Skip over navigation

The Things They Carried

Tim O’Brien

“Spin”

“Love”

“On the Rainy River”

Summary

Insisting that sometimes war is less violent and more sweet, O’Brien shares disconnected memories of the war. Azar gives a bar of chocolate to a little boy with a plastic leg. Mitchell Sanders sits under a tree, picking lice off his body and depositing them in an envelope addressed to his Ohio draft board. Every night, Henry Dobbins and Norman Bowker dig a foxhole and play checkers. The narrator stops the string of anecdotes to say that he is now forty-three years old and a writer, and that reliving the memories has caused them to recur. He insists that the bad memories live on and never stop happening. He says his guilt has not ceased and that his daughter Kathleen advises him to write about something else. Nevertheless, he says, writing about what one remembers is a means of coping with those things one can’t forget.

O’Brien describes when the Alpha Company enlists an old Vietnamese man whom they call a “poppa-san” to guide the platoon through the mine fields on the Batangan Peninsula. When he is done, the troops are sad to leave their steadfast guide. Mitchell Sanders tells a story of a man who went AWOL in order to sleep with a Red Cross nurse. After several days, the man rejoined his unit and was more excited than ever about getting back into combat, saying that after so much peace, he wanted to hurt again. Norman Bowker whispers one night that if he could have one wish it would be for his father to stop bothering him about earning medals. Kiowa teaches Rat Kiley and Dave Jensen a rain dance, and when they ask him, afterward, where the rain was, he replies, “The earth is slow, but the buffalo is patient.” Ted Lavender adopts a puppy, and Azar later kills it, claiming his own immaturity as an excuse. Henry Dobbins sings to himself as he sews on his new buck-sergeant stripes. Lavender occasionally goes too heavy on the tranquilizers and calls the war “nice” and “mellow.” After Curt Lemon is killed, he hangs in pieces on a tree. Last comes the vision of a dead, young man and Kiowa’s voice ringing in O’Brien’s ear, assuring him, repeatedly, that O’Brien didn’t have a choice.

Analysis

“Spin,” with its unconnected anecdotes delivered in scattered phrases and half-realized memories, stylistically echoes the fragmentation of the war experience. Like the anecdotes in “The Things They Carried,” the anecdotes here are static and seemingly unrelated. They jump in time, purpose, and magnitude in the same way that a soldier’s mind might jump around his past. In this story, it becomes clear to us that all the stories O’Brien is telling originate from his memory. A shift in tone accompanies the fragmentation; O’Brien transitions from a balanced to a disillusioned evaluation of the war. He argues that the war is unlike Dobbins and Bowker’s well-ordered, rational games of checkers. The war has neither rules nor winners, and men witness horrific acts juxtaposed with random acts of kindness.

“Spin” is like a map of the uncharted territory of war for readers who have never experienced it. The story allows us to feel the boredom of war by describing the things that happen when nothing is happening: jibes, songs, stomachaches, and despair. It also addresses the way men choose to deal with fright, uncertainty, and devastation. Unable to cope with stress, Azar brutally kills Ted Lavender’s adopted puppy and uses his immaturity and youth as an excuse for his actions. O’Brien’s decision not to explain or elaborate on this event conveys the message that sometimes the facts in a true war story need no further commentary.

Although the plot of “Spin” is not complicated, the story establishes the identities of the characters who appear throughout The Things They Carried. We encounter most of the main characters in the title story, but we find out more about them here. We see the immature inhumanity of Azar, the philosophical even-headedness of Kiowa, and the dimness of Norman Bowker, and each character becomes more rounded and real with the revelation of a new detail. One way that “Spin” develops characters is by describing the inner conflicts that define them throughout The Things They Carried. O’Brien revisits, throughout the work, such elements as Ted Lavender’s tranquilizer abuse, Curt Lemon’s death, and his own killing of a Vietnamese man, and with each new look at a given event we gain added perspective on the characters involved.

O’Brien’s relationship with his daughter Kathleen reveals the importance of storytelling. An outsider to O’Brien’s experience, Kathleen cannot begin to imagine what her father went through when he was a soldier in a foreign country long before she was born. She is therefore convinced that her father’s obsession with Vietnam is an easily curable condition. She suggests that he write something happier, something entirely different, failing to realize that there is a reason that he needs to tell these stories, and to tell them to her, specifically. O’Brien says the function of telling stories is delivering the past into the future, for giving perspective and understanding. His act of telling, which bridges the gap between past and present, helps both him and Kathleen more fully understand his war experience.

Are you ready for the test?
Quick Quiz   →

More Help

Previous Next
showing not telling

by TheDuckOffender, August 08, 2012

The secret O'Brien claimed to have kept may also have been depicted in that reoccurring emotional/fictional truth that we know oh so well from this story. Perhaps he even showed it in the first chapter, rather than telling it.

0 Comments

5 out of 11 people found this helpful

Literary period

by vickie12, September 04, 2012

What literary period was the things they carried written in?

5 Comments

19 out of 70 people found this helpful

Correction

by MendicantBias, October 21, 2012

Azar kicked O'Brein in the head not Jorgensen.

0 Comments

22 out of 24 people found this helpful

See all 16 readers' notes   →

Follow Us