The Emotional Reception of Tim O’Brien’s in “The Things they Carried”

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As children, we are told to believe in Santa Claus, a jolly old man who delivers gifts to all the good girls and boys in one night. But as we grow, people allude to the fact that he isn’t real. However, how could this be true when we sit on his lap and tell him what we want, then receive it just weeks later? Tim O’Brien is like our Santa Claus. We are told to believe him, then later figure out that not every detail is true.

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How could he make his readers feel such strong emotions if they weren’t all real? O’Brien effectively mixes reality with fiction to make his audience feel what being in the Vietnam War was like, carrying baggage that he and others had never wanted.

The prologue of “The Things They Carried” lets the audience know that though the book is fiction, there are still events and characters that resemble O’Brien’s past. The readers will keep this in mind throughout the book, questioning if he knew someone like the characters described in the book, or if the event actually happened to him, and in such a grotesque way that it was made out to be.

In the first chapter, entitled “The Things They Carried,” O’Brien goes into detail about what each man brought to war, whether tangible or not. With the words of the prologue still on their minds, the readers begin to question what is true or not. It’s hard to believe that their Commanding Officer would allow alterations to the uniform, like the pantyhose that Henry Dobbins wears around his neck. Also, it seems unlikely that Ted Lavender’s marijuana and tranquilizers weren’t confiscated when he first arrived. These thoughts slowly cease as the story progresses, as the readers’ emotions start to rise. The audience begins to connect with each man, relating to their reasoning for bringing their items and the nostalgic aspect that’s instilled in each.

It was made clear that O’Brien didn’t want to be drafted for the war. The passage “On the Rainy River” elaborates on his feelings about the war when he goes to the lake, contemplating making a plan to flee across the border to Canada. At the lake, he stays with a man named Elroy Berdahl, pondering his next action and how it would affect his family’s view of him. Although this story is also false, it is quite possible that O’Brien considered crossing the border to avoid the war. If he were to merely state this, it would likely be overlooked with little thought. By creating an elaborate story discussing his contemplation on the subject, the reader can understand what was going through the minds of the average draftees at the time. It also showed that not all men who lived through World War II thought that men considering leaving were cowards, exemplified by the character Berdahl. It can be insinuated that he too had negative thoughts about fighting in the war.

“Field Trip” was the chapter where O’Brien took his curious daughter to Vietnam to show her his experiences and to seek closure from Kiowa’s death. Many readers probably didn’t know at the time of reading this book, but though O’Brien did return to Vietnam, it was not to reminisce about his time at war nor was it with his daughter whom he doesn’t even have. This chapter is written so that the audience understands that just because the war is over, doesn’t mean that you forget about it. He wanted people to feel connected to the character and realize that the traumatic memories stay with veterans forever. Without projecting the story into fiction, the passage would lose its power to create a connection with the viewers.

Though some chapters display many aspects of fiction, the emotions that O’Brien makes the audience feel are not. It was necessary for the truth to be stretched so that the readers could truly feel what it was like to be in a timeless war and live through the outcome. By the end of the book, it wasn’t important whether or not these events happened to O’Brien; all that mattered was that the audience could finally connect to the thousands of veterans who were drafted to the Vietnam War.

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The Emotional Reception of Tim O'Brien's in "The Things They Carried". (2022, Nov 21). Retrieved from