The Things They Carried is a powerful look into the lives and experiences of foot soldiers during and after the Vietnam war. Written by Tim O’Brien, the work is concurrently an autobiographical account of the war, a memoir, and a collection of short, fictional stories.
O’Brien chose to subtitle the book, “A Work of Fiction”, and successfully and intentionally blurs the lines of reality and fantasy by dedicating his work to individuals who will later be revealed as being the novel’s fictional characters.
To further complicate the overlapping of genres, and the continual shifts between fact and fiction, the protagonist in The Things They Carried is a veteran of the Vietnam war by the name of “Tim O’Brien.” With the creation of this fictional persona, O’Brien is effectively able to explore his true emotions as if they were fictitious and challenges readers to reconsider stories that they perceive to be false, as they could just as easily be true.
The novel is particularly compelling in part to its originality and the manner in which O’Brien uses the art of storytelling to call upon his own memories of the Vietnam war and the catharsis of the past. Several of the characters in the book seek out resolution.
When reading this study guide, note the designations used to distinguish between Tim O’Brien the author and the fictional character in the novel, “Tim O’Brien”. Despite the similarities that the two share, it is important to remember that the work is a novel and not the autobiography of the author. The novel is, rather, presented as the autobiography of the fictional “Tim O’Brien.”
The medium becomes a part of the message of the novel: the undependable main character “Tim O’Brien” continues to challenge the truth of the stories he tells and the things he hears and passes on, which, in turn, causes the audience to question the truth in the stories that O’Brien shares with them.