(Short Story Criticism)

The Things They Carried Tim O'Brien

(Full name William Timothy O'Brien) American novelist, short-story writer, memoirist, and journalist.

The following entry presents criticism on O'Brien's short-story collection The Things They Carried (1990) from 1990 through 2002.

Published in 1990, The Things They Carried is regarded as an exceptional fictional work based on the experiences of a dozen American soldiers dealing with the trauma and boredom of combat during the Vietnam War. Reviewers commend O'Brien's innovative combination of fiction, memoir, and nonfiction in the short pieces that comprise the volume. In fact, the interweaving of fact and fiction in The Things They Carried has generated much commentary, particularly about the ambiguous nature of his narratives and the metafictional quality of his storytelling techniques. In 1991 the volume was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Plot and Major Characters

The Things They Carried is comprised of twenty-two interconnected short stories, many of which were published separately in periodicals. These short pieces utilize elements of disparate forms—fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, memoir, author's notations, and literary commentary—and focus on the Vietnam War experience and its traumatic aftermath. The opening piece, “The Things They Carried,” is a list that focuses on everything carried into battle by each soldier in the book, ranging from such items as jungle boots and personal letters to feelings like grief, rage, and shame. Critics have praised it as a fitting and insightful introduction to the recurring characters in the book. Many of the pieces explore the process of storytelling and reflect on the confusion of the war experience: several episodes are derived from other sources, or are remembered long after the fact; some are stories overheard and repeated in the oral tradition. Several stories feature a character named Tim O'Brien who comments on the process of writing the stories—twenty years later. The interplay between memory and imagination makes it difficult for the reader to distinguish the truthful elements of the story. The O'Brien narrator often recalls and elaborates on the scenes in various stories; in other stories, he is not identified as the narrator until after the narrative is complete. In “The Man I Killed,” O'Brien revises the story of his mental breakdown after killing an enemy soldier—only to reveal that his revised version is also invented. Other stories are related by other narrators. “Speaking of Courage” chronicles the grief and alienation of Vietnam veteran Norman Bowker, who is unable to articulate his shame over his failure to save his friend from death in combat after he returns home to Iowa. In an addendum to the story, “Notes,” the narrator informs readers that the original version of “Speaking of Courage” was written in 1975 at the suggestion of Bowker, who killed himself three years later in Iowa. In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” Rat Kiley chronicles the strange story of Mary Anne Bell, an Ohio cheerleader who follows her high school sweetheart to Vietnam and transforms into a terrorist herself. By the end of the fantastic tale—as Mary Anne disappears into the jungle wearing a necklace of human tongues—Kiley is relating information from other sources and the story has become a legend. “How to Tell a True War Story” meditates on the relationship of truth to storytelling. In one section of the story, another soldier relates the story of a six-man patrol that is ordered into the mountains and undergoes a traumatic experience. When the soldier tries to apply a moral and revises the story, the narrator recognizes the inherent truth of the first version. For him, a true story is one that isn't based on what actually happened, but the different ways in which the traumatic experience is rewritten and retold. Critics note that traumatic experiences are endlessly filtered and recirculated in the stories. In another section of “How to Tell a True War Story,” Rat Kiley cruelly kills a baby water buffalo for no reason—which upsets a listener at one of O'Brien's book readings years later. O'Brien then retells the story, over and over, with each version providing a new perspective on Kiley's own emotional trauma from earlier combat experiences and the murder of the buffalo. Eventually he reveals that it all was a fictional exercise meant to express trauma and its consequences without merely utilizing his own personal experiences.

Major Themes

Critics assert that the central theme of The Things They Carried is the relationship of storytelling to truth. In this vein, they often discuss O'Brien's interest in transcending reality to represent the truths of his traumatic Vietnam War experience as a defining characteristic of the book. Commentators note that for O'Brien, the question of authenticity and verisimilitude when relating war experiences is ambiguous; instead, a story's authenticity is often based on its effect on the reader. As O'Brien states, a story is truthful if it “makes the stomach believe.” Reviewers assert that the stories address the effects of combat trauma and the struggle for redemption and recovery. The role of memory is an important theme in the stories in the volume. Another major thematic concern in The Things They Carried is cowardice: not only in combat, but also in the narrator's choice to participate in what he feels is an unjust war. Commentators have analyzed the representations of masculinity and femininity in the book. Exile and alienation also figure prominently in the stories, as returning American war veterans feel displaced from their old life and haunted by their wartime experiences.

Critical Reception

A resounding critical success, The Things They Carried is considered a valuable contribution to the canon of Vietnam War literature. Commentators often discuss the genre of the book; it is often classified as a composite novel instead of a group of interconnected short stories. Some reviewers regard The Things They Carried as a continuation of O'Brien's first two Vietnam narratives: the autobiographical If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and novel Going after Cacciato (1978). The tendency of the stories to reflect upon their own status, format, and function has prompted critics to refer to the volume as a work of metafiction. O'Brien's concentration on storytelling and memory has led critics to compare The Things They Carried to the work of Marcel Proust and Joseph Conrad. Moreover, O'Brien's war stories have been compared to the Civil War stories of Ambrose Bierce and the classical stories of Homer's Iliad. Mental health professionals have praised O'Brien for his insightful depiction of combat trauma in his stories. Critics applaud his ability to memorialize his wartime experiences and view The Things They Carried as his most accomplished work of fiction.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

The Things They Carried 1990

If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (memoirs) 1973

Northern Lights (novel) 1975

Going after Cacciato (novel) 1978

The Nuclear Age (novel) 1985

In the Lake of the Woods (novel) 1994

Tomcat in Love (novel) 1998

July, July (novel) 2002

Josiah Bunting (review date 23 April 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Bunting, Josiah. “Vietnam, Carried On.” Book World—Washington Post (23 April 1990): B13.

[In the following review, Bunting considers the defining and unifying characteristics of the stories in The Things They Carried.]

A war writer's compulsion to write about why, and how, he writes about war and about what constitutes good war writing is not often resisted successfully. It rises like second growth forest, from soil in which his memory has already quickened and that has nourished his imagination and sometimes its trunks and shoots bristle in the midst of taller usually stronger trees. Too often the consequence is literary criticism, or reflections on the unreliability of memory, or simple assertions about writing about combat, that should have stood alone. It is rare that writers of unusual imaginative powers have critical gifts to match. When the fruits of both are mixed, the result is to diminish each. Perhaps The Things They Carried deserves a partial exemption from such criticism: It is after all a collection of long stories and memoirs (it is impossible to tell which is which) published over the last 11 years of Tim O'Brien's writing life. What efforts have been made to stitch them together, after the fact, cannot be judged.

Most of these narratives tell stories about the lives and deaths of 19-year-old American boys in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1968. The stories are linked in one way or another, through flashbacks, casual anticipations, the reappearance of different characters, all members of an infantry platoon. Episodes in their lives as infantrymen are rendered in an authorial tone, with an evocative, quiet precision not equaled in the imaginative literature of the American war in Vietnam. It is as though a Thucydides had descended from grand politique and strategy to the calm dissection of the quotidian effects of war on several individuals—given, particularly, the things they carried with them into...

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David Streitfeld (review date 19 May 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Streitfeld, David. “Never Done.” Book World—Washington Post (19 May 1991): 15.

[In the following review, Streitfeld examines O'Brien's revisions to the paperback edition of The Things They Carried.]

In the hardcover edition of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, published last year, there is a scene where the narrator, called Tim, goes back to Vietnam with his 10-year-old daughter Kathleen. They go on a sidetrip to Quang Ngai, where Tim finds the field his friend Kiowa died in—a stretch of ground that for 20 years “had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam, all the vulgarity and horror.”

As Kathleen watches, Tim takes...

(The entire section is 794 words.)

Steven Kaplan (essay date fall 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kaplan, Steven. “The Undying Certainty of the Narrator in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.Critique 35, no. 1 (fall 1993): 43-52.

[In the following essay, Kaplan perceives The Things They Carried to be O'Brien's imaginative attempt to reveal and understand the uncertainties about the Vietnam War.]

Before the United States became militarily involved in defending the sovereignty of South Vietnam, it had to, as one historian recently put it, “invent” (Baritz 142-43) the country and the political issues at stake there. The Vietnam War was in many ways a wild and terrible work of fiction written by some dangerous and frightening...

(The entire section is 5411 words.)

Lorrie N. Smith (essay date fall 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Lorrie N. “‘The Things Men Do’: The Gendered Subtext in Tim O'Brien's Esquire Stories.” Critique 36, no. 1 (fall 1994): 16-40.

[In the following essay, Smith examines the representations of masculinity and femininity in five of the stories in The Things They Carried.]

Tim O'Brien's 1990 book of interlocked stories, The Things They Carried, garnered one rave review after another, reinforcing O'Brien's already established position as one of the most important veteran writers of the Vietnam War. The Penguin paperback edition serves up six pages of superlative blurbs like “consummate artistry,” “classic,” “the best American...

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Catherine Calloway (essay date summer 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Calloway, Catherine. “‘How to Tell a True War Story’: Metafiction in The Things They Carried.Critique 36, no. 4 (summer 1995): 249-57.

[In the following essay, Calloway provides a stylistic analysis of The Things They Carried, regarding the volume as a work of contemporary metafiction.]

Tim O'Brien's most recent book, The Things They Carried, begins with a litany of items that the soldiers “hump” in the Vietnam War—assorted weapons, dog tags, flak jackets, ear plugs, cigarettes, insect repellent, letters, can openers, C-rations, jungle boots, maps, medical supplies, and explosives as well as memories, reputations, and...

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Tina Chen (essay date spring 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Chen, Tina. “‘Unraveling the Deeper Meaning’: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O'Brien's The Thing They Carried.Contemporary Literature 39, no. 1 (spring 1998): 77-97.

[In the following essay, Chen asserts that “exile as a fluid and inescapable experience resulting from immersion in the moral ambiguity of the Vietnam War infects all aspects of the stories” in The Things They Carried.]

Tim O'Brien is obsessed with telling a true war story. Truth, O'Brien's fiction about the Vietnam experience suggests, lies not in realistic depictions or definitive accounts. As O'Brien argues, “[a]bsolute occurrence is irrelevant”...

(The entire section is 8054 words.)

David R. Jarraway (essay date fall 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Jarraway, David R. “‘Excremental Assault’ in Tim O'Brien: Trauma and Recover in Vietnam War Literature.” Modern Fiction Studies 44, no. 3 (fall 1998): 695-711.

[In the following essay, Jarraway analyzes three examples of O'Brien's depiction of trauma and recovery in The Things They Carried and explores the metaphor of excremental waste in relation to O'Brien's war experiences.]

“‘You know something?’” [Azar] said. His voice was wistful. “‘Out here, at night, I almost feel like a kid again. The Vietnam experience. I mean, wow, I love this shit.’”

—Tim O'Brien, The...

(The entire section is 6431 words.)

Christopher D. Campbell (essay date fall-winter 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Campbell, Christopher D. “Conversation across a Century: The War Stories of Ambrose Bierce and Tim O'Brien.” WLA: War, Literature & the Arts 10, no. 2 (fall-winter 1998): 267-88.

[In the following essay, Campbell finds similarities between the The Things They Carried and the war stories of Ambrose Bierce.]

There is a certain brotherhood of warriors, a commonality of experience, that transcends time and the differences between individual wars. The decision of whether to go to war or to avoid it, the task of conducting oneself appropriately in situations that have no parallels in peace, the frustrations that result from beholding waste and...

(The entire section is 6372 words.)

Farrell O'Gorman (essay date fall-winter 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Gorman, Farrell. “The Things They Carried as Composite Novel.” WLA: War, Literature & the Arts 10, no. 2 (fall-winter 1998): 289-309.

[In the following essay, O'Gorman examines The Things They Carried as a composite novel.]

I feel I'm experimenting all the time. But the difference is this: I am experimenting not for the joy of experimenting, but rather to explore meaning and themes and dramatic discovery … I don't enjoy tinkering for the joy of tinkering, and I don't like reading books merely for their artifice. I want to see things and explore moral issues when I read, not get hit over the head by the tools of the...

(The entire section is 6376 words.)

Rosemary King (essay date spring 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Rosemary. “O'Brien's ‘How to Tell a True War Story’.” The Explicator 57, no. 3 (spring 1999): 182-84.

[In the following essay, King asserts that in “How to Tell a True War Story” O'Brien “lures readers into a debate over fact and fiction that ultimately privileges the latter.”]

The title of Tim O'Brien's short story “How to Tell a True War Story” is a pun. On one hand, O'Brien is asking how a listener can distinguish whether a story is a factual retelling of events; on the other he outlines “how to tell” a war story. The meaning of the title depends on the reader's position: If listening to a war story, the title suggests, O'Brien...

(The entire section is 1187 words.)

Daniel Robinson (essay date spring 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Robinson, Daniel. “Getting It Right: The Short Fiction of Tim O'Brien.” Critique 40, no. 3 (spring 1999): 257-64.

[In the following essay, Robinson investigates O'Brien's approach to the truth in The Things They Carried.]

But it's true even if it didn't happen—

—Ken Kesey

In his introduction to Men at War, Ernest Hemingway states that a “writer's job is tell the truth. His standard of fidelity to the truth should be so high that his inventions […] should produce a truer account than anything factual can be” (xi). Tim O'Brien, for whose writing the Vietnam War is the...

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Jon Volkmer (essay date spring-summer 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Volkmer, Jon. “Telling the ‘Truth’ about Vietnam: Episteme and Narrative Structure in The Green Berets and The Things They Carried.WLA: War, Literature & the Arts 11, no. 1 (spring-summer 1999): 240-55.

[In the following essay, Volkmer compares and contrasts The Things They Carried and Robin Moore's The Green Berets, focusing on the way both authors treat the truth about the Vietnam War.]

Robin Moore's The Green Berets, published in 1965, is one of the earliest novels of the Vietnam conflict. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990), is one of the more recent. Nevertheless, there are many similarities:...

(The entire section is 5320 words.)

Carl S. Horner (essay date spring-summer 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Horner, Carl S. “Challenging the Law of Courage and Heroic Identification in Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried.WLA: War, Literature & the Arts 11, no. 1 (spring-summer 1999): 256-67.

[In the following essay, Horner maintains that O'Brien challenges conventional ideas about courage and heroism in If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried.]

In his autobiographic text, If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me up and Ship Me Home, and in his novel, The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien questions the presumed sanctity of the oldest male law. Courage and masculinity, so-called...

(The entire section is 4346 words.)

Christopher Michael McDonough (essay date spring 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: McDonough, Christopher Michael. “‘Afraid to Admit We Are Not Achilles’: Facing Hector's Dilemma in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.1Classical and Modern Literature 20, no. 3 (spring 2000): 23-32.

[In the following essay, McDonough utilizes “the tragedy of Hector” from the Iliad to glean insight into The Things They Carried.]

“The war, like Hector's own war, was silly and stupid.”

—Tim O'Brien, If I Die in a Combat Zone, 145

What has Troy to do with Vietnam? In recent years, the pertinence of the one Asian war to the other has been...

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John H. Timmerman (essay date spring 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Timmerman, John H. “Tim O'Brien and the Art of the True War Story: ‘Night March’ and ‘Speaking of Courage’.” Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 1 (spring 2000): 100-14.

[In the following essay, Timmerman compares the conflict between the reality of war and normal life as portrayed in “Night March” and “Speaking of Courage,” which appear in The Things They Carried.]

The Vietnam war story is not simply about the rise and fall of nations (South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos, China, Thailand, the United States, the Soviet Union). Rather, it is about the rise and fall of the dreams of individual soldiers—their hopes riddled by disillusionment,...

(The entire section is 6596 words.)

Mark A. Heberle (essay date 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Heberle, Mark A. “True War Stories.” In A Trauma Artist: Tim O'Brien and the Fiction of Vietnam, pp. 176-215. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Heberle provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of The Things They Carried and locates the book within O'Brien's oeuvre.]


After publishing his fable of nuclear age trauma in 1985, O'Brien's next novel was to have been The People We Marry, a work that eventually appeared as In the Lake of the Woods in 1994 (Kaplan 1995: 218). In the interim, however, he published several short stories, some set in...

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Marilyn Wesley (essay date spring 2002)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wesley, Marilyn. “Truth and Fiction in Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried.College Literature 29, no. 2 (spring 2002): 1-18.

[In the following essay, Wesley contrasts O'Brien's representation of the truth in If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried.]

The requirement of truth as a faithful portrayal of unique experience is the standard most consistently applied to the literature of the Vietnam War. In his discussion of memoirs of the war, J. T. Hansen observes that all the writers he studied shared the objective of “authenticity,” an authority based on “knowledge of the war they...

(The entire section is 7979 words.)