Truth and Fiction in The Things They Carried

August 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Steven Kaplan’s essay “The Things They Carried” published in Columbia: University of South Carolina Press he says, “Almost all Vietnam War writing–fiction and nonfiction–makes clear that the only certain thing during the Vietnam War was that nothing was certain” (Kaplan 169). The manipulation of truth and fiction in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” exists in both the stories told and the characters that are described in each and is used purposely, evoking feelings of confusion and anger from the reader, but also attachment; the reader wants to figure out why O’Brien chooses to blur the line of truth and decipher what is really true and what is not. O’Brien’s style of writing in this collection of short stories is shown through the relatively constant presence of “facts” that are then followed up with statements that bring those “facts” into question. Readers can then question how real the characters and stories are, making the likely frustrated reader as this question: why play with truth and fiction and what does O’Brien accomplish through their manipulation?


From the beginning of the book O’Brien mixes fact and fiction, evident in the dedication and flyleaf of the book when O’Brien claims, “This is a work of fiction. Except a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.” O’Brien then follows that statement with “This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.” An author will more than likely make the dedication out to real individuals whether it be friends, family, or spouses— especially when the author includes “lovingly” in it; however, O’Brien states his dedication and then the reader finds out in the first few pages of the first story that those mentioned in the dedication are all characters. Following what he said about all characters being imaginary, why would O’Brien dedicate the book to people that are not real—assuming they are not? The reader is then forced to “consider the fictional as real, since the book is dedicated to the characters who appear in it” (Kaplan 184), because of this waver in truth the reader is also provoked to consider that the author is an unreliable source of information. O’Brien insists that he is telling the “full truth” (O’Brien 49) but it is made evident from the beginning that he may not be capable of doing just that. In the opening pages of the first short story, O’Brien tells the story of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and of his pictures and letters that he carried of the girl that he loved. The readers are told that the girl does not love Cross but he constantly was “hoping” and “pretending” (O’Brien 3) “in an effort to turn her imagined love into fact” (Kaplan 185). Cross says “she was a virgin” but then follows that statement with he was “almost sure” (O’Brien 3) of that fact. However, on the next page Cross is even more uncertain, he sits at “night and wonder[s] if Martha was a virgin” (O’Brien 4) and then continues to wonder who took the pictures that he was doting over because “he knew she had boyfriends” (O’Brien 5) but O’Brien does not make it clear how Cross could possibly “know” that. Cross stating a fact and then calling it into question with another statement shortly after is what makes the reader wonder if O’Brien can tell the “full truth” (O’Brien 49) in any of the short stories. The reader is also made to consider that O’Brien’s characters could have been created to mirror “the average soldier’s sense of uncertainty about what happened in Vietnam” (Kaplan 187); just as they could not walk sure-footedly through the jungles, readers cannot go through each story in the collection with confidence that every short story is told truthfully.

O’Brien’s manipulation of truth and his conscious decisions to use fictionality “work to create a sense of presence for the reader … such generous and explicit details function as counter-narrative to the generalized “happening-truth” in history books, which vacates the particular violences of Vietnam” (Silbergleid 131); her statement criticizes his storytelling in that it borderline diminishes the legitimacy of the life-threatening events that took place in Vietnam. If the things that happen in O’Brien’s short stories are fictional, then was Vietnam really that bad? In Robin Silbergleid’s critical essay, published in Contemporary Literary Criticism, she introduces the idea of the development of O’Brien as a character and does not just address him as the author of these stories, therefore creating an angle that seeks to explain why he included the characters of the stories in the dedication. It is this connection of O’Brien as a character that helps readers come to the realization that O’Brien made those characters in the stories human just as he made himself a character, they were so real to him that he included them in the dedication. The development of O’Brien’s character is evident in the moments in the text where he refers to the advice of his daughter who does not actually exist. His attachment to the characters is evident in the “generous and explicit details” (Silbergleid 131) that Silbergleid addressed in her critical essay; O’Brien takes the time to humanize each individual and makes them tangible to the reader as opposed to just telling the truth — whatever the actual truth may be— and making each character a man hardened by war. O’Brien paints a fictitious picture that gives each character depth through the items they literally carry and the emotional burdens they place on their backs. Silbergleid also addressed “the truth” in O’Brien’s writing; his stories are “ ‘statement[s] of actual things’ as a work of ‘truth’” (Silbergleid 129), meaning that every situation may not be completely accurate down to the smallest detail, but it is based on true events and people and is put together in a way that he connects with.

In the story “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien opens by telling the audience “This is true” (O’Brien 64), but then goes on to describe the same story of Curt Lemon dying in multiple ways, constructing and deconstructing and constructing the same story again and again. He makes the only truthful piece of information that Curt Lemon died and that there was nothing left to say, “Except maybe, ‘Oh’” (O’Brien 84). The way he retells the story over and over makes the reader question which rendition is true, but it also highlights the degree of care that O’Brien is taking in terms of telling Lemon’s story just right. This makes the connection to Silbergleid’s idea of O’Brien’s character and the connection between the other characters present in the story; he sees them as real people and takes care to tell aspects of their story correctly and give each of them the “respect” O’Brien thinks they deserve as a character and person. “O’Brien uses various rhetorical strategies in order to create presence, the illusion of the emotional experience of Vietnam. Such strategies include the emphasis on detail found in story-truth and the strategic invocation of autobiography” (Silbergleid 140). The detail found in story-truth is evident in the end of the short story “How to Tell a True War Story” when O’Brien describes the scene when the baby water buffalo is shot repeatedly; he takes care to describe each shot, where it hits on the water buffalo, and how it reacts to each blow and creates a vivid scene that parallels the pain that the soldiers were going through during their tours in Vietnam.

Tim O’Brien mixes the use of fact and fiction in his collection of short stories, The Things They Carried, in an attempt to describe what it was like to be a foot soldier in the war-torn jungles of Vietnam in order to make the readers struggle to find the difference between the truth and the fictitious. What Tim O’Brien achieves through his use of fiction is the parallel between soldier and storyline, the idea that each step the soldier takes could be radically different than the last takes shape through O’Brien’s writing style of leaving readers questioning what is true and what is not and what story O’Brien will tell next. Through his storytelling, O’Brien “takes his readers straight into the middle of the process through which facts and memory are transformed in fiction” (Kaplan 170) evident in the scene where he repeatedly describes the scene in which Curt Lemon is killed. He makes human connections to his characters through the explanation of what each soldier carries from home and the emotional baggage they also struggle to carry so that his audience can relate to the stories on a more realistic level than a history book. O’Brien’s storytelling abilities makes the Vietnam War more tangible than a history book can while providing interesting, however not entirely true down to the tee, stories that paint pictures and allow for a greater understanding of both the war and Tim O’Brien. As well as making each story more tangible, O’Brien’s storytelling also allows for the creation of the “illusion of the emotional experience of Vietnam” (Silbergleid 140) which allows for O’Brien’s readers to better connect with each character on an emotional level, just as he did by creating his own character in the short stories.

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