The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | Spin | Summary



The narrator tells some of the "sweet" stories he recalls, a wide range of anecdotes and memories of life in the platoon. Interspersed among the stories are the narrator's comments about storytelling. Even years later he says that recalling the stories makes the war "now" because they link "the past to the future."

Many of the stories also shift gears sharply. For example, a story begins when Ted adopts an "orphan puppy," which he spoon-feeds and carries in his rucksack. Ted, whose fear drives him to abuse drugs, clearly cares for the puppy. But Azar, for no stated reason, blows the puppy up with a mine. From sweet beginning to grotesque ending, the action unfolds in a single sentence. Readers don't hear how Ted reacted or discover why Azar decided to kill a puppy.

Similar contradictions are in the story of the AWOL soldier who decides peace is unbearable and wants to "hurt it" and in Mitchell Sanders's description of suddenly finding a moment of serenity in a "filthy hellhole of a paddy." The men recognize beauty around them—the moon, the grasses bending in the wind, the friendship among soldiers. But every story is shaped by violence and fear or heads toward tragedy.


The narrator says that storytellers could "put a fancy spin" on a war story and "make it dance" and then does just that in a succession of short narratives. He claims to be sharing stories that are "almost" sweet, but readers quickly see the emphasis on "almost." Even the most harmless of the events he describes is shaded by fear, shock, or another reaction to the war. In the case of the anecdotes of Ted's puppy and Sanders's serenity, juxtapositions of beauty and the grotesque are jarring.

The narrator confesses to feeling guilty about telling and retelling these stories from "half a life-time ago." But he notes that writers find their material in their own lives, "at the intersection of past and present," and that stories explain how "you got from where you were to where you are."

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