Tim O'Brien American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2400

All of O’Brien’s books touch on the Vietnam War, if only peripherally. However, Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried, and In the Lake of the Woods, along with the memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home , are deeply...

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All of O’Brien’s books touch on the Vietnam War, if only peripherally. However, Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried, and In the Lake of the Woods, along with the memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, are deeply concerned with the experience of the war. O’Brien uses the Vietnam War as a means to explore courage, memory, truth, and the art of storytelling in these books.

Courage, and its reverse, cowardice, are important themes throughout O’Brien’s work. In both his memoir and his stories such as “On the Rainy River” from The Things They Carried, O’Brien reaches the conclusion that he found himself in the infantry not because he was brave but rather because he lacked the courage to go to Canada in order not to have to participate in what he believed was an immoral war. In Going After Cacciato, the central event of the book is Paul Berlin’s collapse from fear as his unit rushes Cacciato’s position. Unable to control his bladder, Berlin finds his response to fear to be both shameful and humiliating. Although he dreams of the Silver Star, he experiences himself as cowardly. The Silver Star figures as a central image in a series of stories in The Things They Carried as well: “Speaking of Courage,” “Notes,” and “In the Field” all relate the events surrounding the death of a particularly beloved character, Kiowa, in a sewage field. For character Norman Bowker, this event is the central one of his life. He believes that a failure of courage causes Kiowa’s death and also costs him his chance at a Silver Star. In a particularly metafictional story, “Notes,” the narrator (who also is named Tim O’Brien) considers the event, noting that Bowker “did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own.” These closing lines reveal some of the most difficult and interesting parts of the novel: Does O’Brien imply here that he was a coward? Does he imply that, as a writer, he created the situation and thus all parts of the story are his own?

O’Brien also uses memory (and most particularly traumatic memory) as an important theme in his work. In Going After Cacciato, Paul Berlin’s memories and imagination serve to structure the entire novel. Likewise, The Things They Carried uses as a device the memories of narrator Tim O’Brien (as distinct from writer Tim O’Brien) some twenty years after the close of the war. In both of these books, O’Brien uses a few central events, generally the death of comrades, and then circles around them, retelling the story with increasing detail. By so doing, he leads the reader on a journey of discovery, one in which the story becomes clearer as it goes along. The journey becomes increasingly circuitous, however, with his later books. In In the Lake of the Woods, for example, O’Brien appears to be leading the reader to a resolution of the central mystery of Kathy Wade’s disappearance. However, resolution is not to be had in this ambiguous, self-reflexive novel that uses all of the conventions of the mystery story but none of the expected outcomes.

Finally, and perhaps most important, O’Brien explores the way stories are told throughout his work. In Going After Cacciato, he demonstrates how the mind sifts through the jetsam and flotsam of past experience and past knowledge to piece together a coherent narrative. In stories such as “How to Tell a True War Story” from The Things They Carried, he demonstrates the way truth always seems to be just around the next story, if only the words are right. Finally, in In the Lake of the Woods he explores the whole notion of revision, how memories can be erased, rewritten, and revised to produce a narration with which one can live. Tellingly, O’Brien himself revises his stories. There are subtle differences between the early versions of the stories of The Things They Carried when they appeared in magazines and the later versions when they were collected in the book. He also has revised Going After Cacciato between editions of the book. It is small wonder, then, that the subject of revision itself surfaces in stories such as “Notes,” “How to Tell a True War Story,” and in his novels, particularly In the Lake of the Woods. The chapters called “Hypothesis” in this novel are, after all, revision after revision of what could have happened, what might have happened, what did happen, and what did not happen.

Going After Cacciato

First published: 1978; revised, 1989

Type of work: Novel

An army private reflects on and imagines a journey to Paris as he stands sentry duty in Vietnam.

Going After Cacciato, O’Brien’s third published book, was a breakthrough for the writer. He returned to his experiences in Vietnam, first developed in his 1973 memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, for his material; however, Going After Cacciato is a very different book from the earlier one in content, style, theme, and organization. Winner of the 1979 National Book Award, the book was widely regarded at its publication as the finest work of the Vietnam War experience.

O’Brien organizes the book into three threads that weave together a fully realized novel. One thread is the story of Spec Four Paul Berlin’s experiences over the previous six months during his tour of duty in Vietnam. The sixteen chapters constituting this thread are not arranged chronologically. At the heart of these chapters are the deaths of several of Berlin’s companions, the desertion of Cacciato, and Berlin’s responses to both. Another strand forms ten chapters of the novel, each titled “The Observation Post.” These chapters are set in the present time, as Berlin stands guard duty overnight. The chapters are particularly important to the structure of the novel, because they provide for the reader Berlin’s musings and waking dreams of what has happened to him. He imagines both what has really happened and what might have happened. The remaining thread of twenty chapters concerns a journey to Paris as the group of soldiers chase after Cacciato. Readers gradually realize that the journey to Paris is completely imaginary, set off by Berlin’s nocturnal meanderings as he tries to make sense of the reality of his past six months in Vietnam. Ultimately, the journey to Paris seems no more or no less fantastic than the “reality” of the Vietnam experience.

The first chapter of the novel, “Going After Cacciato,” has been widely anthologized as a stand-alone story. “It was a bad time,” the story opens, before listing the boys in the squad who have met death, disease, or disability, before turning to a description of the day that Cacciato goes AWOL, leaving not only his squad but also the Vietnam War behind.

Following the opening chapter is the first “Observation Post” chapter of the book. In this chapter, as others with the same title, Berlin literally observes his external and internal realities. Most of all, Berlin considers courage and cowardice. Berlin’s consideration results in an elaborately plotted journey to Paris that includes not only the members of his squad, a member of the Viet Cong, and a beautiful woman, but it also includes allusions to many of the major genres and works of literature and popular culture, including Lewis Carroll, Ernest Hemingway, and the “road” movies of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. It is as if Berlin concocts the story of the Vietnam War with pieces and parts of American culture floating through his daydreams.

The last chapter of the novel returns to the first, signaled by the repetition of the title, “Going After Cacciato.” In this chapter, the reader finally can piece together what has happened in the book: At the moment of the squad’s first attempt to capture Cacciato, Berlin collapses in fear and wets his pants. The rest of the novel is Berlin’s response to this event as he tries to come to terms with what he views as shameful and visible evidence of his own cowardice.

The Things They Carried

First published: 1990

Type of work: Short stories

A composite work of intertwining stories narrates the experiences of Alpha Company in Vietnam through the voice of character Tim O’Brien.

When The Things They Carried appeared in 1990, critics were overwhelmingly positive in their responses. Indeed, this work continues to be O’Brien’s most studied and applauded. Another Vietnam War book, The Things They Carried does not fit neatly into any conventional generic distinction. Scholars are divided over whether to treat the book as a collection of interwoven short stories, as a novel, or as a fictionalized memoir. O’Brien calls the book simply “A Work of Fiction,” refusing to corral the book into one genre or another.

Many of the chapters of the book were at one time published as short stories in a variety of periodicals; five of the stories first appeared in Esquire. The title story, “The Things They Carried,” and “How to Tell a True War Story” are perhaps the most frequently anthologized of O’Brien’s short stories. Something happens in this book, however, that seems to push it beyond a simple collection of stories. The juxtaposition of the stories along with the additional material O’Brien wrote for the book work together synchronistically, and the effect of reading The Things They Carried as a complete work is very different from reading the stories individually. The characters, events, and memories swirl through the stories, turning back on themselves, self-revising as they go. What the reader learns in one story opens possibilities for the later stories.

The first story is, fittingly enough, “The Things They Carried.” On first reading, the story seems to be just a list of the things that Alpha Company carries with them as they trudge through the Vietnamese countryside. However, O’Brien’s attention to both the physical and emotional weight of the items demonstrates that this is not just a catalog of things but rather an inventory of trauma, something short-story writer Charles Baxter notes in a 1999 article in the journal Ploughshares. The items structure both the story and the book; they introduce a cast of characters, and a list of events that the following stories detail.

Although The Things They Carry is not a book that can easily be discussed in terms of plot, it is a book in which a great deal happens. It is essentially the stories of the men (or boys, as they might more appropriately be called) of Alpha Company, generally filtered through the voice of the narrator, a character named Tim O’Brien, who shares with the author not only his name but also his age and his profession. The stories, then, produce a sort of double vision: that of a forty-three-year-old writer, considering the Vietnam War from a distance, and the impressions of a young soldier who finds himself in the middle of war he does not believe in for reasons he does not understand.

In the Lake of the Woods

First published: 1994

Type of work: Novel

The wife of a Vietnam-veteran-turned-politician disappears in the Minnesota north woods after the secret of her husband’s participation in a massacre is revealed.

In the Lake of the Woods is also a novel concerning the Vietnam War. Although it shares many similar themes and stylistic choices with Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, it also introduces much more explicitly the American involvement in the massacres at My Lai and surrounding villages.

The book is the story of the disappearance of politician and Vietnam War veteran John Wade’s wife Kathy while the couple is vacationing at an isolated cabin in the north woods of Minnesota. Wade has just been soundly defeated in a primary election for the United States Senate. It was fully expected that Wade would easily win the election until the news media discovered that Wade had participated in the My Lai massacre during his tour of duty in 1968.

The book has thirty chapters. Some of the chapters have titles such as “What He Did Next,” “What Was Found,” and “Where They Looked.” The purpose of these chapters is to move the story of Kathy’s disappearance and the subsequent investigation forward. These chapters are interspersed with chapters called “Evidence,” and others called “Hypothesis.” The evidence chapters are excerpts from both real and imaginary texts, including handbooks on magic; transcripts from the court-martial trial of William Calley for the atrocities at My Lai; and interviews with characters about Wade’s childhood and his marriage to Kathy. Each of the sources is footnoted at the bottom of the page. This device contributes to the reader expectation that evidence will lead somewhere. Certainly, the accumulation of detail in these chapters is designed to build a case, but the ambiguity of the entire narrative makes it impossible to “read” the evidence convincingly.

In the “Hypothesis” chapters, an unnamed narrator offers suggestions of what might have happened to Kathy. These narratives are so convincing in detail that readers have to remind themselves that these are only hypotheses. That they are so believable is a tribute both to O’Brien’s skill and to the reader’s need to know what “really” happened.

A fourth set of chapters has titles such as “The Nature of Marriage,” “The Nature of the Beast,” and “The Nature of Politics.” These are the flashback chapters in which the details of Wade’s childhood, his courtship of Kathy, his marriage, his political career, and, most important, his military service are revealed. The details are troubling: Wade emerges as a man damaged by his father and his nation, someone who could, quite possibly, pour boiling water on his wife’s face while she is sleeping.

By the end of the novel, the reader has learned a great deal about John and Kathy Wade, about the Vietnam War, about the nature of investigation and evidence, and about storytelling. What the reader does not learn, however, is what has happened to Kathy, or, for that matter to John, who disappears on the Lake of the Woods himself in the closing scene.

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