The Things They Carried Summary
by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried book cover
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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.


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.

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“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.

“Enemies, Friends”

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”

"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 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...

(The entire section is 987 words.)