the men O’Brien served with in the Vietnam War.  However, it is a work of fiction.  The title represents not only the things that each man carried with him but the emotional and psychological things they brought with them in their hearts and minds. O’Brien narrates and plays a part in the story. 

The question asked for four examples of specific literary terms:  

  1. Dramatic irony-a situation in which the author or narrator lets the reader know something more about a situation than a character does
  2. Allusion-a reference to another work of art or literature, or to a person, place, or event
  3. ambiguity-something that has a double meaning;uncertainty about the intention or meaning of something
  4. paradox- seemingly contradictory statements that, when closely examined have a deeper, complicated meaning

Dramatic irony-

Lieutenant Cross daydreamed most of the time about his pen pal Martha back home.  He looked again and again at her pictures and letters.  When she sent him a good luck charm—the pebble—he carried it around in his mouth. He would yell at the men to spread out, to keep their eyes open, but then he would return to his daydreams, pretending to be back on the beach with Martha. 

The men know nothing of his daydreaming. This becomes an example of dramatic irony particularly when Cross takes the responsibility for Lavender’s death.   The reader knows of his obsession of Martha. On occasion, he should have been thinking about his responsibilities rather than the girl back home.


An allusion is made to the movie Bonnie and Clyde which came out during the Viet Nam War period.  The one date that Cross had with Martha was to this movie.  He remembered putting his hand on her leg during the time that the gunfire killing Bonnie and Clyde occurred.  When he put his hand on her knee, Martha looked at him sadly.  With embarrassment, Cross pulled his hand back.


The soldier known as Kiowa from Oklahoma was a devout Baptist.  He carried a New Testament given to him by his father.  In his heart, the Indian carried the mistrust of the white man. Along with his Bible, he toted the hatchet of his grandfather. The ambiguity comes from Kiowa, the Baptist Indian,   acting the Christian on the outside and harboring his disdain for the men with which is fighting with and for.


The men have been assigned to bomb tunnels made by the North Viet Nam soldiers.  If a man drew the number seventeen, he would have to go into the tunnels to check out what was in there.  On the day that Lavender was killed, Lee Strunk survives his trip in the tunnel.  The men were laughing about the tunnel calling it Spook City

Lee Strunk made a funny ghost sound, a kind of moaning, yet very happy, and right then, when Strunk made that high happy moaning sound, when he went Ahhoooooo, right then Ted Lavender was shot in the head on his way back from peeing.

Lt. Cross feels great shame.  He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men and as a consequence Lavender was dead and this was something that he would carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of his life.

Right before Lavender is killed, Cross allows himself to be distracted and deluded by the thoughts of his coveted classmate.  Cross believes that his lax procedures led to Lavender’s death and determines to be a more rigid disciplinarian for the safety of his troops. 

m1d1c1 | Student

First of all you must know the meanings of the literary terms.

  • dramatic irony-is when an audience perceives something that a character in the literature does not know. (ex. Someone is running away from from killer in a movie.  We know the killer is hiding in the closet, but the victim doesn't and heads straight for the closet!)
  • allusion-is a brief reference to a person, event, or place, real or fictitious, or to a work of art. (ex. Harriet Tubman was called the "Moses" of her time).
  • paradox- reveals a kind of truth which at first seems contradictory. Two opposing ideas. (ex."Ignorance is strength")
  • ambiguity-uncertainty about the intention or meaning of something.(ex. "I can't tell you how much I enjoyed meeting you." Did they enjoy it or not?)

Next, you have to keep these definitions in mind as you read the story. This may require you to read it more than once. Pay particular attention to see if Bonnie and Clyde were referenced in the story.  If you are unsure about who they were, there is a great deal of information on them on-line.

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The Things They Carried

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