The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | Plot Summary

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The Things They Carried follows the actions of the soldiers of Alpha Company during their deployment in the Quang Ngai region of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Interspersed with these stories are the reflections of Tim O'Brien, the main character and narrator.

The story the narrator first tells, "The Things They Carried," reveals the daily lives of the soldiers through catalogs—detailed lists of items soldiers carried and of their emotions and thoughts. In addition to army-issued items such as a steel helmet, flak jacket, and C rations, the men carried different weapons (pistols, assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers) and personal items (photographs, letters, lucky charms, tranquilizers, pocket knives, Bibles). The catalogs reveal the soldiers as individual characters; the weight of the physical items makes the reader contemplate the "weight" or toll of the psychological and emotional "items" the men carry. "The Things They Carried" also relates the death of Ted Lavender, a young soldier who uses tranquilizers and marijuana to cope with his fears. Ted is killed by a sniper while the platoon's commander, 24-year-old First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, is distracted by fantasies of Martha, a college girl he thinks he loves. Jimmy blames himself for Ted's death. Even 20 years later, he still feels guilty about it, as he admits to the narrator in the next story "Love." The incident influences Jimmy to decide to discipline his thoughts to better protect his soldiers.

In "Spin" the narrator argues that not all war stories are tragic and offers examples, yet even these are tinged with loss and violence.

In "On the Rainy River," the narrator backtracks to explain how he came to be in Vietnam. Just after graduation in 1968, he is drafted. He considers fleeing to Canada but, unwilling to face his family's disappointment, conforms to social expectations and decides to report for duty. His painful decision is witnessed by Elroy Berdahl, a patient, elderly man who owns the lodge where the narrator stays while trying to decide what to do.

The narrator reveals how the stresses of combat affect the soldiers in "Enemies" and "Friends," the next stories in the collection, in which Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen overcome interpersonal conflict to forge an agreement not to live with a "wheelchair wound." "How to Tell a True War Story" and "The Dentist" recount Curt Lemon's short career as a soldier and his death. "How to Tell a True War Story" also reflects on how readers know a war story is "true." The story of Curt's death and how medic Rat Kiley reacts to it is an example of a "true" story: violent, hard to believe, profane, yet full of love. So is Mitchell Sanders's story about soldiers who hear mysterious sounds in the mountains, which may not be fact but is true in the sense that it conveys the powerful effect Vietnam's landscape had on U.S. soldiers.

In "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," Rat Kiley tells the story of Mary Anne Bell, a soldier's girlfriend who visits his base but quickly falls under the spell of the mountains and abandons him, becoming a feral presence in the jungle. In "Stockings" and "Church," other reactions to the experience of Vietnam are recounted: Henry Dobbin's reliance on the pantyhose he believes protects him from harm, and Kiowa and Norman Bowker's feelings of peace while the platoon is camped near an old pagoda attended by two monks.

"The Man I Killed" and "Ambush" offer two perspectives on the narrator's reaction to a young Vietnamese soldier killed by a grenade. Both explore how closely he identifies with the dead man, his feelings of guilt, and Kiowa's role in helping him cope with the event. These stories, along with "Church," prepare readers for later stories that tell about Kiowa's death. But first, the brief story "Style" further develops the idea of sympathy for the Vietnamese people caught in the conflict. Henry Dobbins, the gentle machine gunner, takes Azar to task for mocking a girl who dances after her family is killed and her village destroyed.

A trio of stories—"Speaking of Courage," "Notes," and "In the Field"—presents the death of Kiowa. Loved by the whole platoon and particularly by the narrator, Kiowa dies when the field where the platoon camps is shelled during a thunderstorm. Readers get the story first from Norman Bowker's perspective as he drives around his Iowa town after the war, agonizing over his guilt. The field where Kiowa died was a latrine; Norman thinks he could have saved the wounded Kiowa from sinking into the mud except that the stench overcame him. But in "Notes" the narrator explains that he changed Norman's story when he first told it, leaving out the painfully terrible details. A letter from Norman motivates him to tell the story in a way that is "true": "In the Field" reveals that the narrator, not Norman, feels that he failed to save Kiowa. It also recounts the platoon's anger at Lieutenant Cross and Cross's guilt for following orders to camp in the latrine field.

"Good Form" and "The Field Trip" pull readers into the narrator's life 20 years after the war. "Good Form" presents his idea of "story-truth"—the way a story can convey how characters feel, even if the facts it describes are not accurate. In "The Field Trip," the narrator and his young daughter travel to Vietnam and visit the field where Kiowa died.

In "The Ghost Soldiers," the narrator describes how the war changes him into someone cold and cruel enough to exact revenge on a medic, Bobby Jorgenson, whose fear during his first combat experience causes him to botch treatment of the narrator's wounds. "Night Life" also deals with how the stress of war psychologically affects soldiers, explaining how Rat Kiley begins to suffer hallucinations of wounded and dead bodies and finally shoots his own foot to escape the war.

The Things They Carried ends with "The Lives of the Dead," in which the narrator explains that stories about the dead allow them to live again. He revisits the stories of Curt Lemon's and Kiowa's deaths and then tells about the death of his fourth-grade sweetheart, Linda, to cancer. It was after this event, he explains, that he first learned the power of stories to keep the memories of the dead alive.

The Things They Carried Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Each character is introduced through possessions.

Rising Action

2 O'Brien is drafted and his view of war shifts.

3 Funny experiences blend with the horrors of war.

4 O'Brien wrestles with the guilt of killing a man.


5 The war becomes a nightmare.

Falling Action

6 The war causes feelings of vengeance and insanity.


7 None of the characters ever really escape the war.

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