Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is one chapter of a loosely connected collection of stories about Vietnam, The Things They Carried (1990). One major theme that runs through this story and the book is the nature of truth and of history. Tim O’Brien has said that fiction is more truthful than fact because the author can shape the facts to extract the essence and meaning in a way that fact alone cannot.

The form of the narration also highlights an important theme. The story of Mary Anne is a story within a story within a story. The fictional narrator “Tim O’Brien,” who frames the whole book, is looking back on the Vietnam experience and describing it from a distance of twenty years. Within the story of Mary Anne, “O’Brien” describes Rat Kiley telling a story. The narrative emphasizes Kiley’s unreliable grasp of facts and his tendency to exaggerate. Additionally, only part of what Kiley tells is his own experience; part is hearsay and myth. This layered narrative form reveals another theme: that history is composed of fact, hearsay, and myth. Sometimes one cannot know the difference, and maybe the difference does not even matter. O’Brien, during a lecture at Ohio State University in April of 1999, insisted that the story of Mary Anne had a basis in fact, but when students asked him whether it was “true,” he replied that this was irrelevant.

Another theme is that war corrupts the innocent. O’Brien, in the...

(The entire section is 420 words.)