The Things They Carried: Protagonists and Surrealism of War
The central character in a work of literature is called the “protagonist.” The protagonist usually initiates the main action of the story and often overcomes a flaw such as weakness or ignorance to achieve a new understanding by the work’s end. The protagonist’s journey is enriched by encounters with characters who hold differing beliefs. One such character type, a “foil,” has traits that contrast with the protagonist’s and highlight important features of the main character’s personality. The most important foil, the “antagonist,” opposes the protagonist, barring or complicating his or her success. The Things They Carried does not follow the narrative arc of a typical novel. Instead, each chapter functions as a separate story that has its own protagonist, setting, and dramatic force. Because the stories are interrelated, O’Brien can weave each of the twenty-two separate chapters together to achieve a unified whole. Though each story has its own main character, it can be argued that the ultimate protagonist of the book is the narrator, Tim O’Brien, who struggles to tell the “truth” about war through extraordinary “acts of remembrance.” Discussion Activities
Discuss the stories “Enemies,” “Friends,” “How to Tell a True War Story,” and “The Dentist” (pp. 62-88). Identify the protagonist and antagonist in each story. Briefly tell why you have identified them. Writing Exercise
In “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien writes:
In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed.… The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed. (p. 71)...
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