The Things They Carry: A Story of the Vietnam War

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The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien: A Collection of Stories on the Vietnam War

The story The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien can be described as a series of linked short-stories on the Vietnam War. Each of the stories are engaging, with so much ‘real’ detail that it is easy to think it is a true story, a non-fiction account of the Vietnam war. However, O’Brien is very clear that he this is not a ‘war book’. This book has been called a number of things, a novel, a half novel, a collection of stories, a collection of essays, part journalism, part fiction, part non-fiction (Calloway p.04). It seems autobiographical because Tim O’Brien is a Vietnam War veteran and is the main character in the book. While this book does tell war stories it more a book about storytelling, and exploring the subjective reality of truth, through fictional war stories.

The Things They Carried: A Brilliant Example of Contemporary Metafiction

The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien (O’Brien), is also a brilliant example of contemporary Metafiction. Patricia Waugh in her book talks about Metafiction as a style of writing in which the author consciously examines the relationship between fiction and reality (Waugh, p.13). During the course of the book some story only touch upon the process of writing while in other places an entire chapter is dedicated to form and technique like the chapter Notes (Calloway, p.5) How to tell a true war story, probably the best known story in this book, is like a miniature version of the book itself. It too is about both storytelling and war events, told through a mix of memories and commentary on how to tell a good story. It introduces the most important themes of his book, including memory, imagination, and truth. In this style of writing examination and understating of fiction and subjective reality is not limited to the work of fiction, but is extended to the larger world.

O’Brien as Narrator: Telling Stories and Exploring the Link Between Fiction and Reality

In this book, O'Brien is both the main character at once telling a story and commenting on the Vietnam War (without getting into a political discussion on it) while discussing the art of story-telling, talking about fiction as opposed to non-fiction writing, and exploring the link between fiction and reality in literature.

The Power of Literary Narrative: Moving Beyond Factual Representations

Although the stories are about one company of soldiers, the narrator who is talking about how to tell their stories in the best way possible, is the one thing holding the book together. O'Brien as the narrator keeps drawing the reader’s attention to the point he wants to convey that people tend to exaggerate occurrences that didn't happen, in order to explain the truth. Facts by themselves convey only information and emotions and emotional response are not mentioned, thereby not allowing the reader to get a complete, more realistic experience of the story. This idea, that factual representations give only information, while literary narrative allows us to feel like we are experiencing the event first hand is borne out in psychological studies too (Mcgregor, Ian and Holmes, G, John (p.02).

Fiction versus Reality: Using Stories to Understand Emotions

One of the significant themes played out across this book is that of fiction versus reality. While speaking at a lecture, O’Brien had spoken about fiction being needed to tell the truth when the truth is just not sufficient. Throughout the book, O’Brien makes references to using stories to sift through and understand his emotions.

The Dual Realities in O’Brien’s Stories: Factual Reality and Story-Truths

According to O’Brien, there are two kinds of reality viz. fictional reality or story-truths as he calls them or factual reality, which he calls happening-truths. In the stories, the author constantly moves between happening-truth, an objective, fact-laden telling of events (a soldier died in the war), and story-truth – which allows the writer to include the emotions the person experiences while living through that particular event (fear, pain, loss at the soldier’s death).

The Significance of Memory: Subjective, Shaping, and Picturing

O’Brien also explores in depth the whole concept of memory, what it is; how it is created, how subjective or factual it is, the role it plays in a person’s life. He said that stories create memorable experiences that over time and through repeated telling, become long term memories, which help you remember events in greater detail. In the book Kiowa sees Ted Lavender die and keeps recounting it to the others. While Ted Lavender is a central figure of the story, Kiowa’s constant repetition of the story is also symbolic of a person’s (the soldier’s) thoughts. The constant circling back to an incident that created an impact on the individual’s life; the way of keeping a memory alive by reimagining it, reliving it, and retelling it. O’Brien going back and forth between objective details and subjective emotions makes the stories more ‘real’.

The Influence of Stories on Memory and Experience

The other aspect of memory that comes out over here is that memory is not factual rather it is subjective, influenced by the experiences of the person. To O’Brien, remembering is what keeps the past alive. Stories have the ability to shape thinking and mold memories like no other form of communication. As he says in the book that sometimes remembering little details creates a story in the mind and this story then becomes a memory that stays forever. In the book the things the soldiers carry are both, real (condom, food etc.) and figurative, as in memories that shape who they are at the time, physical and emotional pains and joys. A well-written story will let the reader picture the characters – face, clothes, posture and to even experience the emotions the characters are portraying in the story.


Calloway, Catherine. “‘How to Tell a True War Story’: Metafiction in the Things They Carried.” Critique - Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 36, no. 4, 1995, pp. 249–57, doi:10.1080/00111619.1995.9935256.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. 1990, pp. 1–11.

Waugh, Patricia. “Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction.” Poetics Today, vol. 6, no. 3, 1985, doi:10.2307/1771928.

Mcgregor, Ian, and Holmes, G. John “How Storytelling Shapes Memory and Impressions of Relationships Over Ttime. Article in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology · March 1999

DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.76.3.403

August 21, 2023




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