The Things They Carried Summary
The Things They Carried is a collection of stories that follow a platoon during the Vietnam War.
- The story “The Things They Carried” lists items the soldiers carry with them. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries mementos from a girl named Martha, but he later burns them, feeling he hasn’t been a good leader.
- In “The Man I Killed,” the narrator, Tim, looks at the body of a man he has just killed, imagining the man’s life story.
- In “Ambush,” the same narrator reflects after the war on the man he killed and notes that he struggles to forgive himself sometimes.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In this semiautobiographical book, arranged in a series of loosely connected chapters, Tim O’Brien describes the lives of a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam War.
This collection of interconnected short stories was first published in 1990, and blurs the lines between fiction and memoir as O'Brien draws upon his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War to craft a deeply personal and emotionally charged narrative.
The book is narrated by a character named Tim O'Brien, who shares his recollections of his time as a young infantryman serving in the Vietnam War. Through a series of interwoven stories, O'Brien delves into the lives of the men in his platoon, exploring the physical and emotional burdens they carried during their service in the war.
The title, "The Things They Carried," refers not only to the physical items carried by the soldiers but also to the intangible emotional weight they bear as they navigate the horrors of war. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the soldiers' experiences, providing a multifaceted view of the war and its deep impact on the human psyche.
Here are some quick summaries of each chapter, starting with the first chapter, the one the book is named after. You can find detailed chapter summaries in the chapter summaries section.
“The Things They Carried”
The titular first chapter focuses on the physical and psychological objects that the members of the Alpha Company “hump” across the jungle landscape. This introduces the reader to the main characters who appear throughout the text while touching on the thematic ideas that permeate the work.
In “Love,” O’Brien describes his reunion with Jimmy Cross after the war. Cross tells O’Brien about what happened with Martha, the girl he was enamored with, who still didn’t love Cross back. O’Brien offers to write about Martha and Cross, which he did for this book.
The next chapter, “Spin," includes a series of anecdotes from the war that depict acts of human decency and kindness in Vietnam. This chapter is about the persistence of memories and how they shape our outlook.
“On the Rainy River”
“On the Rainy River” recounts the time when O’Brien considered traveling to Canada to avoid being drafted. He goes fishing with a kindly innkeeper who doesn’t ask questions and even gives O’Brien the money he would need to make the trip. O’Brien goes home empty-handed and faces his destiny anyway—out of guilt or pride; he isn’t sure.
The next two chapters serve as contrasts. “Enemies” recounts the ironic tale in which Jensen and Strunk get into a fight about the latter stealing the former’s jackknife. “Friends” describes how, later on, Jensen and Strunk learn to trust each other, each even making a pact to kill the other if he is mortally wounded.
“How to Tell a True War Story”
"How to Tell a True War Story” is O’Brien’s meditation on what it takes to be able to discern the truth about war and distill it into a story. He describes how witnessing horrific events makes them inherently impossible to narrativize and asserts that the truth is irrelevant when compared to capturing the essential essence of war.
"The Dentist” recounts the time Curt Lemon snuck back into the physician’s tent to have a perfectly healthy tooth pulled after fainting earlier that day in front of the other men.
“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”
In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” Rat Kiley tells the men the implausible story of Mary Anne Bell, a soldier’s girlfriend who, after visiting her man in Vietnam, walks...
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into the jungle one day and disappears. Legend states that she lurks in the jungle at night, killing people and adding their tongues to a necklace.
“Stockings” describes the good luck charm that Henry Dobbins wears around his neck. They are his girlfriend’s pantyhose, and even when she breaks up with him, Dobbins still wears the stockings on his neck to protect him in Vietnam.
In “Church,” the Alpha Company visits an abandoned pagoda with kindly monks. This chapter represents the American and Vietnamese relations; when Dobbins “washes his hands” at the end of the chapter, he essentially refuses any culpability for the atrocities committed by other soldiers in Vietnam.
“The Man I Killed”
O’Brien provides vivid imagery of the young victim in My Khe in “The Man I Killed.” O’Brien imagines what the man was like in life, and he can’t take Kiowa’s remark that someone else likely would have killed the man as a comfort to his feelings of guilt.
In “Ambush,” O’Brien reflects on the events of the previous chapter twenty years after it happened. When his daughter Kathleen asks if O’Brien has ever killed anyone, he lies. O’Brien says that he didn’t have to pull the key in the grenade that day and that he is still haunted by the prospect that the man might have passed by unharmed had O’Brien not been so careless.
When Azar mocks a young Vietnamese girl’s dancing in “Style,” Dobbins hangs his head over a well and threatens him. This chapter is another illustration of the complicated relations between the soldiers and Vietnamese civilians.
“Speaking of Courage”
In “Speaking of Courage,” Norman Bowker reflects on the various medals he won while in Vietnam to the delight of his father. Now, on the Fourth of July, many years later, Bowker watches the fireworks alone while thinking about how he can’t find anyone to talk to about the night Kiowa died.
The next chapter, “Notes,” explains how Bowker asked O’Brien to write about his lapse in courage and failure to save Kiowa. O’Brien talks about how Bowker struggled to find a meaningful life after Vietnam and says that he killed himself eight months after the first version of “Speaking of Courage” was published.
“In the Field”
“In the Field” is the third chapter about Kiowa’s death. It presents different perspectives of the incident as the platoon spends nearly an entire day searching for Kiowa’s body in the mulch of the sewage field. Many people blame themselves for Kiowa’s death, including Jimmy Cross.
“Good Form” once again addresses the different kinds of truth and which matters more.
“Field Trip” recounts O’Brien’s return to the field along the Song Tra Bong, where Kiowa died, with his daughter Kathleen, who still doesn’t understand the significance of her father’s history in Vietnam.
“The Ghost Soldiers”
In the final chapter of the book, “The Ghost Soldiers,” O’Brien reflects on all of those whom he has lost in his life, including his fellow soldiers and his childhood love, Linda, who was terminally ill. O’Brien finishes the text with a meditation on how storytelling allows him to memorialize the dead and discover deep truths about himself.