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The Things They Carried | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How does the setting of "Speaking of Courage" from The Things They Carried act as a foil to Norman's Vietnam experiences?

A foil is a literary device—often a character, but sometimes a setting or subplot—that helps readers understand a major character, setting, or plot better by offering contrast. In "Speaking of Courage," the tidy Iowa town, with its polite population, contrasts with the field in which Kiowa dies. The town is a microcosm of much of the United States, now no longer troubled by the controversial Vietnam War. The date is significant and ironic—the Fourth of July, when the nation celebrates its independence—because the purpose of the failed war was to achieve independence for South Vietnam. The townsfolk go about daily tasks. Two kids play soldier with "knapsacks and toy rifles and canteens." People play on the lake, do yard work, and watch baseball. All is neat and orderly. No wonder the town seems "remote" to Norman. It has moved on without him—he doesn't even know how to order at the local drive-in. What Norman knows is "shit"—it's his "specialty." He knows Tra Bong's filthy fields, torrential rains falling on ponchos, the waste of war. He knows what the "polite" townsfolk can hardly imagine—the courage to endure as soldiers do, day after day.

What conclusions does Norman reach about courage in "Speaking of Courage" from The Things They Carried?

The story offers two discussions of courage that clarify how Norman defines it. The first is the conversation Norman Bowker imagines having with his father, also a veteran. His father knows "full well that many brave men" never win medals and that some men "win medals for doing nothing." Norman agrees; he has a Purple Heart for a wound that "did not leave a scar and did not hurt." What matters to Norman are his campaign ribbons. His Combat Infantryman's Badge means that he served as a "real soldier" and did "all the things soldiers do." Enduring monotony and terror, during hot days and cold nights, is Norman's definition of courage. The second discussion happens when Norman realizes that "the difference between courage and cowardice" is often "something small and stupid." A soldier might "advance toward enemy fire" one day and have a hard time staying awake another. Unexpected things could tip the balance: The terrible stench in the latrine field, Norman believes, kept him from saving Kiowa. The seven medals can't outweigh his belief that he was not quite brave enough.

What explanation do "Speaking of Courage" and "Notes" from The Things They Carried suggest for why Norman Bowker does not leave a suicide note?

Norman's mother says her son was "a quiet boy" who preferred not to "bother anybody." Her explanation dovetails with what readers learn about Norman in "Notes" and "Speaking of Courage." Norman describes the character he wants the narrator to write about as a man "who wants to talk ... but can't." Norman would write the man's story himself but "can't ever find any words." He imagines telling the story of Kiowa's death to his father, Sally, or the Kiwanis, but he can't figure out "exactly what to say" to people who know little about war. Norman is a modest, thoughtful man; he carries his diary in Vietnam and rehearses stories in his thoughts. But he seems not to want to share the burden of the truth of the war with the townspeople, who won't understand and will be shocked. The man who listened as Kiowa talked on and on about Ted Lavender's death tells his story, as far as readers know, only in a single letter to the narrator.

What does the story "Notes" from The Things They Carried reveal about the narrator's struggle to learn to tell a "true" war story?

Despite having published one book and some stories, the narrator is still learning to write true war stories by his own definition in "How to Tell a True War Story." In part, the first version of "Speaking of Courage" fails because the narrator is "afraid to speak directly, afraid to remember." Until he copes with this fear, he can't "tell the full and precise truth" of Kiowa's death. Compassion and respect for Norman prompt the narrator to deal with his own fear. Mitchell Sanders comments in "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" that storytellers have to trust their material: "Get the hell out of way" so that the story can tell itself. By trying to force Norman's story into a predetermined plot, the narrator loses the story's truth. The revised version puts Norman "back in the story, where he belongs" and restores the "central incident" with its painful truth about Kiowa's death and "the terrible killing power of that shit field." It's a truer war story that helps readers feel the horrible waste of Kiowa's death and of the war itself.

What are some of the divisions that exist between the soldiers and their leader in "In the Field" from The Things They Carried?

As the soldiers search for Kiowa's body, some express their anger toward Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. Though Norman Bowker reminds them that no one understood that the field was the village's latrine, Mitchell Sanders in particular is not persuaded. "Ten billion places we could've set up last night," Mitchell says, yet Jimmy "picked a latrine." Even if Jimmy didn't know, he could see the river and the rain were a problem. "One plus one," Mitchell says. Mitchell's resentment of Lieutenant Cross springs in part from his misunderstanding of the platoon's leader. He thinks that Jimmy keeps himself apart from the men because of rank when in fact Jimmy is trying to lead as he's been taught and is suffering from the isolation that results. When Mitchell, Azar, and Norman find the body, Norman wants to let Jimmy know, but Mitchell says that Jimmy "looks happy out there, real content." "In the Field" also presents Jimmy's point of view. Jimmy is in fact not "happy out there." He is grappling with how to write the letter to Kiowa's father; he writes at least three different drafts in his head. Jimmy feels responsible for Kiowa's death: "There was nothing he could do now, but still it was a mistake and a hideous waste." Jimmy, like the foot soldiers, is caught in a position he does not want: he "did not want the responsibility of leading these men." Mitchell assumes that Jimmy doesn't care when in fact Jimmy cares so much that he imagines following Kiowa into the muck.

How does the narrative point of view in "In the Field" from The Things They Carried differ from the narrative point of view in the other selections about Kiowa's death?

"Speaking of Courage" uses a third-person limited point of view to reveal Norman Bowker's thoughts and actions, and "Notes" uses a first-person point of view as the narrator describes the process of writing "Speaking of Courage." But "In the Field" uses a third-person omniscient point of view. The voice telling the story seems to float above the scene, observing and reporting. This voice has access to all the characters' thoughts and feelings but focuses especially on the thoughts of Jimmy and the young soldier who blames himself for Kiowa's death. This young soldier is likely the narrator, the fictional Tim O'Brien, yet the soldier is never named. Of all the stories in the book, only this one uses such an impersonal, omniscient point of view. In "Notes" the narrator speaks of how painful the story of Kiowa's death is and how writing about events helps the narrator get a little distance from them. Perhaps the omniscient, hovering voice that tells the story in "In the Field" creates the space Tim O'Brien needs to deal with Kiowa's death.

In "Good Form" from The Things They Carried, why does the narrator deny that he killed a soldier he previously admitted to killing in "The Man I Killed" and "Ambush"?

In "The Man I Killed" and "Ambush," the narrator throws the grenade that kills the young Vietnamese soldier and then reacts with deep dismay. But, in "Good Form," the narrator says that he didn't kill the soldier yet still blames himself, "and rightly so," because he was there, part of the platoon hidden in the brush. "But listen," he adds. "Even that story is made up." Perhaps because the narrator, when young, was "afraid to look" at what happened, he therefore must invent characters to embody, literally and figuratively, his grief. Whatever actually happened on the trail near My Khe, the "story-truth"remains the same, and so do the basic details: The soldier was "slim, dead, almost dainty." His "jaw was in his throat." His eye was "a star-shaped hole." The narrator even says, "I killed him," after stating earlier in the story that he had not. Perhaps he means that, because he went to war, he is as guilty of the soldier's death as all soldiers are for the deaths war produces. Even if he never killed a particular soldier, he was part of the military force that did.

What "story-truths" about war do Kathleen's questions and comments convey in "Field Trip" from The Things They Carried?

To Kathleen, the war is "as remote ... as cavemen and dinosaurs." As a 10-year-old child, Kathleen can ask questions with impunity, but her father can't answer her questions to her satisfaction. Why did he have to go fight, if all he wanted was to "stay alive"? "I had to," he says. "But why?" she persists. Finally he says that it's a "mystery" and that he doesn't know. She can't understand, either, why he "can't ever forget" the war; he doesn't even try to explain. The story-truth her puzzled questions convey is that the reason for this war at least, and perhaps other wars, can't be explained satisfactorily. Maybe her father shouldn't have felt that he had to fight in a war over people wanting different things. Maybe, as Kathleen says of her dad's ritual at the river, the business of war is "stupid."

What is the symbolic meaning of the field in "Field Trip" from The Things They Carried, including its relationship to Kiowa's death?

For the narrator, the field where Kiowa died "embodied all the waste that was Vietnam." The "waste" encompasses Kiowa's death along with Curt Lemon's, Ted Lavender's, and Lee Strunk's, as well as the deaths, wounds, and psychological scars of other soldiers and civilians. The land itself is wasted, scarred, and burned. The field also represents a death, burial, and, finally, rebirth for the narrator. When he whispered Kiowa's name and saw him sink beneath the mud, the narrator died in a sense as well, going "under with Kiowa." The young man's "ambitions and hopes" and his emotions disappeared for a time into the shit field; it has taken two decades for the narrator to emerge again, and he still feels the pull of the mud. The narrator hates the field but sees that it is no longer the enemy, only a "flat and dreary and unremarkable" place where farmers labor to grow crops.

How does the narrator's relationship with his former platoon change after his new posting in "The Ghost Soldiers" from The Things They Carried?

The narrator's new posting keeps him safe and comfortable, yet he misses being with the platoon. When he sees them at the supply base, he notes their "deep bush tans" and "blisters," which he now lacks. He feels their "in-it-togetherness," and, although they party with him and catch him up on news, he is now a "civilian" to them. The soldiers had been his "brothers," but now he's outside their circle. The narrator makes things worse by complaining about Bobby Jorgenson, who is now considered a member of the platoon, and by trying to enlist Mitchell Sanders in his revenge plot. Without the buffering effect of the platoon, the narrator has had time to nurse his grievances until they are beyond reason. He has become detached from his feelings and from his friends. Mitchell and Azar both notice this change, Mitchell with a kind of practical pity and Azar with mocking hostility. But the narrator does the worst damage by refusing Bobby's sincere apology. Any chance he had of being "with" the platoon again disappears when he becomes Bobby's enemy.

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