The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Traditionally, we use the word “truth” to describe something that can be verified or proven in a tangible way. In this way, truth describes fact. However, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien introduces the concepts of emotional truth and happening truth.

O’Brien does this by distorting the truth of his experiences of entering the war, his emotional state during the war, and how he is able to cope and reintegrate with society after the war.

When the draft notice arrives, O’Brien states “I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything. It couldn’t happen. I was above it” (O’Brien 41).

This describes the emotional truth that O’Brien is going through at the time that the draft notice arrives. Although this does not fit with the definition of truth supplied above, O’Brien attempts to instill empathy in the reader. At the border between the United States and Canada, O’Brien struggles with himself, “I tried to will myself overboard. I gripped the edge of the boat and leaned forward and thought, now. I did try. It just wasn’t possible” (59).

Given the choice of whether to go to Vietnam to be a soldier and possibly die, or flee to Canada and be a solider, he is not physically able to run away. There is no verification for the story “On the Rainy River”, because only O’Brien has written about it, and there is no Tip Top Lodge on the Rainy River, bordering Minnesota and Canada.

However, it shows the inner struggle between many men who were drafted during the time of the Vietnam War. which shows the emotional truth of this story. O’Brien, by altering his own experiences, is able to give the reader an idea of how soldiers felt going into Vietnam.

During Mary-Anne’s stay in Vietnam, Rat comments, “What happened to her, Rat said was what happened to all of them. You come over clean and you get dirty and then afterwards it’s never the same” (114).

O’Brien stresses in this book, that people were different after they have come back from Vietnam, which meant that something changed their mental states in Vietnam. A perfect example is Mary-Anne, in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”, where she enters Vietnam and never comes back. When O’Brien first joins the Alpha Company he is shown how the fellow soldiers treat the dead bodies, “One by one the others did too. They didn’t disturb the body, they just grabbed the old man’s hand and offered a few words and moved away” (226).

This shows lack of compassion on the part of the soldiers in Vietnam which is another example of emotional truth. “They’re all dead. But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world. Story truth is what O’Brien uses to enhance the happening and emotional truths by making the reader feel sympathetic towards the young O’Brien and the dead bodies.

After seeing the countless rotting corpses they have found a way to deal with the anguish. Making the dead man seem alive by shaking his hand helps to relieve some of the pain of seeing a lifeless body felt by all of the soldiers.

After his tour of Vietnam, he heads back to the States a changed person from all of the experiences during the war, “I received a long, disjointed letter in which Bowker described the problem of finding a meaningful use for his life after the war” (155). Some people were not able to integrate into society as well as O’Brien, such as Norman Bowker. The strain of re-entrance into a changed society caused Bowker to end up committing suicide (160).

O’Brien says at the end of this, “Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own” (161). O’Brien admits to the reader that he has made up the ending and perhaps this is designed to show the emotional truth of the soldier’s lives after Vietnam. Some were able to adapt, and some could not handle the strain.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien is filled with what some people call truth, and others, lies. O’Brien must lie about events in his life to show the emotional and happening truth of the Vietnam War. He explains why he does this by saying, “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head” (230).

The straight facts of a story are very boring. If there is not an emotional side to the re-telling of the event or the history, it will just seem like reading a history textbook, long and boring. Tim O’Brien has the ability to evoke feelings from his audience, and this is why this book is such a success.

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2 Comments
  1. Posted May 11, 2010 at 2:26 am

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  2. Posted February 13, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    Jared, you definitely aren’t distorting the truth with your explanation. Just as the statement says that “truth” is used to verify something that actually happened, Tim O’ Brien had to find other ways to exhibit the truth in the story. His use of diction really helped accommodate his presentation of emotional truth to the reader. Like you first example is a great example, especially in my case. I would have personally reacted the same way because war isn’t my motto. And that’s the purpose O’ Brien wants to do with his book, have something that was true about Vietnam to learn what those people endured while protecting our country.

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