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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Tim O'Brien's perspective and purpose in The Things They Carried

Summary:

Tim O'Brien's perspective in The Things They Carried is that of a Vietnam War veteran reflecting on his experiences and the emotional burdens soldiers carry. His purpose is to convey the complexities of war, the impact on soldiers' lives, and the blurred line between truth and fiction in war stories, highlighting the emotional truths behind the events.

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What is Tim O'Brien's perspective on war in The Things They Carried?

In the first few pages of The Things They Carried, O'Brien lists, with almost mechanical precision, all of the tangible items carried by troops in Vietnam, and these details tell the reader a great deal about what items are necessary to wage war, as well as protect one's psyche during war, but O'Brien concludes the litany of combat and personal-related items—weapons, radios, medical supplies, good luck charms, tranquilizers—with what the soldiers carry in their souls as an inescapable load created by war:

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.

These "intangibles," which are as heavy as the tangible items weighing on each man, describe the true and lasting effects of war, because if a man lives through the experience and returns to "the World," he has lightened his physical load but still bears the unbearable weight of war—what war is—summed up as "grief, terror, love, and longing."

In a later section of the novel titled "How To Tell a True War Story," O'Brien becomes explicit in his description of war in general and the Vietnam War, in particular:

If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue.

One can argue, of course, that the war in Vietnam, as opposed to the Second World War, was not what many people oddly call a "good war," but for O'Brien and the men whose lives are chronicled in the novel, war—any war—is devoid of any redeeming qualities, and war stories, if true, make one blush rather than swell with pride. In other words, because war itself is hell on earth, stories about war are horrific by their very nature.

After O'Brien illustrates the horrors of war by describing medic Rat Kiley's killing of a baby buffalo after his friend Kurt Lemon is killed while playing catch with a grenade, O'Brien himself has some trouble articulating all of the elements that make war a paradox, especially for those immersed in it:

War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.

This binary nature of war—it attracts and repels at the same time—makes war the horror that keeps its victims awake at night, trying to understand something that is, as he puts it,

. . . about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.

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What is Tim O'Brien's perspective on war in The Things They Carried?

Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried looks at war through the experiences of a number of characters, including the on-again, off-again first person narrator. At times we are in the mind of this narrator, at other times we see the war through other characters. O’Brien’s book does not just look at the combat aspect of war. Part of what makes the book worth reading are the depictions of the other effects of war, the emotional and psychological changes that characters must grapple with as a result of war.

Early in the novel, the reader learns a lot about the character of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. Cross is a conscientious leader, trying his best to lead and protect the soldiers under his command. Cross’s manner of coping with the stress of war is to think about a girl named Martha. His thoughts sometimes turn to ruminations and daydreams that can command a great deal of his attention. 

One day, while thinking about Martha, one of his men, Ted Lavender, is killed by a sniper. Although it isn’t his fault, Cross feels guilty about it. His guilt is exacerbated by the fact that it happened while his mind was diverted—he can’t help but feel that if he had been doing his job, Lavender might not have died: 

He felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war. 

The war, which caused him to feel the need to daydream in the first place, will now haunt him through his feelings of guilt. Thus, war is not just a matter of physical danger, it is also a source of emotional and psychological danger. What happened to Lavender was not Cross’s fault, but he will suffer for it anyway.

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What is Tim O'Brien's perspective on war in The Things They Carried?

The Things They Carried is metafiction: a story about storytelling.  So, it's more about memory and oral storytelling than it is about war.

War is certainly a vivid backdrop to set the novel, but it is not framed as a "soldier's story" from which a truth or moral may be derived.  Instead, O'Brien uses war like a game of ping-pong in "Spin" to show how war can be, ironically, beautiful and horrifying, peaceful and harrowing.  In short, war is a paradox: a synthesis of contrasting experiences and feelings.

Most of all, war is source of memory.  Since war is so traumatic at the time, a soldier trying to remember its details 20 years later is futile.  So, it because an exercise in bringing back "the lives of the dead."  With his stories, O'Brien resurrects the dead: Kiowa, Bowker, Lavender, Lemon, even Linda (a childhood love).  By keeping their memories alive, O'Brien's stories transcend the war.

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What is Tim O'Brien's perspective on war in The Things They Carried?

“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien reflects the author’s experiences as an infantry soldier during the Vietnam war. Although O’Brien objected to the war, he served with distinction receiving a Purple Heart. His war experiences set O’Brien on the path to becoming an accomplished writer.

The story uses an unusual approach by telling the stories of soldiers and their experiences through the items that they carry with them. His purpose is to portray the physical and psychological realities of war. The author describes the difficulties and hazards of marching through the Viet Nam war zone and the negative impact of subsisting with fear and death ever present.

According to an interview with O’Brien, this story arose from the word “carry.” He stated:

“Art can be born out of playful intent, having fun. And my idea was to have fun with the word ‘carry.’ I wanted to find how many ways can I use the word.”

Soldiers have to carry many things as necessities for survival. These are the items that most readers would expect the soldier to have with him. There are many other reasons for carrying articles with them.

To maintain identity- These are things that portray how the soldiers define themselves and their individuality

A hygienist carries vitamins and personal cleanliness; a Christian Indian has his New Testament, his grandfather’s hatchet and moccasins; a womanizer has his condoms.

Reminders of home- These are the things that remind the soldier what awaits him at home

One carries letter and pictures of his girlfriend; one carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose; others carry candy, comics, a slingshot.

To avoid bad luck-These items provide confidence by carrying superstitious charms
A good luck pebble; a rabbit’s foot; another carries a thumb cut from a Viet Cong corpse

Intangible elements-These are emotional baggage of men who might die
Grief, love, terror, longing,

The soldier carried diseases- Malaria, dysentery, ringworm, fungus, lice

The soldiers carried admirable qualities-poise, dignity, honor, camaraderie

They carried cowardice-to run, to hide, to freeze, and to fear

Survival methods were important to have on their backs and in their heads. In Viet Nam, the reality of death never goes away. To counteract the intense fear of dying, each soldier would choose a role to enact like an actor. The roles went from proud, arrogant, shy, good humored, joker, and macho.

Ted Lavender

Throughout the story, the death of Ted Lavender aides in establishing a time frame. For example, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross receives a good-luck charm from his wife the week before Lavender dies.

Before Lavender died there were 17 men in the platoon, and whoever drew the number seventeen would strip off his gear and crawl in head first with a flashlight and a .45 caliber pistol.

The Lieutenant felt extreme guilt for his death. Lavender died from a sniper’s bullet when he wandered away from the other soldiers. The officer determined that his own laxity with the soldiers caused Lavender not to obey orders. Now, he needed to tighten his discipline in order to keep the platoon safe.

The Lieutenant burns all of his memories of wife and their life together, so he would have no distractions while leading his men. Lieutenant Cross, only twenty-two, knew that this was only a symbolic gesture; however, it helped give him some relief from his guilt. Thus, he became even more dedicated to becoming a better leader and officer.

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What is Tim O'Brien's perspective on war in The Things They Carried?

In "The Things They Carried," Tim O'Brien—who is the author and, in fictionalized form, the narrator—relates the physical objects and emotional baggage carried by Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, and various other soldiers in his platoon in Vietnam. However, he does not tell the reader what he carried himself. In the other short stories of the collection, also called The Things They Carried, he gradually reveals more about himself and the burdens he had to bear.

It is never a straightforward matter to separate the author from the narrator in a semi-autobiographical story written in the first person. In O'Brien's narrative, it is particularly difficult, since the author will sometimes relate a story and then return to it in another story and tell the reader that the first story is not true. At one point, in "Good Form," he says that everything in the stories is fiction, except the fact that he, Tim O'Brien, is a writer who fought in Vietnam.

Some of the stories, however, do tell the reader about the baggage carried by Tim O'Brien the character. One of these is "On the Rainy River," in which he writes of the fear that led him to try to dodge the draft. He eventually decided not to dodge, since his greatest fear was that he would be thought a coward. In another story, "The Lives of the Dead," he writes of a girl he loved who died of a brain tumor when they were children. In several stories, he grapples with the horrific death of his friend Kiowa. While the reader does not know what mementos or physical objects O'Brien carried with him to Vietnam, the picture he builds up over the course of the book reveals the emotional burdens he took on there.

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What is Tim O'Brien's perspective on war in The Things They Carried?

What I really like about The Things They Carried, in addition to O'Brien's writing style, is that it is such an introspective look at the Vietnam War.  Most of what I have read have been firsthand accounts or excellent historical fiction that shows the detail of the fighting and what it was like for soldiers, but I feel O'Brien's work deals much more with the aftermath, and does so in a way that leaves some interpretation to the reader.

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What is Tim O'Brien's perspective on war in The Things They Carried?

The Things They Carried is a great book for teaching both reading and writing in the English classroom.  Tim O'Brien devotes some chapters to the events of the war and the aftermath of his and other's experiences there, and those chapters have the power to convey the experience, but the chapters that fall into the meta-fiction category are what I find most interesting.  Chapters such as "How to Tell a War Story" and others challenge the reader to think about truth in writing and how authors can best convey the meaning of their writing.  At one point he says, "a story truth is sometimes more true than a happening truth."  He challenges the reader to question the truth of his war chapters and decided whether the true truth is more important than the truth they learn from reading the story he has created.  I have my students use that concept as a touch stone for other literature we read during the year. 

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What is Tim O'Brien's perspective on war in The Things They Carried?

I feel that this collection of short stories is a very accurate description of war time - O'Brien manages to capture the characters of soldiers fighting in Vietnam incredibly well and very realistically. Of course, this is fiction, but at the same time, O'Brien's first-hand experience in Vietnam gives his work a real authority that should make us be very aware of the realities of war and in particular the sacrifices made by so many American soldiers in terrible conditions.

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What is Tim O'Brien's perspective on war in The Things They Carried?

This question might be better suited as a discussion post.  I'm not sure if you're asking someone's personal opinion of O'Brien's collection of stories or if you're asking a literary analysis question; so I'll answer it both ways.

Personally, I haven't read any other Vietnam War stories that I've appreciated more than O'Brien's.  His first-hand experiences as a combat soldier during the war make his stories more poignant and credible.  My favorite story from The Things They Carried is "In the Field" which features the band of men searching for Kiowa's body in the rice fields.  Jimmy Cross's inner turmoil in this story is moving and realistic, as is Billy's guilt over a rookie move which led to Kiowa's death.

From a literary standpoint, The Things They Carried offers an interesting challenge to critics.  It is clear that O'Brien blurs the line between fact and fiction, and his tone throughout the stories offers more truth than literary effect. Similarly, the continuing characters from story to story make the collection read more like a novel with chapters than like separate short stories, and I believe that this causes readers to get more involved in the characters and their fates.

My dad is a Vietnam Vet, and I once asked him if he had heard of Tim O'Brien.  He had not; so I gave him a copy of The Things They Carried.  He read the title story, but couldn't get through any more.  He said that they were too realistic--in an ironic sense, that is an accomplishment and also an illustration of the integrity of O'Brien's portrayal of a soldier's life during that turbulent time.

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What is Tim O'Brien's perspective on war in The Things They Carried?

I am not sure if you're referring to the short story "The Things They Carried" or the collection of O'Brien's short stories that shares the same title, so I will respond to your question as if you're asking about the story.  I hope this is what you're looking for!

I believe that Tim O'Brien's use of his character's belongings to reveal who they truly are as human beings is exceptionally good.  One can tell a great deal about each character simply by learning about the material possessions each holds dear.  This concept is certainly reflective of real life; people tend to cling to those things that they feel form some kind of connection to the people, places, or things that matter most to them.  Those "things" not only serve as indicators of who the characters are, but also comfort those who own them and give them hope of returning to the things they represent.

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What is Tim O'Brien's purpose in writing The Things They Carried?

Author Tim O’Brien’s purpose in writing his book The Things They Carried is to use the genre of fiction to explore the harsh realities of war and communicate them to a wider audience. O’Brien did fight in the Vietnam War, but The Things They Carried is not a memoir—even though the protagonist, who narrates the story, is named O’Brien. This is one of the techniques the author uses to make his fiction more representative of reality. Beyond merely relying on imagery and dialogue to make his stories more realistic, O’Brien’s use of his own name for a character makes the reader question whether the book is based in fact. The verisimilitude woven throughout the book makes it difficult to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction.

O’Brien (as the author, not the character) developed his purpose for writing The Things They Carried after returning from the Vietnam War and learning that most Americans were very ignorant about the dynamics and the actual experience of the war. This was frustrating for O’Brien, who had just lived through it. In response, O’Brien wanted to write a book that would vividly portray the challenges and horrors of being a soldier in the Vietnam War. He succeeded in achieving this purpose with The Things They Carried.

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What is Tim O'Brien's purpose in writing The Things They Carried?

Tim O’Brien’s purpose in writing The Things They Carried is to explore truth through imagination and fiction. O’Brien explains this in the novel when he says,

The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness.

With this statement, O’Brien expresses that with some stories, truth can be hard to discern. As a result, memory and imagination might help create a story. In addition, he also suggests that truth is not necessary. He tells the reader, “It’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.”

O’Brien is pointing out that absolute truth isn’t always the point of writing the novel. In his case, the stories help the reader understand what war did to people. Readers can empathize with Norman’s displacement, Kiowa’s death, or Mary Anne’s transformation whether the characters were real or imagined. These stories would be no less powerful if they were pure fiction.

O’Brien’s purpose is to imaginatively express a certain truth about war—even if that truth is not "absolute." O’Brien is more concerned with writing a story that affects the reader than he is with presenting outright facts.

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What is Tim O'Brien's purpose in writing The Things They Carried?

O'Brien's purpose in writing The Things They Carried is in part to merge fact and fiction. He writes about a character named Tim O'Brien who very much resembles himself, but this character is fictional. Although the author Tim O'Brien  actually fought in Vietnam, the Tim O'Brien character is a work of fiction. 

Creating this fuzzy distinction between fact and fiction is one of O'Brien's purposes, as he wants to tell the story of his war experiences without being chained to pure fact. By writing a work of fiction, he believes that he is creating an even truer story about what Vietnam meant to the people who fought in it. The important element of his book is the emotions that attend the characters in the war, not the factual details of their lives. Additionally, telling these emotional stories is another of O'Brien's purposes in writing the book. 

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What is Tim O'Brien's purpose in writing The Things They Carried?

O'Brien's purpose in telling The Things They Carried is twofold; to tell a war story, and to explore the purpose of storytelling itself.

Beginning with "How to Tell a True War Story," O'Brien begins examining misconceptions and truths surrounding the experience of war and the telling of stories about it. Partway through the chapter he begins delivering strings of statements, which often seem contradictory, concerning the telling of these stories:

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.

It's important, when reading this section, to keep in mind how prominently placed "a work of fiction" is on the title page of this book. O'Brien is not setting out to tell a true story himself; and being only partway through the novel, the reader is left to wonder whether any moral lesson or instruction is forthcoming.

Similarly, in "The Lives of the Dead," O'Brien speaks more broadly about the purpose and construction of stories in general. He describes stories as a kind of wish-fulfillment with lines like:

But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.

and

The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you...

At the end of the book, the author discusses why he tells stories - to keep others alive and to deal with the pain of his own losses.

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What is the moral of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried?

A story's moral is the message or lesson that a reader learns from a story, event, character, etc. Because the moral is dependent on individual readers, each reader might pick up on slightly different morals within a piece of literature. One moral lesson that I believe most readers can agree upon from The Things They Carried is that war is awful and makes people do terrible things.

For example, in the section titled "How to Tell a True War Story," readers learn about a company that calls in a completely unnecessary airstrike that doesn't solve their auditory hallucination problem. Another good example is how Rat Kiley tortures a baby water buffalo in response to losing his friend. Nobody tries to stop him either.

These are horribly graphic events that show how the war seemed to deaden men's moral compasses. What was once perhaps morally reprehensible is now just a normal occurrence due to the war redefining what is right or wrong, good or bad.

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What is the moral of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried?

While literature speaks to many people in different ways, I believe that in Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," we learn that many people have ways to keep that which is familiar close to them. The comforts of one man are meaningless to another, but the experience of war is a terribly personal experience as well.

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries a stone his "girl friend" sent to him from the beach. She writes to him, but he knows the comfort is empty: she is not his girlfriend—for a while, the thought of her comforts him. Kiowa keeps a Bible with him and a hatchet that reminds him of the Native American culture from which he comes.

One man notes that the "moral" is not to do drugs—when Lavender is killed—someone who did do drugs. He tries to come to terms with Lavender's death in a corner of his mind. The truth is that war makes no sense. The things the men carry are things of war (weapons and supplies), but also things that keep them grounded, help them to cope with death and possible death that hovers over them at all times.

There it is, they'd say, over and over, as if the repetition itself were an act of poise, a balance between crazy and almost crazy, knowing without going. There it is, which meant be cool, let it ride, because oh yeah, man, you can't change what can't be changed, there it is, there it absolutely and positively and f***ing well is.

They were tough.

The things they carried were necessary for war and necessary to maintain some sanity, expecially in a world where there seemed little hope for sanity—and often little hope for survival.

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What is the central idea in The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien?

Based on the question, I'm not sure if you're referring to the story "The Things They Carried" or the entire short story collection by the same name. I will focus mostly on the story and make some general comments about the collection to close.

The central idea of the titular story is that the soldiers in the Vietnam War carry a variety of "things," some literal some more abstract. For example, they carry equipment, rations, weapons, and the physical items they need to fight and to live. Beyond that, they carry items from home that have sentimental value. In a more abstract sense, they carry emotions, namely fear. They carry what they feel is the need to keep their emotions hidden, to act tough, to play the role of the typical soldier. However, their sentimental items and emotional attachments provide them a relief, an escape from their current reality. They can feel human when they feel linked to the world back home, even though they are so separate from it in so many ways.

In "The Things They Carried," the main character is probably Jimmy Cross, the squadron's lieutenant. He carries letters from and photographs of a girl from back home named Martha. She is friendly toward him and sends him notes, but she doesn't love him. They will never have a romantic relationship; yet, Cross finds himself fantasizing about her to escape the daily anxieties of war. When one of his men dies, Cross blames himself, thinking Martha has distracted him from his leadership duties. In this way, something he carries with him can both provide relief and put him and his men in danger.

In the collection as a whole, O'Brien gives us an honest portrayal of what war is like for soldiers in Vietnam. We see what they suffer while in war, but also how they are traumatized and struggle to return back to "normal life." The story "How to Tell a True War Story" suggests that there is no way to accurately convey war experience to someone who hasn't fought in war, while still describing war experiences realistically. The story "Speaking of Courage" illustrates Norman Bowker's struggle to fit back into society after fighting in the war. He drives around the lake in his town over and over again each day, imagining the conversations he would have but can never actually carry out. His repetition of the same actions is a way of his trying to work through his war experience, namely the guilt he feels over Kiowa's death. The collection as a whole is honest and realistic and does not glorify war or soldiers; it simply describes them as human.

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What is the central idea in The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien?

Tim O'Brien believed that the story of war can be best told from the foot soldier who experienced it each minute, hour, and day. O'Brien's central point in writing stories from this perspective is to reveal the condition of war that faces the soldiers fighting it: "Can the  foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories." The central idea in "The Things They Carried" is to depict these war stories.

In O'Brien's work, the full exploration of war is evident.  There is not an overwhelming politicization of war.  Rather, there is the soldier who experienced it, and these stories that define it.  In the work's dedication, O'Brien believes that his writing is meant to represent "the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa."  Their narratives become the central idea that forms the work.  In being able to talk about "the things they carried," individual objects and experiences that depict the story of the soldier, O'Brien is able to develop an insight into what war was like from the bottom level.  The central issue of the story is to reveal this perspective. While war is dizzying in the array of emotions it features, O'Brien believes that the centrality in its narrative must reside in the foot soldier's experience.  It is in this understanding that the central idea of the story becomes evident.

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