The Things they Carried Truth
The Things They Carried is a war novel by Vietnam War veteran, Tim O’Brien. Like many Vietnam War novels, The Things They Carried is not a typical portrayal of war. Instead of glorifying war and praising the heroic actions of renowned soldiers, O’Brien explores a different aspect of war. In The Things They Carried, O’Brien uses subjective storytelling to show the overall theme of ambiguity in the Vietnam War. His stories, which paradoxically mix fact and fiction, are able to convey the ambiguous nature of the war through the use of multiple points of view, personal commentary, and postmodernist ideals.
In The Things They Carried, one technique that O’Brien utilizes to convey ambiguity through storytelling is the use of multiple points of view. By using multiple points of view, O’Brien is able to create several fictional truths for one event. Through “compulsive repetitions of traumatic memory,” one event is replayed by O’Brien multiple times through different characters (Blyn 228). The death of Kiowa, a soldier in O’Brien’s platoon, shows how “experiences are transformed into fiction by the imagination” (Neilson 57). In the novel, Kiowa dies by drowning in a field of mud during a mortar attack at night. O’Brien uses several characters’ perspectives to show Kiowa’s death with each character taking the blame for the death (Neilson 58). In “Speaking of Courage,” a story featured in the novel, he blames Norman Bowker for the death of Kiowa (Neilson 58). In another story “In the Field,” he blames a different character: a soldier who thought he caused the mortar attack by flashing his flashlight (Neilson 58). In another story, he blames Jimmy Cross, the platoon leader who shouldn’t have led his troops into the field in the first place. By assigning several blames to the death of Kiowa, the theme of ambiguity is enhanced because the exact truth is not known to the reader. Only the perspective truths of multiple characters are known. For O’Brien, the repeated story of Kiowa’s death through several characters represents the ambiguity of his experience in Vietnam.
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Following the idea that O’Brien uses multiple points of view in order to try to portray the uncertainty of war, he also focuses on the use of metafiction in the novel in order to create the character of Tim O’Brien in the book separate from himself as the author (Carpenter 199). The character of Tim O’Brien in the book is often questioned and contradicted by the personal commentary of Tim O’Brien the author which aids in developing the “indeterminate nature of consciousness” that replicates a veteran’s struggle to make sense of “ambiguous wartime experience and memory” (Neilson 57).
There are several chapters in the book The Things They Carried where O’Brien commentates on storytelling. In the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien repeats that his stories are “exactly true” (O’Brien 67). Although he does not give reasons as to why his stories are true, he repeats over and over that his stories are true. This repetition of claimed truthfulness in his stories, however, evokes a feeling of doubt in the reader rather than a feeling of trust regarding the reality of the stories (Neilson 59). The trueness of his stories is later put into question by O’Brien himself. In the chapter “Good Form,” O’Brien contradicts his statements about the truth of his stories by saying, “I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier. Almost everything else is invented” (O’Brien 171). He also says that “a true war story is never moral,” “a true war story cannot be believed,” and “if a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, you feel some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie” (O’Brien 65, 68). All of these statements imply that O’Brien’s stories are completely fictional and that the reader should not trust him, but why would O’Brien want to evoke feelings of mistrust in the reader? One reason for this is to solve the terrible problem of trying to write the truth even though he has no direct access to what actually happened (Neilson 59). Because O’Brien is only recalling events from an imaginative memory, he finds it difficult to tell the exact truth as it happened. In order to make his stories believable despite the uncertainty in which they were conceived, O’Brien emphasizes the idea that there are two types of truth: story-truth and happening-truth. In order for the reader to “feel what [he] felt” O’Brien says that he “wants you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth” (O’Brien 171). In this way, subjective storytelling can put into words the emotions that O’Brien wants to convey while also creating a fictional story that has a goal of telling the truth. O’Brien emphasizes storytelling because it is a process that “truth and falsehood, reality and representation, fact and fiction cohere” (Neilson 59). In the grander scheme of the novel, O’Brien’s personal commentary on storytelling also relates to the overall theme of ambiguity. Because the reader, and perhaps even O’Brien, is not sure what exactly happened in the stories in Vietnam, “certainty” is replaced with “confusion” (Wesley 125). As O’Brien puts it, “the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity,” further supporting the essential theme of the novel (O’Brien 78).
Postmodernism is a theory that is usually characterized by skepticism, and postmodernist ideals usually show this skepticism by challenging societal norms. Tim O’Brien, as well as many other Vietnam War authors, produced “a diversity of works that demonstrate the multi-perspectival, relativistic nature of America’s Vietnam experience and the futility of any attempt to identify, much less communicate, any fundamental meaning or truth attaching to or derived from the war” (Carpenter 192). By looking at The Things They Carried through a postmodernist framework, it is easy to see how it challenges the idea of a traditional war story with ideas of ambiguity. A traditional portrayal of war involves dramatic battles, idealized heroes, and the “violence of military adventure” (Wesley 122). O’Brien, however, presents war in terms of the emotional burdens carried by the soldiers rather than the action-packed battles (Wesley 122). In doing this, O’Brien is able to illustrate the Vietnam War as “a chaotic quagmire with no clear boundaries and no easily identifiable enemy,” which is indicative of postmodernist ideals such as ambivalence and disorder (Carpenter 193). O’Brien’s stories in The Things They Carried are representative of the postmodern ideal of disorder. Because they are told from several points of view as individual stories rather than in chronological order, there is a “strong sense in which they function as component parts of a postmodern collage or pastiche” (Carpenter 200). The postmodernist ideals of challenging societal norms and disorder used in O’Brien’s storytelling are seen throughout the novel, and they contribute to the overall theme ambiguity of the Vietnam War.
O’Brien was able to portray the overall ambiguous nature of the Vietnam War and its effects through the use of subjective storytelling. His use of multiple points of view shows the indeterminate nature of truth in Vietnam, developing the overall theme of ambiguity and its effect on the mind of O’Brien. His storytelling, riddled with postmodernist ideals, also challenges the idea of a traditional war story and emphasizes the notions of uncertainty. By viewing The Things They Carried through a postmodernist framework, it is easy to see its message regarding the idea that it is difficult to assign any meaning or truth to the Vietnam War and the soldiers’ experiences. Lastly, O’Brien’s commentary on storytelling itself in which he goes back and forth between saying that his stories are exactly true and merely constructs of his imagination shows O’Brien’s own uncertainty concerning the war; therefore, O’Brien’s storytelling is a contrivance that emphasizes the ambiguous nature of the Vietnam War.
- Blyn, Robin. “O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.” Explicator, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 61, no. 3, 2003, p. 189. Literature Criticism Online, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/QKKCWL548840572/LCO?u=madi31450&sid=LCO&xid =d7b15305. Accessed 6 Feb. 2019.
- Carpenter, Lucas. “It Don’t Mean Nothin: Vietnam War Fiction and Postmodernism.” College Literature, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 30, no. 2, 2003, pp. 30–50. Literature Criticism Online, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/SOUREA589783724/LCO?u=madi31450&sid=LCO&xid= b41d0102. Accessed 6 Feb. 2019.
- Neilson, Jim. “Undying Uncertainty.” Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’, edited by Harold Bloom and Tim O’Brien, Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2011, pp. 57–73.
- O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
- Wesley, Marilyn. “Postmodern Morality in The Things They Carried.” Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 2005, pp. 120–125.