O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”: Literary Analysis

September 29, 2020 by Essay Writer


The essay analyzes “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. This collection of short stories is devoted to a platoon of American soldiers who fight in the Vietnam War. The book is a powerful blend of fact and fiction that leaves the reader with a lasting impression of fear, love, and gratitude for the novel’s components. When describing the tangibles, O’Brien incorporates weight and number to force the pressures of the soldiers onto the reader.

As the plot unfolds, O’Brien moves the reader through scenes of war, telling multiple stories of love, death, and friendships combining with a narrative. More specifically, O’Brien incorporates interruptions of himself talking to us like the reader is watching a movie, and he keeps pressing pause to explain a scene that we might not have fully grasped. In this paper, a literary analysis of “The Things They Carried” will be presented to reveal the significance of the act of “listening” to its reader.

The Things They Carried: Critical Analysis and Impressions

O’Brien takes the reader through a series of repeated utterances as depicted through cyclic stories of love, war, and death vividly, engaging the reader into an active session of a movie-like scene. More importantly, several pauses are encountered throughout the story, as the author tries to explain some examples which the reader may not have otherwise understood.

Throughout the book, O’Brien tells the audience about war stories, in which some instances remain doubtful about their validity. As seen from the following quote, Tim’s war story makes the reader to render it invalid when he says the stories are mere imaginations: “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you…..memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head….. There is the illusion of aliveness…” (O’Brien 230).

As O’Brien reveals to the reader various scenarios telling stories of death and friendship, warfare conditions, and love relationships, he incorporates disruption of himself talking to the audience as if they are watching a film. It is the author’s complex blend of fact and fiction, which takes the reader into an in-depth understanding of the underlying implication of “The Things They Carried” short stories. The analysis shows that the novel sounds more to a narrative than the story, where every twinge is factual beyond reality.

Particularly, O’Brien engrosses the reader into an active listening-like session through his utterances of vivid description of war scenarios, making the novel more involving than just mere storytelling. As seen from the quote, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that 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 68).

As has been noted, O’Brien presents severe events in fiction as a strategy to emphasize how dangerous the situation was during the time of the war. Concerning the novel’s title, the soldiers are brought out having a variety of objects and practices they carried in a foreign land they went for battle. As O’ Brien (82) utters “… It’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true… Sometimes war is beautiful, sometimes it’s horrible…” there appears to be pain and happiness in war.

Though this theme may seem confusing, it takes the reader into the inner revelation of how the soldiers were undergoing a blend of experiences in which some made them happy while others saddened them. As a result, most of the unfolding in this novel ends up engaging the reader into active listening scenarios, which facilitate a deeper understanding of the underlying issues.

As it is noted, O’Brien takes the readers through a story of his current self, which seems more a story than real experience. His frequent questioning of the definition of a “true story” and what truth implies in any story engages the reader into active sessions of listening to his utterances. At the same time, the author engages the reader into a description of the numerous deaths of his champions in a repetition manner.

For instance, O’Brien (129) describes the shape of the dead man’s eye more than five times in the previous chapters. A vivid account of the author’s remarks on various events through his repetition tendency to engage the reader into the active unfolding of his intentions to write the novel emerges as a film like presentation since it requires the close attention of his utterances. By so doing, O’Brien succeeds in engaging his audience into active sessions through his blend of literary devices to present various ideas.

Also, O’Brien seems to exaggerate in his vivid accounts of the experience the soldiers in the war. Through describing the war in various dimensions, the author leaves the readers feeling burdened with hardships and turmoil that his soldiers were undergoing, though some doubt about its actual existence remains an imminent issue to his audience.

As O’Brien (75) reveals, “…and the whole war is right there in that stare. It says everything you can’t ever say…” the warfare situation seems harsh and unbearable among the soldiers, since some end up being killed with others brutalized in various ways. Notably, the act of listening in most of the author’s utterances seems quite crucial in the sense that it provides the reader with a vivid account of the happenings presented in this novel.

While describing the tangibles, O’Brien describes the entire scenario of how each character was armed with a variety of objects as they set for the war. It is the force and the weight of the flamboyant explanation of the setting to the war by the soldiers that engage the reader into more active participation in the entire scene.

For instance, “…every third or fourth person carried a Claymore antipersonnel mine – 3.5 pounds with its firing device…they carried fragmentation of grenades – 14 ounces each…they all carried at least one M-18 colored smoke grenade – 24 ounces…” (O’Brien 7).

Quite significantly, the use of repetition in this extract seems to engross the reader into a more precise account of the actual setting of the soldiers into the war. This leaves the reader into active listening of the utterances of the author as he tries to bring into attention how much the soldiers were prepared for the war.


This essay analyzes Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” This collection of short stories is devoted to a platoon of American soldiers who fight in the Vietnam War. In summary, the act of listening in this book is quite crucial in the sense that it provides the reader with a more profound revelation of the utterances presented by O’Brien. More so, close following of the stories told by the author through the act of listening unveils the real nature of the scenes despite seeming like a blend of fiction and reality. On this basis, therefore, O’Brien succeeds in facilitating activeness among his audience through his use of language and various rhetorical devices to present his ideas uniquely.

Work Cited

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Publisher, 1998.

Further Study: FAQ

? How to shart The Things They Carried essay?

Start your essay by introducing your reader to O’Brien’s book. What are these stories about? When were they written? Begin with a plot’s general overview and analyze specific themes later on.

? What does Tim O’Brien carry in The Things They Carried?

The story contains numerous descriptions of the things carried by soldiers. Sometimes they are purely physical objects such as weapons or chewing gum. On a more metaphysical level, those things are feelings of loss or happiness, guilt, habits, or a soldier’s mentality.

? What are the key literary devices in The Things They Carried?

O’Brien uses such literary devices as symbolism, allegory, juxtaposition, and simile. The narration is a crucial stylistic element, too. The author switches between different narrative voices, which makes us question the realness of events.

? Who was The Things They Carried publisher?

The first edition of the book was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1990. Some of the stories included in The Things They Carried were published in Esquire in earlier years.

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