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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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In Tim O'Brien's work The Things They Carried, what are the themes, tones, and narrative styles of the chapter "How to Tell a True War Story"?

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In Tim O’Brien’s work titled The Things They Carried, the chapter titled “How to Tell a True War Story” can be analyzed in terms of its themes, its tones, and its narrative styles. Such an analysis might be outlined as follows:


  • One theme of this chapter involves contrasts between the values of soldiers and the values of (some) civilians.
  • Another theme involves the language, methods, and purposes of telling a war story.
  • Another theme is memory, as the narrator recalls his own experiences in the war.
  • Another theme involves the harsh and strange realities of war but also the difficulty of describing those realities accurately.


  • Emphasis on paradox and irony, as in the following passage:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it.

This passage is paradoxical and ironic partly because it does instruct, it does suggest models of proper story-telling, and it does seek to restrain people from doing what they have always done.

  • Use of obscenity, as in the use of the word “cooze,” an obscene word for “vagina.”
  • Emphasis on suspense, as in the passage immediately preceding the death of Lemon.
  • Emphasis on mystery, as in the description of the strange music.


  • Use of simple, clear, straightforward prose, as in the very beginning of the chapter.
  • Use of highly colloquial and even vulgar phrasing, as in Rat’s letter to his dead friend’s sister.
  • Use of jargon and slang, as in Rat’s description of his friend

lighting up villes and bringing smoke to bear every which way . . . .

  • Use of direct address to the reader, as in the statement “if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote.”
  • Use of sharply observed, sometimes almost lyrical detail, as in the following passage:

His face was suddenly brown and shining. A handsome kid, really. Sharp gray eyes, lean and narrow-waisted, and when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms.

  • Use of delay, as in the way the narrator keeps postponing the specific details of Lemon’s death.
  • Use of clipped, colloquial dialogue, as in the following discussion between two soldiers:

"We're talking regulation, by-the-book LP. These six guys, they don't say boo for a solid week. They don't got tongues. All ears."

"Right," I said.

"Understand me?"




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