Themes in The Things They Carried
“In a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world,” writes Tim O’Brien in his novel The Things They Carried (225). Throughout the story, O’Brien discusses themes such as death, the loss of innocence, and truth. Not only does O’Brien successfully thematically connect his final story “The Lives of the Dead” to the rest of his book, he also creates a “true war story,” as per his description.
In “The Lives of the Dead,” O’Brien discusses the death of his childhood sweetheart Linda, the deaths of his comrades in Vietnam, and the deaths of those he saw killed during the conflict. He discusses the deaths in Vietnam throughout the novel and, in the final chapter, brings them all together and connects them to the first deceased person he ever saw- Linda. Using writing as a method to cope with death, he realizes that he can keep people alive through his memories of them. Knowing that he can utilize the “spell of memory and imagination” (245) to preserve the lives of those who have died, O’Brien gives them their lives back. This is a major theme throughout the novel, but particularly in the final chapter.
O’Brien also discusses the senselessness of death, primarily through his telling of the death of Linda, in the last chapter, and Curt Lemon, in the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story.” Lemon’s death affected O’Brien a great deal because “he was playing catch with Rat Kiley, laughing, and then he was dead” (78) - without any warning or buildup. Linda is also described as being alive one moment and dead the next. This sort of death affects a person more because it is unexpected, catching a person off guard and unprepared.
Linda’s death when O’Brien was only nine years old coincides with his first loss of innocence in regards to death. Seeing Linda’s body, he says that it “didn’t seem real” (241). This is when he began his coping strategy of giving life to the dead. He used this strategy again in Vietnam after seeing a man die by means of a thrown grenade. Creating a life story for the man, such as how he “prayed with his mother that the war might end soon,” (127) O’Brien gives humanity to what many soldiers simply thought of as ‘the enemy.’ Another example of this is when the soldiers propped a corpse “up against a fence…and talked to him” (227). This action helped them to avoid the reality of death during a war.
The struggle to uncover what actually happened and what did not is an integral part of the novel. O’Brien discusses the difficulty of knowing what is the truth throughout the book and, in the final chapter, he discusses how he can pretend people are still alive in his dreams. The theme of truth is brought up in the book by using descriptions to create a sense of uncertainty. For example, in “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien discusses details he could never actually know about the young Vietnamese soldier, such as how he wanted to be a “teacher of mathematics” (125). In “The Lives of the Dead,” he explains how his memory of Linda is fading and how she has become “mostly made up” (245) in his mind. Because the reader is unsure what to believe, she approaches each new story with a hint of doubt.
In his novel, O’Brien describes a true war story, and then creates one in his writing. One of the qualifications is that the “truths are contradictory” (80). Throughout the book, the soldiers both humanize the dead by talking to them and dehumanize the dead by, for example, referring to a burned body as a “crunchie munchie” (239). In regards to Linda, her death is a contradiction in itself. It is a shock when a nine year old girl, who should be full of life and energy, dies suddenly of cancer.
“A true war story is never about war” (85) is another qualification for a true war story listed by O’Brien. This is the primary reason that The Things They Carried can be considered a true war story. It is about death, life, and the realization that those who are dead never really leave us, but, instead, live on in a person’s memory or, as in this case, immortalized in a novel.
Despite telling a multitude of tales in the novel, O’Brien connects them all with common themes. Exploring the themes of death, truth, and innocence, he constructs a story that is compelling and, at times, as gruesome as the horrors of war that he describes. For O’Brien, writing is like therapy to help him cope with death, and, through his stories, he keeps the people he knew alive both for himself and for his readers. Works Cited
O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Print.