The Things They Carried

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The Things They Carried Good Form Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
O'Brien says it's time for him to be blunt. He is forty-three years old and a writer, and in Vietnam he was in the Quang Ngai Province as a soldier. "Almost everything else is invented." It's not a game, though; storytelling is a form. As he writes he invents himself, and he's thinking of all the things he wants to tell the reader about why the book was written. Twenty years ago near My Khe he saw a young man die on a trail, but he didn't kill him. His presence was enough to make him guilty. He felt responsible and blamed himself, which was the right thing to do because he was there. But he insists, "even that story is made up." He wants the reader to feel what he felt and know why "story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth."
O'Brien tries to toy with the reader's understanding of Truth in the collection of stories. For O'Brien there is "story-truth" and "happening truth". Happening-truth is the basic facts that can't be changed. Story-truth lets those facts be modified to suit a better understanding of what happened. By claiming he didn't kill the man outside of My Khe, he was just there, and then saying even that part is made up he is intentionally disorienting the reader's understanding of Truth, and what demarcates fact from fiction.
Themes
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
The happening-truth: O'Brien was once a soldier and there were many dead people in Vietnam. He was young and afraid to look at the bodies. Now, twenty years after leaving the war he still feels the responsibility and grief for the faceless.
These are the plain facts that cannot be changed. He feels guilty over what happened in the war and horrified by the death he saw, but he was young and afraid to look at the bodies.
Themes
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
The story-truth: the young, dead man was slim and around the age of twenty. He died in the center of the trail near My Khe. One eye was shut and the other had a star shaped hole. O'Brien killed him.
In the story version, he looks at the bodies and gives the dead young man a face. He kills him in the story version because in the happening version he can truly convey what it felt like to feel guilty for killing him. Who actually killed him in happening-truth didn't matter. What mattered was how he felt.
Themes
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
O'Brien says that stories can make things present. It lets him look at things he didn't look at in the war, and he can put a face to the feeling of guilt and blame, even God. He can be brave and make himself feel something.
Stories allow O'Brien to address memories he has long suppressed, and he can construct an identity for the nameless corpse, like the man he "maybe" killed.
Themes
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
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When O'Brien's daughter Kathleen asks him to tell the truth about whether he killed anyone he can honestly say no and he can honestly say yes.
War obliterates the line between fact and fiction, as do stories. In war there is no Truth, and in stories O'Brien relies on memory to construct a story that explains what he remembers, how he felt—not necessarily what happened. He felt like he killed that man, whether he did or didn't.
Themes
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon