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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

O’Brien’s book about his time in the Vietnam War is full of insightful quotes about a myriad of thematic ideas. Two of these recurring themes are death and storytelling. Each of the quotes below deals with these themes.

Each chapter of the book bears a different title. The quote below comes from the first chapter, which bears the same title as the book itself:

Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.

This quote is in reference to what motivates the soldiers in Vietnam to do dangerous things, like crawl into dangerous tunnels and kill other human beings despite having no prior history of violence. This quote explains that a man's deepest fear was to fail to live up to the standards of contemporary masculinity. If he admitted he was scared to do something, a man sacrificed his dignity and opened himself up to the ridicule of others. Despite their shared fear of ridicule, the men enforce this standard of masculinity in order to further the collective illusion that only cowards feel fear. Death, then, becomes the preferable option to ridicule, an ironic truth that exposes just one of many paradoxes of existence within a war zone.

Near the middle of the book, O’Brien’s chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” explains in circular fashion how the essence of truth is nearly impossible to replicate in the form of a story:

Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.

Once again, O’Brien explores another paradox of war. He explains how people who do not experience war firsthand often want to know what it is really like, yet the experience is really impossible to put into words, with all its contradictions and nuance. O’Brien suggests that the confines of narrative structure and the listener’s desire for adherence to this structure make it impossible to capture the essence of war. Therefore, storytelling is more powerful than the truth itself in its purest form, because stories can capture the emotional truths that are often unutterable.

The following quote comes from the last chapter of the book, in which O’Brien determines his motivation for becoming a writer in the first place. He connects storytelling with the theme of death:

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

In each of the stories O’Brien has related in the text, he has attempted to immortalize those he cared about in life. One of the primary ways O’Brien says we hold on to the past is through stories. These stories allow us to revise history in order to interpret its truest meaning. At the end of the book, O’Brien says that he tells stories to save himself, and by extension, he believes that stories have the power to heal.

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