Synopses & Reviews
One of the first questions people ask about The Things They Carried
is this: is it a novel, or a collection of short stories? The title page refers to the book simply as "a work of fiction," defying the conscientious reader's need to categorize this masterpiece. It is both: a collection of interrelated short pieces which ultimately reads with the dramatic force and tension of a novel. Yet each one of the 22 short pieces is written with such care, emotional content, and prosaic precision that it could stand on its own.
The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and, of course, the character Tim O'Brien who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of 43. They battle the enemy (or maybe more the idea of the enemy), and occasionally each other. In their relationships we see their isolation and loneliness, their rage and fear. They miss their families, their girlfriends and buddies; they miss the lives they left back home. Yet they find sympathy and kindness for strangers (the old man who leads them unscathed through the mine field, the girl who grieves while she dances), and love for each other, because in Vietnam they are the only family they have. We hear the voices of the men and build images upon their dialogue. The way they tell stories about others, we hear them telling stories about themselves.
With the creative verve of the greatest fiction and the intimacy of a searing autobiography, The Things They Carried is a testament to the men who risked their lives in America's most controversial war. It is also a mirror held up to the frailty of humanity. Ultimately The Things They Carried and its myriad protagonists call to order the courage, determination, and luck we all need to survive.
About the Author
A native of Worthington, Minnesota, Tim O'Brien graduated in 1968 from Macalester College in St. Paul. He served as a foot soldier in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, after which he pursued graduate studies in Government at Harvard University, then later worked as a national affairs reporter for the Washington Post. He now lives in Massachusetts.
Other books by Tim O'Brien include If I Die in a Combat Zone Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, Going After Cacciato, Northern Lights, The Nuclear Age, and In the Lake of the Woods. Going After Cacciato won the National Book Award in 1979. In the Lake of the Woods won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the society of American Historians and was selected as the best novel of 1994 by Time magazine. His latest novel, Tomcat in Love (1998), is published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House.
Table of Contents
The Things They Carried
On the Rainy River
How to Tell a True War Story
Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong
The Man I Killed
Speaking of Courage
In the Field
The Ghost Soldiers
The Lives of the Dead
Reading Group Guide
1. Why is the first story, "The Things They Carried," written in third person? How does this serve to introduce the rest of the novel? What effect did it have on your experience of the novel when O'Brien switched to first person, and you realized the narrator was one of the soldiers?
2. In the list of all the things the soldiers carried, what item was most surprising? Which item did you find most evocative of the war? Which items stay with you?
3. In "On The Rainy River," we learn the 21-year-old O'Brien's theory of courage: "Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down. It was a comforting theory." What might the 43-year-old O'Brien's theory of courage be? Were you surprised when he described his entry into the Vietnam War as an act of cowardice? Do you agree that a person could enter a war as an act of cowardice?
4. What is the role of shame in the lives of these soldiers? Does it drive them to acts of heroism, or stupidity? Or both? What is the relationship between shame and courage, according to O'Brien?
5. Often, in the course of his stories, O'Brien tells us beforehand whether or not the story will have a happy or tragic ending. Why might he do so? How does it affect your attitude towards the narrator?
6. According to O'Brien, how do you tell a true war story? What does he mean when he says that true war stories are never about war? What does he mean when he writes of one story, "That's a true story that never happened"?
7. In "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," what transforms Mary Anne into a predatory killer? Does it matter that Mary Anne is a woman? How so? What does the story tell us about the nature of the Vietnam War?
8. The story Rat tells in "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" is highly fantastical. Does its lack of believability make it any less compelling? Do you believe it? Does it fit O'Brien's criteria for a true war story?
9. Aside from "The Things They Carried," "Speaking of Courage" is the only other story written in third person. Why are these stories set apart in this manner? What does the author achieve by doing so?
10. What is the effect of "Notes," in which O'Brien explains the story behind "Speaking Of Courage"? Does your appreciation of the story change when you learn which parts are "true" and which are the author's invention?
11. In "In The Field," O'Brien writes, "When a man died, there had to be blame." What does this mandate do to the men of O'Brien's company? Are they justified in thinking themselves at fault? How do they cope with their own feelings of culpability?
12. In "Good Form," O'Brien casts doubt on the veracity of the entire novel. Why does he do so? Does it make you more or less interested in the novel? Does it increase or decrease your understanding? What is the difference between "happening-truth" and "story-truth?"
13. On the copyright page of the novel appears the following: "This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary." How does this statement affect your reading of the novel?
14. Does your opinion of O'Brien change throughout the course of the novel? How so? How do you feel about his actions in "The Ghost Soldiers"?
15. "The Ghost Soldiers" is one of the only stories of The Things They Carried in which we don't know the ending in advance. Why might O'Brien want this story to be particularly suspenseful?