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The Things They Carried

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1 The Things They Carried
Tim O’Brien

2 The Things Writers Carry
Preliminary thoughts Memory can be highly unreliable. Our remembered truths may be completely different from the remembered truths of those who grew up in the very same house. Humor is the writer’s armor against hard emotions – and therefore, in the case of memoir, one more distortion of the truth.

3 The Things Writers Carry
From author Toni Morrison: “The act of imagination is bound up with memory. They straightened out the Mississippi River in places to make room for houses and live-able acreage. Occasionally, the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but it’s not flooding, it’s remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back where it was.”

4 The Things Writers Carry
Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory: the rush of our imagination is the flooding. All of us live with a life history in our mind. We are storytelling creatures. The crux is how well we tell our stories and how well we recognize that there is no true history.

5 The Things They Carried
Themes Physical and emotional burdens Fear of shame as motivation Subjection of truth to storytelling

6 The Things They Carried
Storytelling Fact and fiction is blurred: The objective truth of a war story is less important than the act of telling the story itself. Technical facts around any one event are less important than the subjective truth of what the war meant to the soldiers and how it changed them. Notes adapted from Jill Collela,Wiley Publishing Inc. New York 2001

7 The Things They Carried
The book’s different storytellers are designed to relate the “truth of experience.” O’Brien: Stories contain immense power; tellers and listeners confront past together and share otherwise unknowable experiences. By telling stories, O'Brien is able to gain some distance from the harrowing experience he had in Vietnam. But while stories are a coping mechanism, they are also blueprints for communicating in life.

8 “On The Rainy River” Explores the role of shame in war and embarrassment as a motivating factor. This story is a most obvious example of O’Brien’s fiction-as-truth: Its point is to convey an emotional truth, not facts. He clearly puts the reader in his position as a young, naïve person facing a difficult decision.

9 “On the Rainy River” How the Vietnam War differed from other wars
Average age of soldier: 19 (WW II: 26) In Vietnam War, many went to college to avoid war Men had to explain why they served: not serving was acceptable Soldiers served a tour of duty In combat, there was no safety in the rear – there was no rear in Vietnam There was little support for either the soldier or the war from the general population of the U.S. Vietnam had not directly threatened the U.S.

10 “On the Rainy River” The war was fought in a country whose history, culture, religions, and values were quite different from ours The war’s goal was unclear: There was never a clear indication that America would do whatever was necessary to win The officers in charge were often inexperienced and/or inconsistent. Fragging occurred Fighting casualties exceeded those in WW II Territory was taken, lost, and taken repeatedly There were no clear combat zones; there was no front No emotional support was offered returning soldiers

11 “On the Rainy River” All of the soldiers did not return home at the same time No war since the Civil War caused such a split in U.S. public opinion, leading to social unrest and violence Vietnam was the first war the U.S. lost The war was broadcast on TV daily Drug use was part of the combat scene; problems in the military included financial corruption, racism, low morale, theft, murder, and suicide

12 “The Things They Carried”
Hand grenades smoke bombs M-16 assault rifle (7.5 pounds, unloaded with 8.5 to 14 pounds of ammunition) M-16 maintenance gear: 1 pound Hatchet (7 pounds) flashlight (2 pounds) Poncho (2 pounds) Steel helmet (5 pounds) Flak jacket (7 pounds) jungle boots (7 pounds) M-60 (23 pounds, unloaded: pounds of ammo) PRC-25 radio (26 pounds) Medic gear: 20 pounds M-79 grenade launcher: 6 pounds; 50 pounds of ammo

13 “The Things They Carried”
C-rations: 2 lbs P-38 can openers Pocket knife: 1 lb Heat tabs Watch Dog tags Insect repellent Gum/candy Cigarettes/lighters salt tablets Iodine tablets Kool-Aid packets Sterno/matches Sewing kits 2 or 3 canteens of water Total: 15 to 20 pounds, depending on the man

14 The Things They Carried
The Things They (and we) Carry The metaphor of carrying gives weight to the idea that the things we carry —whether physical or emotional —enable us to navigate life’s inconsistencies.

15 The Things They Carried
The notion that people carry heavy emotional burdens is a universal one: O’Brien switching between first-person narrative and third-person throughout the book reflects his belief that by telling his own story, he is telling the story of many.

16 “The Things They Carried” and “Platoon”
Possible character parallels TTTC Platoon O’Brien Taylor Lt. Cross Lt. Wolfe Kiowa King Lavendar Gardner Rat Kiley Rhah Azar Bunny Henry Dobbins Big Harold

17 “Love” Lt. Cross shows how repression of painful memories can be essential for survival. The feelings behind the story are the investment for the reader, rather than what is truth and fiction. In a twist, we don’t know if what Cross has asked O’Brien to leave out of the story is in there or not.

18 “Love” At the end of the “Love” chapter, Jimmy Cross says, “Don’t mention anything about – ” but is cut off by O’Brien. What two questions does this create for the reader about the story and about O’Brien? The ambiguous ending reflects veterans’ difficulty in articulating traumatic experiences: a task storytelling can address.

19 “Spin” The unconnected anecdotes here echo the fragmentation of the war experience. War has no winners or losers, unlike Dobbins and Bowker’s game of checkers. O’Brien’s relationship with his daughter, Kathleen, reveals the importance of storytelling: to deliver the past into the future, for giving perspective and understanding.

20 “Spin” Jot down these important quotes:
As a writer, “You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present.” “Remembering leads to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

21 “Enemies/Friends” O’Brien presents a fight within a war: a microcosm to the macrocosm of Vietnam. The meaninglessness of the fight: It was over a stolen jackknife. This is a metaphor for the meaninglessness the men feel over the war itself. This is seen when Strunk laughs when Jensen breaks his own nose: After all, Strunk thinks Jensen was justified in his fight with Strunk, because Strunk does admit he stole Jensen’s jackknife.

22 “Enemies/Friends” However, the fight is more personal and emotional than the war: Strunk’s nose is broken because his “enemy” relentlessly beats him and crushes his nose. Strunk loses his leg for no reason other than where he stepped. He could not have known or prevented it. So in the fight between the two men, the enemy is visible and is physical. Conversely, the war often lacks a visible opponent.

23 “How To Tell A True War Story”
This chapter really blurs the distinction between truth and fiction. O’Brien immediately brands the story as true; then he states later that “none of it happened.” He doesn’t lie: He changes the definition of telling the truth. Lemon’s sister doesn’t get the “truth” of the story Kiley is telling her: Kiley’s brotherly love for Lemon. On one hand, Lemon’s sister doesn’t respond to Kiley’s letter; on the other hand, her “response” is that she doesn’t answer Kiley’s letter.

24 “How to Tell A True War Story”
According to University of Maryland professor Jill Colella, who has critiqued the novel, this suggests a meaning that can be applied to readers and hearers of stories: that they can “tell” when stories hold a truth, whether the events of the story actually occurred, based on certain criteria. Colella says that according to O’Brien, then, the truth of a story depends solely on the audience hearing it told. If it strikes you as “true,” then it is.

25 “The Dentist” This chapter forces us to reconsider how and why we honor the memory of war and war heroes. O’Brien finds it difficult to mourn Lemon’s death, because Lemon did not “earn that right” when he was alive. O’Brien sees Lemon as someone who strove for some false image of machismo; Lemon was still afraid of the dentist, even after he had his healthy tooth pulled, but he was more afraid of losing face with his fellow soldiers: an image he worked hard to maintain. So the issue for O’Brien: In a war, we tend to mourn people because they died, not for how they lived.

26 “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”
A spooky one with a compelling metaphor: This is not truly a story of Mary Anne’s transformation: It’s more about storytelling and the loss of innocence. Many of the soldiers are represented by Mary Anne: They, too, left America as young and naïve, and like her, they lost their innocence in Vietnam. Eventually, they all crossed over into the dark side of the war experience, and their innocent selves were lost for good. The reason why the soldiers listening to the story want Kiley to “get it right” and to tell them how it ends is two-fold: One, endings complete stories and make them “true.” Secondly, the men want to subconsciously know how the “story” will end for them. Will they, too, go to the dark side and never return?

27 “Stockings,” “Church” In “Stockings,” Dobbins wears his girlfriend’s panty hose around his neck because they symbolize love, home – and most of all, some kind of mojo that comes from both. Even after his girlfriend breaks up with him, Dobbins wears the pantyhose to keep this state of mind, rather than memories of the girl. They will continue to protect him as long as he believes in them.

28 “Stockings,” “Church” The soldiers have blurred the boundaries between the war and church: something Dobbins and Kiowa think is wrong. When Dobbins imitates the hand-washing action, he doesn’t know what it means, only that he is trying to make amends for having violated this separation.

29 “The Man I Killed” O’Brien copes with his feelings about the young man’s death by taking himself out of the narration: He focuses on physical characteristics of the young man, rather than on O’Brien’s own feelings of guilt. The reader can only infer what O’Brien is feeling. He creates an entire identity for the young man – sharing many similarities with his own life – in coming to grips with his own mortality.

30 “Ambush,” “Style” Recounts “The Man I Killed” in first person: He is much more direct about it, in part, for Kathleen’s benefit. He has a clear memory of the man’s actual death that only time and distance has allowed to crystallize. In “Style,” just as in “Church,” the soldiers try to derive meaning from something they don’t understand; in this case, the girl’s dancing amid the destruction and human carnage. It’s confusing. Dancing is purposeful, graceful, and meaningful: everything the war is not. When Azar dances, he may be mocking the girl: Or he may be trying to derive meaning from the dance (and hence, the war).

31 “Speaking of Courage” Intricate storytelling structure here: Whereas O’Brien writes in past tense, separating his current self from the self that fought in the war, Bowker is unable to use storytelling as a way to deal with his war trauma. Bowker has no one to talk to as a way to leave his war experiences behind him. Compelling metaphor: The sewage field represents an unpleasant, meaningless battle that none of the soldiers can escape; literally Kiowa, and symbolically Bowker, whose wading into the lake he drives around (and even tasting it) signals his desire to return to Vietnam to change the events that ended Kiowa’s life. (Collela): “Bowker represents the paradox between the need for emotional truth and the pain many feel in expressing it.”

32 “Notes” It’s here where we get to the crux of the question, “What is patriotism?” (page 156). This is O'Brien's search for authenticity in storytelling: Most of his writing comes from the “simple need to talk,” illustrating that his writing is his chosen form of relief from mental anguish. As such, his success in dealing with his mental anguish is directly related to his success as a storyteller: “By telling stories, you objectify your own experiences. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths.” Bowker has no such avenue for relief.

33 “In The Field,” “Good Form”
No one emerges emotionally intact from the three perspectives of “In The Field.” Lt. Cross blames himself for not going against orders and setting up camp in a better spot. The young, unnamed soldier (Tim?) blames himself for his carelessness, turning on the flashlight to show Kiowa a picture of the young soldier’s girlfriend. When the men discover Kiowa’s body, they are overwhelmed by the sense of “bad luck” that caused his death – bad luck that could have claimed (and still could claim) any one of them.

34 “In the Field” “Good Form”
Consider how this same “luck” visited the Viet Cong soldier “O’Brien” killed in “The Man I Killed.” Reality, randomness, luck, and war overwhelm all of them. “Good Form”: O’Brien distinguishes, again, the difference between “story truth” and “happening truth.”

35 “Field Trip” The scene in the field is the climax of the story.
O’Brien finds a sense of closure through the physical act of wading into the water and depositing Kiowa’s moccasins. Still, he is unable to explain this to his daughter, Kathleen, who represents the future. O’Brien’s lingering questions about Vietnam 20 years later: Is it a country, a memory, both, or neither?

36 “The Ghost Soldiers” This story, and the one that follows (“Night Life”), both deal with how the night affects people: It is at night that “O’Brien” holds the most hatred for, and plots his revenge against, Jorgenson. It is at night that Vietnam comes alive – not the country but the war experience. Part of “O’Brien’s” bitterness is in the embarrassment of his wound (in the rear end) and the fact that he almost died, but more in the loss of his life as a combat soldier. He especially misses the brotherhood that he is now on the outside of, looking in.

37 “The Ghost Soldiers” “O’Brien” acts out his need for making war – on Jorgenson – but in the process alienates Sanders, while befriending Azar. The reader realizes now how much “O’Brien” changed: He is no longer fighting for an ideal but for pure, raw, revenge. In the end, “O’Brien” – “trembling…hugging himself, rocking” has lost his friends, his memories, and his moral superiority. He is defeated.

38 “Night Life” This story illustrates the fine emotional and mental stability line that the soldiers walk. The change in routine from day to night maneuvers pushes Kiley over that line and deep into himself, where he battles visions, terror, and obsession. O’Brien goes to great lengths to show the impact of the night routine: dark so thick that it creates an inability to blink. When Kiley shoots himself in the foot in order to get out of there, it’s unclear if he does so because he has gone crazy or if he does so to prevent himself from going crazy.

39 “The Lives of the Dead’ This is the story that encapsulates the novel’s purpose: writing in order to make sense of life, especially in relation to others’ deaths. Linda is O’Brien’s first love – and his first realization that fiction can overcome death. When this beautiful, little child dies, her innocence, and O’Brien’s, dies with her. Linda’s visits to O’Brien’s dreams begin a life-long process of addressing difficulty through imagination and illusion: an ability he carried with him to Vietnam. By keeping Linda alive – as well as his Vietnam comrades – O’Brien is keeping himself alive.

40 “The Lives of the Dead” Important quotes from Tim O’Brien:
“The act of writing is an act of compassion. It entails sympathy for human frailties, weaknesses, and strengths: sympathy for a human condition in which we can never be that to which we aspire. “Novels are made out of a sense of outrage at the world, the way the world treats us; the way we treat ourselves; the mistakes we make ourselves. Books come out of that sort of thing, that tension to make things better. “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you ... There is the illusion of aliveness.”

41 Test Review 65 total points
15 multiple choice; 8 true or false; 8 matching questions 4 short-answer questions (9 points); 2 long-answer questions (25 points total) Study your notes Emphasis on O’Brien’s approach to storytelling (its purpose, its value, etc.) Know the characters well, especially those in Alpha Company.

42 Test Review Key chapters to review: “Speaking of Courage”
“In the Field” “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” “Notes” “Spin” “Lives of the Dead”

43 Review 1. A former Alpha Company soldier, ______ committed suicide by hanging himself. Norman Bowker 2. Reunited with “O’Brien” after the war, _____ was still preoccupied with his unrequited love for Martha. Jimmy Cross 3. __________, a soldier near Song Tra Bong, had not anticipated the effects of the Vietnam experience on his girlfriend. Mark Fossie

44 Review 4. This character, _________, is the first whom “O’Brien” could see in his dreams. Linda 5. This soldier, ________, was “O’Brien’s” confidante, especially after “O’Brien” killed the unnamed Vietnamese soldier. Kiowa 6. As a medic, this soldier experienced a failure and nerve, but _______ later made amends with “O’Brien.” Bobby Jorgenson

45 Review 7. As a talisman, _______ carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck. Henry Dobbins 8. An Alpha Company medic, _________ could not handle the strain of war and began to hallucinate. Rat Kiley

46 Review 9. This character, _________, stole a jackknife from fellow soldier Dave Jensen. Lee Strunk 10. While goofing around with Rat Kiley, ______ was killed by accident. Curt Lemon 11. This character, ________, believes that “O’Brien” should forget the war and write about something else. Kathleen

47 Review 12. To get revenge on Bobby Jorgenson, “O’Brien” planned with ____________. Azar 13. A former Alpha Company soldier, __________ returns to Vietnam and brings Kiowa’s moccasins with him. “O’Brien” 14. Because of a pact the two soldiers made, __________ was relieved when he learned that Lee Strunk died from his battle wounds. Dave Jensen

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