The Things They Carried
is a collection of related stories by Tim O'Brien
, about a platoon
soldiers in the Vietnam War
, originally published in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin
. While apparently based on some of O'Brien's own experiences, the title page refers to the book as "a work of fiction." The story "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" was made into a film in 1998, entitled A Soldier's Sweetheart
and starring Kiefer Sutherland
Before publication in 1990, five of the stories, including "The Things They Carried," "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," "The Ghost Soldiers," and "The Lives of the Dead," had been published in Esquire Magazine. "On The Rainy River" first appeared in Playboy Magazine. "Speaking of Courage" was originally published (in heavily modified form) as a chapter of O'Brien's earlier novel Going After Cacciato.
In the short story, "Good Form," the narrator makes a distinction between "story truth" and "happening truth." O'Brien feels that the idea of creating a story that is technically false yet truthfully portrays war, as opposed to just stating the facts and creating no emotion in the reader, is the correct way to clear his conscience and tell the story of thousands of soldiers who were forever silenced by society. Critics often cite this distinction when commenting on O'Brien's artistic aims in The Things They Carried and, in general, all of his fiction about Vietnam, claiming that O'Brien feels that the realities of the Vietnam War are best explored in fictional form rather than the presentation of precise facts. O'Brien's fluid and elliptical negotiation of truth in this context finds echoes in works labeled as 'non-fiction novels.'
A common theme in the book is that intimacy with death carries with it a corresponding new intimacy with life.
The Things They Carried was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger. It is widely regarded as the most significant work of fiction to come out of the Vietnam War.
- Tim O'Brien - The narrator and the protagonist in many chapters, Tim O'Brien the soldier should not be confused with the author Tim O'Brien. Although O'Brien is part of the Alpha Company, he chooses to leave himself out of the novel except in a few choice locations.
- Kiowa - Native American Baptist devoted to Christianity who often listens to and provides advice to Tim and refers to the decency that religion has taught him. Carries a feathered hatchet and moccasins. He later drowns in a "shit field" as a result of the squad staying there for a rainy night.
- Lieutenant Jimmy Cross - Protagonist of the title story, "The Things They Carried". Cross is the platoon leader. He is obsessed with his love at home, Martha, and later believes that his obsession led to the death of Ted Lavender. He also decides to camp the team one day on a sewage field in "Speaking of Courage", and this move leads to the death of Kiowa.
- Bob "Rat" Kiley - A young medic whose exaggerations are complemented by his occasional cruelty. He enjoys comic books. He is brave and takes good care of Tim when he is shot. Eventually sees too much gore and begins to go insane as he imagines "the bugs are out to get [him]". He cannot adjust to the new procedure of sleeping during the day, and moving at night. Finally he goes over the top and shoots himself in the foot. Presumably recovers once relocated to Japan.
- Norman Bowker - The horror described in the chapter "In the Field" continues to haunt Norman at home as he realizes that the world has moved on past the war and wants nothing to do with the ugly stories of tragic battles in Vietnam. Norman is continually haunted by the fact that he could not save Kiowa from sinking under a field of sewage on a rainy night. Unable to re-assimilate in "Speaking of Courage", he hangs himself with a jump rope in an Iowa YMCA.
- Henry Dobbins - Machine gunner. A man who, despite having a rather large frame, is gentle and kind. He is very superstitious, and as a result, wears his girlfriend's stockings around his neck as a protective charm even after she dumps him.
- Mitchell Sanders - He is a relatively kind soldier who is contemptuous of Cross's decision to camp in a sewage field, which caused Kiowa's death. Sanders is also a playboy, or at least tries to make himself out to be one. This is shown when he tells O'Brien about his stories with a Red-Cross nurse and also because he carries around pressed tiger fatigues.
- Ted Lavender - Grenadier. He dies in the very first chapter from a gunshot wound to the back of the head. He is notorious for using tranquilizers to cope with the pain of the war, and for carrying a (rather large—six to eight ounces) stash of marijuana with him.
- Curt Lemon - A good friend of Rat Kiley who dies when he steps on a booby-trapped 105mm (artillery) round. In one of the book's more disturbing scenes, Tim and Dave Jensen help to clear the trees of Curt's scattered remains, during which Jensen sings "Lemon Tree."
- Azar - a young, rather unstable soldier who engages in needless and frequent acts of brutality, such as strapping a dog that Ted Lavender had adopted to a claymore mine and then activating the detonator. He also aids Tim O'Brien in gaining revenge on Bobby Jorgenson.
- Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk - minor soldiers who are the main characters of "Enemies" and "Friends". Jensen fights with Strunk over a stolen jackknife, but they became uneasy friends afterwards. They each sign a pact to kill the other if he is ever faced with a "wheelchair wound". After Strunk steps on a rigged mortar round and loses his legs, he begs Jensen not to kill him. Jensen obliges, but seems to have an enormous weight relieved when he learns "Strunk died somewhere over in Chu Lai".
- Bobby Jorgenson - the replacement medic for Rat Kiley when he shoots himself in the foot. Green and terrified, he is slow to aid O'Brien after he is wounded. Filled with rage after his recovery, O'Brien elicits help from Azar to conspire and punish Jorgenson with a night of terrifying pranks. Jorgenson may be a reference to a similarly-named character in The Caine Mutiny.
- Linda - Tim's childhood "love". Nine years old, she dies of a brain tumor caused by cancer. She first gives Tim a reason to write stories, to keep her alive in his memory.
- Kathleen - Tim's daughter, who serves as an observer to O'Brien's stories.
- Mark Fossie - A soldier who sends for his girlfriend to stay with him in Vietnam.
- Mary Anne Bell - Mark Fossie's girlfriend. She is originally sweet and innocent when she arrives at Vietnam from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, but soon feels drawn to the culture and the thrill of war. She joins the Green Berets in their ambushes and patrols until she walks off into the jungle.
- Elroy Berdahl - A 81 year old man who helps Tim come to grip with going to war at the Tip Top Lodge.
List of short stories
- "The Things They Carried"
- "On the Rainy River"
- "How to Tell a True War Story".
- "The Dentist"
- "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong"
- "The Man I Killed"
- "Speaking of Courage"
- "In the Field"
- "Good Form"
- "Field Trip"
- "The Ghost Soldiers"
- "Night Life"
- "The Lives of the Dead"