The Things They Carried

by: Tim O’Brien

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Storytelling

O’Brien believes that stories contain immense power, since they allow tellers and listeners to confront the past together and share otherwise unknowable experiences. Telling stories returns to the foreground of the narrative again and again. Mitchell Sanders, the Alpha Company’s resident storyteller, whose anecdotes range from the mythic (the story of six men who hear voices in the jungle) to the specific (the story of how Rat Kiley shoots himself in the foot and as a result is allowed to leave Vietnam), contends that truth and morality in a war story have little to do with accuracy. For example, after telling the story of the men who hear voices in the jungle, Sanders admits that he made up a few things in order to get his point across. Nevertheless, his story has resonance. The added details are only further proof of the universal truth: the eerie quiet of the jungle causes soldiers’ imaginations to run wild with fantastic images far stranger than anything they might actually encounter.

O’Brien shows that storytelling is not just a coping mechanism for soldiers who are embroiled in the war but also a strategy for communication throughout life. Several of the stories in The Things They Carried are told from O’Brien’s point of view, twenty years after the war. With this distance, facts have become cloudy and all that remains of the experience are the lingering feelings and memories. He is aware of his omissions and exaggeration of detail, and in the case of “Good Form,” he even suggests that all of his previous stories are made up. Even if he did not actually kill a soldier in My Khe, the truth of his feelings about war is no less valid. His insistence on the idea that stories can make the past become part of the present shows that his priority is not on the facts but on our identification with his feelings.

Ambiguous Morality

O’Brien’s stories show that the jungle blurs boundaries between right and wrong. The brutal killing of innocents on both sides cannot be explained, and in some moments of disbelief, the men deal with the pain of their feelings by pointing out the irony. “There’s a moral here,” Mitchell Sanders ironically points out again and again, each time stressing the actual immorality of the specific situation. After Ted Lavender is fatally shot by the enemy, for example, Sanders jokes that the “moral” of Ted Lavender’s accidental and tragic death is to stay away from drugs.

Exposed to these horrors, the men’s notions of right and wrong shift and bend. After Ted Lavender’s death, for example, Cross evens the score and deals with his own guilt by burning the entire village of Than Khe. Similarly, Rat Kiley deals with his frustration about Curt Lemon’s death by brutally killing a water buffalo. Affected by the senselessness of war, even O’Brien—a college educated, peace-loving man—feels himself grow hard and callous, willing to wish others harm. Ironically, the moral or lesson in The Things They Carried is that there is no morality in war. War is ambiguous and arbitrary because it forces humans into extreme situations that have no obvious solutions.

Loneliness and Isolation

O’Brien argues that in Vietnam, loneliness and isolation are forces as destructive as any piece of ammunition. In repeatedly emphasizing the impact of solitude on the soldiers, he shows that thoughts, worries, and fears are as dangerous—if not more dangerous—than the Vietnamese soldiers themselves. In “How to Tell a True War Story,” Mitchell Sanders’s story concerning soldiers made so paranoid by their experience on listening patrol that they hear strange noises emphasizes how the imagination can take over instantly in the lonely silence. In “The Ghost Soldiers,” O’Brien takes unfair advantage of the power of isolation when he attempts to frighten Bobby Jorgenson while Jorgenson is on night guard duty. In order to emphasize the evil intentions of his revenge plot, O’Brien reflects on his fear of being cut off from the outside world and the close relation between night guard and childhood fears of the dark. In Vietnam, isolation is synonymous with endless time to dwell on the unknown.

Loneliness remains a strong presence enveloping the soldiers long after the war is over. Jimmy Cross, for example, feels bereft after the war because his hope for happiness in Martha is dashed by her rejection. Norman Bowker also feels empty and isolated after the war. In “Speaking of Courage,” he aimlessly drives around a lake in his hometown, thinking that he has no one to talk to. He even attempts to converse with an A&W employee, but no one will offer him consolation. O’Brien himself realizes that if he didn’t have writing to work through his trauma, he might be in as abject a place as Bowker. The character O’Brien’s narration—and, in effect, the author O’Brien’s The Things They Carried—is an attempt to combat the destructive isolation that the Vietnam experience fostered.