The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried  
First edition cover
Author(s) Tim O'Brien
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN 0767902890

The Things They Carried is a collection of related stories by Tim O'Brien, about a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam War, originally published in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin, 1990. While apparently based on some of O'Brien's own experiences, the title page refers to the book as "a work of fiction"; indeed, the majority of stories in the book possess some quality of metafiction. Even though the characters are based on a work of fiction, they show similarities of real soldiers that O'Brien knew during his time in the war. A few of the characters show similarities of characters from his autobiography If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. That is why O'Brien dedicated his book to the men of the Alpha Company.



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. "Speaking of Courage" was originally published (in heavily modified form) as a chapter of O'Brien's earlier novel Going After Cacciato.

"The Things They Carried" was also included in the 1987 volume of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Ann Beattie.[1]


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 Étranger.

List of short stories

  • "The Things They Carried"
  • "Love"
  • "Spin"
  • "On the Rainy River"
  • "Enemies
  • "Friends"
  • "How to Tell a True War Story"
  • "The Dentist"
  • "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong"
  • "Stockings"
  • "Church"
  • "The Man I Killed"
  • "Ambush"
  • "Style"
  • "Speaking of Courage"
  • "Notes"
  • "In the Field"
  • "Good Form"
  • "Field Trip"
  • "The Ghost Soldiers"
  • "Night Life"
  • "The Lives of the Dead"


Main characters

Tim O'Brien
Author of the story. His personal experiences in the war lead him to write a book about it. He believes that some things cannot be explained at all. For example, he eventually reveals, but can not say that Kiowa's death was his fault. While modeled after the author and sharing the same name, O'Brien is a fictional character and not the author. The author intentionally blurs this distinction.
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross
Protagonist of the title story, "The Things They Carried". Cross is the platoon leader. He is obsessed with a young woman back home, Martha (who does not return his feelings), 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–the "shitfield"–in "In the Field", 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, he 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.
Norman Bowker
A soldier who O'Brien says attempted to save Kiowa the night he died. When Kiowa slips into the "shitfield", Bowker repeatedly tries to save him but is unable to, and as a result he feels hugely guilty for Kiowa's death after the war. His memories continue 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. He is continually haunted by the fact that he could not save Kiowa from sinking under the "shitfield" on a rainy night. However, O'Brien admits eventually that it was not Norman who failed to save Kiowa, but himself. After the war he briefly assists O'Brien in writing a story about Vietnam, but 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 pantyhose around his neck as a protective charm even after she dumps him. He briefly contemplates becoming a monk after the war due to their acts of charity for the sake of charity.
Kiowa is a soldier who is quiet and compassionate, also a devout Christian. He appears to be Norman Bowker's best friend in the company. Kiowa often helps other soldiers deal with their own actions, such as taking the lives of other human beings. He is eventually killed when camping out in the shitfield. He is hit by a mortar round, and Kiowa slips into the sewage and drowns. Originally Norman Bowker tries unsuccessfully to save him, but O'Brien soon admits that it was not Bowker, but rather O'Brien who tried and failed to save him. Tim O'Brien later reveals a "young soldier" as the true culprit behind Kiowa's death when he says that he was the one that gave away their position when showing Kiowa a picture by shining his light. It is implied that Norman Bowker is this "young soldier."
Mitchell Sanders
He is a relatively kind soldier who is contemptuous of Cross's decision to camp in a sewage field, which led to 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. He is also the RTO for the platoon.
Ted Lavender
A 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. Cross blames himself for Lavender's death, as he was fantasizing about Martha when Lavender was shot.
Curt Lemon
A good friend of Rat Kiley who dies after stepping on a rigged artillery shell. 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". After Lemon dies, Kiley writes a long, eloquent letter to Lemon's sister describing his friendship with Lemon and emphasizing how good a person Lemon was. Lemon's sister never responds, which crushes Kiley emotionally.
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, but mocks O'Brien when he's not willing to take the revenge further. At one point, Azar breaks down emotionally, revealing that his cruelty is merely a defense mechanism.
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 a leg, 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". Jensen also appears in "The Lives of the Dead", where he pressures O'Brien to shake hands with a dead Vietnamese.
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. Afterward, however, O'Brien and Jorgenson become friends. Jorgenson may be a reference to a similarly named character in The Caine Mutiny.

Other characters

  • Martha - Lt. Jimmy Cross's romantic love, though she has only platonic feelings for him. He burns her letters and photos while trying to get over the guilt he feels for being responsible for Ted Lavender's death.
  • 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 on his base 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 - An 81 year old man who helps Tim come to grips with going to war at the Tip Top Lodge.


In the short story "Good Form", the narrator makes a 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. 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'. The fine line of what constitutes fiction versus non-fiction is blurred throughout the book, for though Tim O'Brien claims this book to be fiction, the author and the protagonist share the same name and same profession as writers. Additionally, the character Tim references writing the book "Going After Cacciato" which the author Tim had written and published previously.


The story "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" was made into a film in 1998, titled A Soldier's Sweetheart starring Kiefer Sutherland.


  1. ^ Charters, Ann (2011). The Story and Its Writer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins. pp. 636. 

External links

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