Thursday, September 3, 2009

"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien

Here, Followers (this cracks me up):

Read all of O'Brien's stories in 3X33. Then, excluding Scott and Kyle, who will lead discussion tomorrow, write 2 paragraphs of comments on "The Things They Carried." Use the story as a way to focus on one or two of the elements of fiction we've just read about Burroway. A refresher:

significant detail (Burroway, pages 26-31)
how authors write about emotion (31-32)
filtering (32-33)
active voice (33-35)
prose rhythm (36-38)
mechanics (38-39)

P.S. To comment, click on the Comments link at the bottom of this post.
P.P.S. Emerson quote of the day: "How can I talk when my body feels like crying?"


  1. Well at the beginning of the story I was kind of turned off for a good minute or two. All O’Brien talked about in the beginning was Lt. Jimmy Cross and the love he had for Martha. I thought it was going to be one of those stories that were a love story during the war. As it turns out I was right for the most part of the book. I was kind of turned off by this throughout the story because I have seen it so many times in movies and other books.
    Other parts of the book were kind of funny in the way of being told what other soldiers carried. When O’Brien talks about the bigger soldier carrying the heavier portions of food because he was the bigger soldier and needed it. The other parts of how another soldier carried condoms because that’s what he chose. When he talks about the standard weapons of the soldiers with the M-60, the M-16 and the occasional AK-47.

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  3. Using a listing strategy, O'Brien achieves an impressive amount of significant detail in a relatively short space, tallying off the items each soldier within the unit brings with them as a method of acquainting the reader with the particulars of the different characters. By weaving what begins as a simply inventory throughout the story as a measure of the insecurities and peculiarities each man carries with him, O'Brien avoids coming across as lazy or gimmicky, and instead is able to communicate a story with a real emotional payload to the reader. The sheer amount of information he is able to disperse thanks to the list-style narration allows the audience to get to know a large number of the characters better than the short-story genre normally allows, and as such the more dramatic or climactic events of the story have more impact.

    It is quite interesting how O'Brien handles filtering and distancing in the story. He actually practices a fair amount of filtering in passages dealing with Lt. Cross and his feelings towards Martha. We see Martha through Cross's lens, and because filtering creates enhances, or brings to light the distance between the reader and the events at hand, we feel more strongly the emotional distance Cross feels from Martha because of her attitude to him (Essentially, our view of Martha is filtered through both Cross's perspective and the Narrator's perspective before we are able to make our own judgment). Conversely, several sections of dialogue dealing with the aftermath of Lavender's death lack any sort of filtering whatsoever, ignoring even the usual courtesy of traditional quotation markers and cues. This allows the reader a far more visceral experience, eliminating a great amount of the distance between the audience and the characters.

    (Sorry about the double-post. Was having a bit of trouble signing-in-and-out...)

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  5. “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien was an immediate attention grabber. Since I know very little about Vietnam I was sucked into the life of the characters in the story. The significant detail of his story was obvious, the listing of the soldiers personal items as well as the standard military garb. I felt like each detail of weight really added to the reality of being in the moment in Vietnam. O’Brien injects an immediate reaction of emotion for the reader when he mentions the personal items each of the men carried. For example, “Dave Jansen, who practiced field hygiene carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia,” is an example of a small and unique glimpse into the world of one of the soldiers (O’Brien, 862). He does this for many of the men pulling together the story of the world they are very much in the present of. Filtering is used with his mention of Martha, allowing the reader to ‘observe the observer’ and build an attachment through a longing not only in the case of Martha but shared between all of the soldiers.
    The significant detail builds throughout the story into the climaxing reality of Ted Lavender’s death. He gets shot in the head after going to the bathroom and the most striking details are the reactions of the soldiers. Their fails to be an upset and instead a shock that brings with it, laughter and surprise. This is where Tim O’Brien’s emotion jumps off the page for the reader. These men aren’t sobbing instead lines like, “A pisser, you know? Still zipping himself up. Zapped while zipping,” occur quite frequently among the men and for the reader, I took that as a serious way of brushing off something clearly unbearable for conversation (O’Brien, 869).

  6. Well, it was brought up before, but the point remains that prose rhythm is an overt technique used in this story. The use of lists creates a slow metronomic marching beat that resonates throughout the story: THUNK comma THUNK comma THUNK comma THUNK period, each THUNK the sound of another weight landing on the back of a soldier, one more thing to carry. By contrast, the rhythm of the passage where the soldiers half-dream they are weightless and flying (O'Brien, 871-2) is rollicking and momentum-charged. The content of the passage itself deals with how the soldiers are finally unencumbered in their dream-state, flying "over the mountains and oceans, over America, over the farms and great sleeping cities and cemeteries and highways and the Golden Arches of McDonald's", and the prose rhythm reflects those emotions perfectly.
    Overall, The Things They Carried is very vivid through its overarching metaphor of baggage, Carrying Things. The story starts by listing the material possessions that the soldiers carry, and we as readers learn about them through their treasured possessions. We learn that they carry fear with them as well, and shame, and concealed cowardice, memories of home, unanswerable questions, all weighing them down like the possessions on their backs. The story focuses on Jimmy Cross to highlight that similarity between the physical and intangible burdens; Cross keeps Martha's letters and pebble with him, along with his unattainable desire for her love. At the conclusion of the story, he casts off both, lessening the weight on his shoulders and his heart.

  7. It is important to see the significant detail shown in what the soldiers were carrying as a way of showing personality instead of just flat out saying he like was this…. I was intrigued by the power that the listing held within the story (spitting out enormous detail in a short amount of time is as good as it gets). What we are is really only what we can carry with us (emotionally, physically, virtually, spiritually) it is interesting to see the different things that can define a person and what it would be under our own arms if everything was taken and you were limited to carry only what defined ourselves.
    O’ Brian choose to write about emotion through metaphor which was extremely powerful altogether. I agree that the most common and visible form of filtering was used with the relationship between Martha and Lt. Cross, the reader was able to see another dimension and build a relationship with Martha by the love displayed through Cross. Although it is mentioned that Martha never shows strong signs of returning the love it still is important to see the attachment in the Lt. Cross’s character.

  8. --Please excuse any horrible grammar that may be in the comment.--
    ->I was very surprised when I first started reading this little piece about Vietnam. I always thought that it would be more like “Fallen Angels” by Walter Dean Myers. From what I remember of the Myers novel, it’s been quite a while since I’ve read it, it mainly focuses on the outside of war, like “Why are we here in the first place?” time of thing. But with this, it really makes you dive into the personal lives of these soldiers with just what they have with them. You learn so much about a person by what they have. Isn’t that one reason why you aren’t allowed to go through a woman’s purse?
    ->While I really enjoyed reading about what the soldiers had in their possession, the parts where we’re being thrown into the depths of Lt. Cross’ love for Martha. I understand that that is an important plot point, but does it really have to be so drawn out? I do rather like the ending when he seems to snap out of his constant day dream of the unattainable girl by burning her things and taking it upon himself to get his squad in gear.

  9. -->I thought that O'Brien used Kiowa (or specifically, his death) well as a device to show the futility and waste of war. Kiowa is the most sympathetic character, being insightful and compassionate, as well as being presented as O'Brien's best friend. His brutal, and disgusting death in a sewage field stands in stark contrast to his personality, which I believe is what O'Brien was trying to prove. The likability of Kiowa, mixed with the sudden and senseless death presents a complex emotion within the reader. This is further reinforced by the representation of the physical load carried by each soldier for his emotional load.

    -->I thought it was also interesting the way the author presented the various stories. He often switched his voice from first person like in the stories 'On the Rainy River' to telling the stories through someone elses eyes, like in 'Notes' (told through Bowker's eyes) as well as acting as a narrator, like in the story 'The Things They Carried.' I believe that O'Brien does this to show how the war affected each person individually. Each man's story is different, and the only true way to tell it is through his own eyes.

  10. I felt that O'Brien described the feelings of the soldiers in war better than I've seen. He said how they kept on walking, or humping, not because they were brave, but because they were afraid of being cowards. It was why they never quit, and why they made fun of quitters. That really hit me for some reason.

    O'Brien kept listing things in a way that formed his own writing style for this one particular story, which made it very original and different, even inventive. I feel like you have to be inventive when you talk about war because a lot of people try to do it, so it's not easy to stand out. I really liked the story and the idea of "the things they carried."

  11. I had kind of a dumb moment as I was reading this, thinking, "Wow. They're sure carrying a lot of stuff", and then mentally smacked myself in the head when I remembered that it was entitled "The Things They Carried". But more than carrying just the listed of items and weapons, as well as emotions, O' Brien manages to take "carried" out of the literal in another sense, as in "Do rats carry rabies? If you screamed. how far would the sound carry?" and later on "Some things they carried in common...they carried each other, the wounded and weak...they carried the sky." What starts out as a single metaphor for being burdened quickly goes through so many additional interpretations.

    In the Vietnam War, most of the soldiers were young men who had no desire to be there because of the draft. Even with all the emotional baggage, hopes for a normal life or their previous life, and duty that they carried, there was no was to escape this reality. The only thing they could do was carry on.

  12. I thought that this piece was great. The flow of the story was interesting, unique, and expansive, especially for a short story where it is usually difficult to portray so many characters and so much information. The undertones of the story were those of a tortured individual, and the history of the writer in the beginning flushed out partially why. O’Brien convinced himself that the cowardly move was not skipping out on the draft, which to me is an interesting sentiment. This attitude is brought up throughout the story, though mainly when O’Brien explains why they fight, “Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.” To be honest, I understand; all war is just men with inadequacy issues who don’t live in parts of the world were Ferraris are available. Yes that is generalizing, but hey, can you really disagree wholeheartedly? The great thing about this part is also that it is a great example of how writers write with emotion.

    From this story I partially gathered something on prose rhythm. Throughout the story, very strongly when he is listing, but also throughout a great deal off the other areas, it feels like one could read almost the whole story like a list, even the descriptions of death and horror feel like they could be listed and still avoid sounding too absurd. This makes one of the most interesting rhythms I've ever read, a rhythm that only progresses, never repeating, yet to me at least, if feels like rhythm none-the-less.

    There it is, it’s probably not good enough, but I gave it a shot, sorry this is so late, I had issues with my internet last night and gave up and decided to just send it now.

  13. I think O'Brien arranges this story in a way that shows an interesting contrast between tangible items that soldiers carried and emotional 'luggage' that was carried in a non-literal sense. After beginning the story by discussing the relationship between Lt. Cross and Marsha, he switches back and forth between listing tangible possessions and divulging more to the reader about this relationship.
    As the story continues, this contrast is used to show Lt. Cross' realization of what is really important. This is the reason that O'Brien has Cross thinking about Martha at the moment that Ted Lavender is killed. Witnessing a death makes Cross' other worries (questions of whether or not he should have touched Martha's knee, fear of whether she kissed him back when he kissed her goodnight) seem so unimportant.
    Cross shows his change in mindset by burning the pictures of Marsha, which is followed by one of the most interesting lines of the story. "Lavender was dead. You couldn't burn the blame".
    O'Brien arranged the story in this way to stress that even in the life of a soldier who carries pounds and pounds of ammunition and equipment, the heaviest loads to carry are those that are intangible (emotions - love, guilt, fear, blame).

  14. I found "The Things They Carried" to be a very simple, yet very complex story. Even though the basic grammar structure and other surface mechanics are relatively plain, the organization of details is rather ellaborate. It is interesting how little dialogue is used in the story; nearly all the character development is in what objects and emotions the men carried. I love the fact that this takes "the things they carried" from the literal objects and physical weight to the more philosophical emotional burdens, and their mental weight.

    I would like to note that even thought O'Brian kept saying specifically "When Lavender was shot," and even saying exactly when he was shot, the fact that he held off the specific details until the exact moment Lavender died made still made that moment surprising. He leaves us so many clues (Jimmy Cross's obsession with Martha, Lavender's fear, etc.) that we think we know exactly when and how it's going to happen, but we're proven wrong. I think this takes a considerable amount of skill to pull off, as many authors would either hold off almost all the detail for the punch, or just lay everything on the table at once. This systematic withholding/feeding of detail is, in my opinion, so much more dramatic.