Department of English

Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University


The Things They Carried



Tim O'Brien

(1946 )



"The Things They Carried" was first published in Esquire in 1986.



Chaucer: Geoffrey Chaucer, middle English poet

Virginia Woolf: modern British novelist and short story writer

P-38 can openers: a very small foldable military issue can opener; also called the John Wayne


R&R: rest and recreation. A 3–7-day leave from the war for a soldier. (Glossary of Military Terms)


SOP: standard operating procedure (Glossary of Military Terms)


RTO: radio telephone operator (Glossary of Military Terms)

Bonnie and Clyde: 1967 film, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, about two infamous Texans wanted by the law: Clyde Champion Barrow and Bonnie Parker


sin loi: Vietnamese for "sorry," "excuse me," "pardon me." In GI slang it's more like "sorry," "that's too damn bad." (See xin loi and Vietnamese Primer)



From "How to Tell a True War Story"


A true war story is never moral.  It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done.


In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe "Oh."

True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis.

For example: War is hell. As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can't believe it with my stomach. Nothing turns inside.

It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.


(O'Brien, Tim.  "How to Tell a True War Story."  The Things They Carried.  New York: Broadway, 1998.  68, 77–78.)



"Good Form"

It’s time to be blunt.

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.

But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.

But listen. Even that story is made up.

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.

“Daddy, tell the truth,” Kathleen can say, “did you ever kill anybody?” And I can say, honestly, “Of course not.”

Or I can say, honestly, “Yes.”

(O'Brien, Tim.  "Good Form."  The Things They Carried.  New York: Broadway, 1998.  68, 179–80.)


From "The Lives of the Dead"


In Vietnam, too, we had ways of making the dead seem not quite so dead.  Shaking hands, that was one way.  By slighting death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was.  By our language, which was both hard and wistful, we transformed the bodies into piles of waste.  Thus, when someone got killed, as Curt Lemon did, his body was not really a body, but rather one small bit of waste in the midst of a much wider wastage.  I learned that words make a difference.  It's easier to cope with a kicked bucket than a corpse; if it isn't human, it doesn't matter much if it's dead.  And so a VC nurse, fried by napalm, was a crispy critter.  A Vietnamese baby, which lay nearby, was a roasted peanut.  "Just a crunchie munchie," Rat Kiley said as he stepped over the body.

(O'Brien, Tim.  "How to Tell a True War Story."  The Things They Carried.  New York: Broadway, 1998.  238–39.)



A Conversation With Tim O'Brien

Daniel Bourne: Now that you are looking at the war in that way, how have you found this terrain of Vietnam a convenient metaphor?

Tim O'Brien: That's mostly how I look at it-though I'm not sure I'd call it a convenient metaphor. I'd say an essential metaphor or a life-given metaphor that, for me, is inescapable. And I'm grateful for it in a sense. I've used it in the way Conrad writes about the sea, life on the water, stories set on boats, from Heart of Darkness to Lord Jim, from Nostromo to "Typhoon" to "Youth." But Conrad is no more writing about the sea than I am writing about war. That is, he's not writing about marine biology and dolphins and porpoises and waves. He's writing about human beings under pressure, under the certain kinds of pressure that the sea exerts, life aboard vessels, the discipline of living aboard a ship at sea, the expectations of behavior that are a part of a ship's life. Lord Jim and his act of cowardice and so on. Conrad uses the sea the same way I use Vietnam, as a way to get at the human heart and the pressure exerted on it. He's not writing literally about sailing and sailors. At the same time, this life aboard vessels carries with it a framework for storytelling that he uses beautifully. My content is not bombs and bullets and airplanes and strategy and tactics. It is not the politics of Vietnam. It too is about the human heart and the pressures put on it. In a war story, there are life and death stakes built in immediately, which apply just by the framework of the story. There is a pressure on characters that in other kinds of fiction one would have to meticulously build. So, in a way, using the framework of war is a short cut to get at things without having to engage in some of this mechanical work that I don't particularly like, to get bogged down in plotting. I don't like reading heavily plotted stories. I like a situation to have an instant sort of pressure.


Study Questions

  • The story tells us that Martha's letters at the bottom of First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's rucksack weighs "10 ounces" (3), that a .45 caliber pistol weighs "2.9 pounds fully loaded" (6), and that "a steel-centered, nylon-covered flak jacket" weighs "6.7 pounds" (5). Why give measurements in the first place, and why this precision of measurement? The text seems not only inexhaustibly meticulous in providing the weight of things, but also in providing the list of things being weighed. Yet, not everything can be weighed and not everything can be listed. Where is the limit of such inclusiveness?

  • Enumerating a list of "necessities or near necessities," the speaker states that "Very few carried underwear" (4) but "Almost everyone humped photographs" (5). What is achieved by revealing underwear as not necessary and photographs, by contrast, as very necessary? What other instances disrupt your preconceptions?

  • Several descriptions or incidents are given more than once, the removal of Ted Lavender's body, for example. We have the first account on page 5, then again on page 8, with some variations. What else is replayed? What is the significance of these repetitions?

  • Consider O'Brien's explanation of story-truth and happening-truth in "Good Form," another "fiction" in the same collection as "The Things They Carried." What is the relationship between truth and fiction in the latter? What do you think of the "form" of "The Things They Carried"? What story-truth strikes you in this story? Is good form in O'Brien's definition the same as good story in Sherman Alexie's "A Good Story"?

  • Take a look at the Index of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried created by AP English students at Carmel High School. Why do you think certain categories of things (like animals or body parts) appear more often in the book than others? What parts, elements, or aspects of the body are mentioned much more often than others? Why do you think this is?



Review Sheet


First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Lieutenant Cross

Tim O'Brien – the narrator

Mitchell Sanders – the RTO (3);

Norman Bowker – "carried a diary" (3);

Kiowa – "a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament" (3)

Ted Lavender – "scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April" (4); wrapped up in his poncho after being shot and transported out in a helicopter (3);

Henry Dobbins "big man...carried extra rations...especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup" (4)

Rat Kiley – "carried comic books" (3); 


Dave Jensen – "practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap" (4)

Lee Strunk – draws the number 17 on April 16 and goes down to search the tunnel near Than Khe before the platoon blows it up (11); he comes up "grinning, filthy but alive" just before Lavender was shot (12)




Than Khe

Chu Lai




Sample Student Responses to Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried"

Response 1

Responding to the question: Things in the texts we have read are often about non-things. Examine the use of concrete objects or entities in at least two works and show how particular material things acquire meanings beyond their physicality.







Panadda Sangboon

2202235 Reading and Analysis for the Study of English Literature

Acharn Puckpan Tipayamontri

December 21, 2009

Reading Response 3


Things into Non-Things


Ted Lavender’s dope in O’Brien’s short story weighs less than its stated “six or seven ounces” and the raven in Poe’s poem is less than a bird. In both “The Things They Carried” and “The Raven” a story is told where the physicality of these two things represents a non-physicality. Usually we will read the dope as weighing more than its own physical weight, carrying also the burden of guilt, grief, and so forth, but the function of the dope is in fact, the unburdening of all these things. Lavender needs his dope because it alleviates or takes away his fear.  Likewise, discussion of the raven often dwells on its multiple symbolic possibilities, each accumulated meaning adding more to the bird’s definition. For the hopeful scholar-narrator of “The Raven,” however, the bird, the midnight visitor, or the voice all symbolize one thing: the possibility of physical (and mental) relief; he wishes for the “balm of Mecca.”

Lavender can carry more than everybody because the dope lessens his burden. Always high on premium marijuana, he lives every soldier’s fantasy of weightlessness all the time. The raven as nepenthe for the scholar, similarly, is a drug that means forgetfulness. The dope and the raven, then, are things that represent the opposite of things. In them are non-things such as being weight-free, being sorrowless. Their significance is not in being but in non-being.

The human heart is a fist-sized muscle weighing around ten ounces, and the human brain considerably more than that. Yet to think about what is weighing on the heart and mind of the two characters, we come to terms with a much heavier weight. To misquote Emily Dickinson, the brain is not only wider than the sky but also weightier than everything we carry because it can hold all these things and itself. While Lavender and the scholar, by the end of the tales have different fates, the dope and the raven represent the same thing to them which is the freedom from all this weight, the relief from misery. Under this priceless oblivion, Ted Lavender probably “didn’t feel a thing” when he was shot. The scholar-narrator’s raven emblemize an enticing “nevermore.”

Both the dope and the raven are things that express non-things. More specifically, they embody a non-body—the very absence of thingness. For the fearful man and the grieving man, their thing is about a non-thing that gives them “nothing.”







Response 2

Michele Friedlander's essay explicates the metafictional elements in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. This essay was the winner of the East Carolina University English department's 2000 Paul Farr Memorial Essay Contest.



O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. 1990. New York: Broadway, 1998. Print.

[The page numbers of "The Things They Carried" on this webpage refers to this edition of the story.]

Bibliography of Secondary Material

Bates, Milton J. "Tim O'Brien's Myth of Courage."  Critique (1987).


Herzog, Tobey C. Tim O'Brien. New York, Twayne Publishers, 1997. Print.


Kaplan, Steven. Understanding Tim O'Brien. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994. Print.


Zins, Daniel L. "Imagining the Real: The Fiction of Tim O'Brien." Hollins Critic (Hollins College, Virginia), June 1986.




Critical Essays



Tim O'Brien



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Last updated January 8, 2013