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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien
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What are the theme, the tone, and the purpose of the chapter titled "Notes" in Tim O'Brien's work The Things They Carried?

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The chapter titled “Notes” in Tim O’Brien’s work titled The Things They Carried can be discussed in terms of its themes, tones, and purposes.


  • One obvious theme of the chapter concerns the ways in which different veterans of the Vietnam War dealt with their returns home from that conflict. The chapter shows that O’Brien’s return was basically successful, but the chapter also shows that Norman Bowker’s return was tragic in various ways.
  • Another major theme of the chapter concerns how to present the war in writing, especially in fiction.
  • A third major theme of the chapter involves relations with one’s fellow veterans, especially those with whom one actually served and who actually shared the same experiences and friendships.


  • One of the tones of this chapter is elegiac, especially since the chapter both opens and closes with references to Norman Bowker’s death.
  • Another tone of the chapter is tragic, since Bowker’s death was not natural or accidental but resulted from suicide.
  • Another tone is meditative or reflective, as O’Brien ponders the proper way to tell and write about the experiences he and others endured in Vietnam.
  • One more tone is vividly colloquial, especially when O'Brien quotes from Norman Bowker's own words.
  • Finally, an additional tone is ironic, as we realize the potential and the goodness Norman Bowker possessed but also realize that his goodness and potential were lost to others through his unfortunate early death. Perhaps one of the most ironic moments in the chapter occurs when O’Brien quotes from a letter written by Bowker’s mother in which she discusses her son’s suicide:

There was no suicide note, no message of any kind. “Norman was a quiet boy,” his mother wrote, “and I don’t suppose he wanted to bother anybody.”

One realizes here Norman’s decency, his kindness, his reserve, and the affection he inspired in his mother – all factors that make his premature death seem all the more ironic.


  • One purpose of the chapter is to allow O’Brien to pay tribute to Norman Bowker and other men like him.
  • Another purpose of the chapter is to allow Bowker, in a sense, to speak for himself, since a long piece of his own letter is quoted.
  • Another purpose of the chapter is to encourage readers to reflect on the suffering of many of those who served in Vietnam.
  • Finally, one more purpose of the chapter is to allow O’Brien to explain his thoughts about his writing, including its successes and self-perceived failures.




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