The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Published in 1990, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried has become regarded as one of the greatest pieces of Vietnam War literature ever written. The book, broken down into a series of stories, chronicles an American platoon's hardships and struggles during the Vietnam War. A semiautobiographical account reminiscent of the author's own experiences fighting in the 23rd Infantry Division, O'Brien's novel is a fascinating meditation on the lives of soldiers during one of the most controversial wars in America's history.

O'Brien's aim was never to take a political stance on the war, but to provide an account of the suffering it caused those who fought in it. It was not written as a pro- or antiwar work. Instead, it was a response to a civilian population that, as O'Brien perceived, had no knowledge of the truth of the battles their country was fighting overseas, or the brutality of modern warfare.

1. O'Brien almost fled to Canada to escape the Vietnam War.

Like the Tim O'Brien in the book who almost flees to Canada as a draft dodger, the real O'Brien was tempted to leave the United States to avoid going to war because he felt it was wrong. In an interview O'Brien said of the surreal experience of joining the war:

Even getting on the plane for boot camp, I couldn''t believe any of it was happening to me, someone who hated Boy Scouts and bugs and rifles.

2. Several stories in the book had been published previously in Esquire.

Prior to the book's publication, several of its stories had appeared in Esquire in the 1980s, including "The Things They Carried," "How to Tell a True War Story," "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," "The Ghost Soldiers," and "The Lives of the Dead."

3. O'Brien edited a military newsletter while in Vietnam.

The newsletter, called The Professional, was the official publication of the 46th Infantry Division. Recalling his time spent working on it, O'Brien stated, "I despised the job, and I especially despised that ridiculous newsletter. But it beat getting shot dead."

4. The Things They Carried was an inspiration for a museum exhibit.

The exhibit by the same name at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago tells the stories of Vietnam veterans through personal accounts and visual mementos from their time at war, much like O'Brien does through his text.

5. One of the book's stories was supposed to be included in an earlier novel by O'Brien.

The story "Speaking of Courage" was written as a chapter for another book by Tim O'Brien, titled Going After Cacciato. It was first published as a standalone work in The Massachusetts Review in 1976. However, the story was heavily revised and rewritten before its inclusion in The Things They Carried. Another story in the collection, called "Notes," focuses on the creation and revision of the original story.

6. O'Brien was surprised that young people appreciated his book.

Regarding the use of his novel to supplement high school curricula and its general appeal to an audience that was born after the Vietnam War, the author noted that younger readers "bring such fervor to it that comes from their own lives, really. The book is ... applied to a bad childhood or a broken home. And these are the things they're carrying."

7. O'Brien's own infantry division was the only one formed outside U.S. territory.

The Americal Division, which O'Brien served in during the Vietnam War, was originally formed during World War II in May 1942, immediately following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. It was activated as a response to the attacks and was rapidly formed to defend New Caledonia, an island east of Australia, from a Japanese invasion.

8. Kiefer Sutherland starred in a film adaptation of one of the stories.

The 1998 film A Soldier's Sweetheart features Kiefer Sutherland, famous for his role in the television show 24. The movie is based on O'Brien's story in the book called "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong."

9. One of O'Brien's stories was influenced by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

O'Brien once said the story "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" was "structured to be the other hemisphere of Heart of Darkness," an 1899 colonial novel that explores the darkness and brutality of man. Says O'Brien:

[B]ecause virtually every character in [Conrad's] story is a man, the whole structure of my story is meant to be a female flip of it. In a way, I was trying to put a woman in a man's boots and see if she behaves much differently or feels other things than a man might feel.

10. The story "Rain" by W. Somerset Maugham inspired O'Brien to write as a child.

O'Brien notes the early influence on him of W. Somerset Maugham:

As a kid of ten or eleven, I came across a story called "Rain" by W. Somerset Maugham. Much of it perplexed me, and parts frightened me, yet the tale caused me to imagine putting my own marks on a piece of paper.

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