The Things They Carried Literary Assessment | Teen Ink

The Things They Carried Literary Assessment

August 14, 2021
By j_rosen315 SILVER, Wantagh, New York
j_rosen315 SILVER, Wantagh, New York
5 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Favorite Quote:
"It's all a part of the human experience"


Tim O’Brien’s disjointed novel The Things They Carried provides a moral between each chapter’s short story in order to build a series of truths that plays with a reader’s sense of gullibility. As a reader, one’s expectations provide that a story’s plot is based on a series of fathomable events that an author has lived through. Even in fiction, a reader is compelled by the truths of an author’s imagination and attempts to find the text’s deeper meaning and the author’s intent. Tim O’Brien twists this concept by looking at war from the word’s backward definition. Raw stories of emotional endurance twist one’s psychology and change how one perceives truth and fact. I believe this is O’Brien’s most important message because although he opens the chapter How to Tell a True War Story saying, “This [story] is true” (O’Brien, 64),  by the end, one is left questioning their own psychological sensations in perceiving truth.


O’Brien’s novel fits around this premise of truth as he uses a collection of linked short stories to show the brain’s wandering nature in times of fear and despair. By switching lenses between the past and present, he provides a powerful, self-reflective narrative documenting a soldier’s way of coping during times of war. He illustrates a soldier’s complex mindset in defining how societal expectations of morality come into question with war’s unethical demands. In doing this, O’Brien is constantly changing the plot’s truthfulness with each version fitting in with a different expectation. For example, O’Brien cites the popular cliche that “war is hell” in the chapter How to Tell a True War Story. The three-word generalization is an easy truth that most readers appreciate as Americans celebrate holidays such as Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Veterans Day. However, O’Brien shows that this perception is not as authentic as it seems by describing how “The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat” (O’Brien, 77). This confession of the psychotic thrills of warfare provides a truth that many likely do not want to hear. The immoral sense of reveling in the defeat of mankind does not fit into society’s expectations for soldier conduct and thereby changes a reader’s understanding of a soldier’s truth. O’Brien later shifts the story to contradict this notion by forwarding readers’ expectations of war having a devastatingly traumatic impact on one’s life. In the chapter Notes, O’Brien uses the story of Norman Bowker to confess his feelings of loss in the death of Kiowa in the sewage field. “Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own” (O’Brien, 154). By using another character to document his feelings about losing his best friend, O'Brien is vicariously shifting his complacency to show the painfulness in confessing his guilt. In using this present lens to shift the plot’s truth, O’Brien shows that his novel is a coping mechanism, allowing him to come to terms with his association in Kiowa’s death (whether Norman Bowker is real is hard to tell but his character and suicidal fate represents a dark side of O’Brien consumed by ever-lasting guilt).


The chapter How to Tell a True War Story is a great reflection of O’Brien’s sense of truth through the story of Curt Lemon’s death. Although it is known that he died after accidentally stepping on a grenade while playing catch with Rat Kiley, O’Brien parallels his death with the surrounding environment. “...When he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms” (O’Brien, 67). This shifting use of story-truth vs reality-truth alienates the experience to having a darker, more twisted meaning; as if the forces of nature took Curt Lemon’s life during the war. O’Brien reflects on this concept by shifting the plot of the story back to his present writing self within the chapter and describes how, “Twenty years later, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon’s face...But if I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree...then you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which for him must've been the final truth” (O’Brien, 80). O’Brien’s novel seems to forward Michelle Sagara’s concept that “Truth, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.” In Curt Lemon’s final moments, he likely thought that it was a freak force of nature shifting his gravity away from Earth. O’Brien wants readers to understand that nobody has the right to deny the final truths of a dead man.


O’Brien’s use of allusion was especially vivid in the scene where he and Dave Jensen were cleaning up Curt Lemon’s remains in the chapter How to Tell a True War Story. O’Brien describes how the memory of gore haunts him, “But what wakes me up twenty years later is Dave Jensen singing ‘Lemon Tree’ as we threw down the parts.” This allusion to the 1962 song by the group Peter, Paul, and Mary is rather curious as the song is about the betrayals of love representative of the “lovely lemon tree.” The main verse that repeats throughout the song goes, “Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.” Beyond the grotesque yet witty visual of Curt Lemon being subdued to a lemon tree, the use of the allusion in this context transforms the sound of a sweet lullaby into dark, twisted horror. It provides sound to O’Brien’s nightmares and sensations to the traumatic realities of war. The song is perhaps representative of Curt’s remains souring the tree's exquisite exterior, or of the trauma of war poisoning the soldiers’ minds and tarnishing their sense of truthful reality. 


The author's comments:

Some spoilers may be present. 


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