Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien


Every week by Saturday morning...
* Read 100 to 150 pages.

* Write 300+ words a week in response to your reading.
* Respond analytically and personally to what you have read.
* Discuss the significance of at least one passage/quotation.
* Discuss the relationship between what you are reading and something(s) else you have read this year.
* Respond to a comment made by a peer (after the first week).

16 comments:

nFrye said...

Nancy Frye
thru pp 136

"The Things They Carried" explores a new dimension of the war in Vietnam, but often makes statements that apply to any war. Before reading this book, I had never really thought about exactly what the young draftees must have felt about going to war. In "On the Rainy River", O'Brien is able to give a glimpse of what a young drafted soldier must have felt. The boys had bright futures and goals, but were taken away from them, with the great possibility of never returning to fulfill them. In "The Man I Killed" as well as "Ambush", O'Brien again speaks of the terror and reluctance of young drafted soldiers that are sent away from their original paths to fight a war. However, in these stories, the young man whose future is explored is Vietnamese, and he is dead. The author speculates, based on the man's appearance, about his past and what his future may have been. It gives a reader the sense that war, however far away and mechanized it may seem, is fought by people, real human beings. From my own experience with the war that is happening now, I find myself thinking that the war is being fought by politicians and artillery. But it is not, and O'Brien's stories bring to life the men that fight in a way that is more human than Hollywood has ever been able to fabricate.

The story that applies most to any book or story we have read, "Slaughterhouse Five" as the best example, is "How to Tell a True War Story". In the midst of telling numerous war stories, O'Brien explains the criteria of telling these tales. What I found most significant to Slaughterhouse Five in particular is this: "In many cases, a true war story cannot be believed...Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn't, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness." As soon as I read this passage, I began to recall Slaughterhouse Five: the Tralfamadorians, the fact that Billy Pilgrim, of all people survived the war, the futuristic death of Pilgrim, the destruction of Stalingrad. It makes one think that perhaps the things that "couldn't have happened" are relative and are perhaps the only things that did happen.

Throughout the stories that I have read to date, I always find myself thinking back to O'Brien's advice to be skeptical about what we read in a war story. I would say that it is good advice. What a war story is is a series of memories that are all put together. Memories don't really work like cameras. So, as I said, the things that happen in war are relative to who tells the war story.

Nick B said...

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried owes much of its initial draw and enticement to both the fictional situation, and the clever intertwinement of the title in the storyline. O’Brien narrates this book as someone who was there, in Alpha Company in Vietnam, named O’Brien, but the book explicitly states it is a work of fiction. Not a documentary, not based on true events, pure fiction. So I think he really made up the entire element of personal experience in the story, simply to make it more realistic and hit closer to home. An omnipresent, unknown narrator is easy to not get involved with, but by narrating it as someone who was there, O’Brien incites empathy in the reader for both his situation and the more key subjects of the book.

Often titles have very obscure connections to the storyline of the book. Sometimes you’ll find it in the last few sentences and realize that’s what it was talking about; sometimes you’ll never find the connection at all. An unusual thing to do is to make the tile, like The Things They Carried, completely central to the story and plot. This book really is about the things the soldiers carried in Vietnam. Initially O’Brien over-stresses the physical aspect, weighing all of their abundance of equipment, but eventually shows that there’s a deeper side as well. On page 25 O’Brien narrates Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s thoughts in this “It was very sad, he thought. The things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do.” That’s much more powerful than the recitation of how many pounds each weapon weighed, but its power is amplified by the menial aspect of the build-up to it. By focusing so much on physical weight of what they carried, O’Brien makes the sudden shift to their emotional and psychological burden very stark in contrast. O’Brien utilizes a fake-real situation, and a powerful and involved title, to both lure the reader into the book, hold on to him through the beginning, and then hit him with some deeply moving incite into the minds of the “grunts” of Vietnam.

Meredith S said...

Meredith S.


"The Things They Carried" is made up of stories about the Vietnam War. Most of the stories I have read at this point are set during the actual war, but "On the Rainy River" tells about the narrator's experience before he entered the war, when he received his draft card in the mail. I thought this was the most compelling of the stories so far because it dealt with his decision about going to war, and whether or not he even had a choice. He says he ended up going to war because he was "embarrassed not to." This tells a lot about the war from a point of view before it had even begun for the narrator. It made him question his own free will. Even though he thought it would be easy enough to avoid the war by crossing the Canadian border, it turned out that it was not even an option for him because he felt a strong connection to the obligations he had towards his country, his parents and family, and to his past self.

Although the author tells the stories in such a way that makes them seem incredibly realistic, he warns against believing every aspect of a war story. One thing he says in particular that caught my attention is, "If a story seems moral, then don't believe it." This caught my attention because it says something about the reliability of memory, and how people can try to make sense of past events by giving them some kind of moral. He also says, "In many cases a war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical." He is speaking not only for this war and these stories, but for the war in general. Maybe he says this to point out that these stories are fictional themselves and even though they try to portray the life of a soldier in the Vietnam War, they are not necessarily reliable.

andrew said...

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried breaks away from the stereotypical war story about ruthless killing and explosions. This book reveals the immaturity of the soldiers, which can be based around their age. Most of these soldiers are only nineteen years old and are quite emotional. This is seen when Mark Fossie pays to fly his girlfriend, Mary Anne Bell, over from the United States to Vietnam. When she arrives she becomes all consumed with the land and abandons him in the process. Fossie becomes a nervous wreck, and on one occasion stands outside her cabin all night waiting for her to come back from wherever. The soldiers also tend to dwell on casualties on their side and the enemy side. Norman Bowker blames himself entirely for the death of Kiowa when he has to leave him stuck in the mud to die. Despite encouraging comments by his fellow soldiers, Norman remains in a state of guilt. This guilt leads Norman to hang himself. Tim O’Brien is clearly rattled after he kills an enemy soldier due to his descriptive repetition of the boy’s dead body.
When Tim O’Brien kills the young soldier he expresses his indifference and immediate regret. This feeling of guilt and regret are evident on pages 132-133 when Tim O’Brien says, “Then looking up and seeing the young man come out of the fog…I had pulled the pin on a grenade. It was entirely automatic. I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty. I was terrified. There were no thoughts about killing. The grenade bounced once and rolled across the trail. I wanted to warn him. The grenade made a popping noise-not soft but not loud either- not what I’d expected- and there was a puff of dust and smoke- a small white puff- and the young man seemed to jerk upward as if pulled by invisible wires. He fell on his back.” It’s obvious that Tim feels terrible about his action. There was no thought process, he just did what he was trained to do, unaware that he would compassion and regret. This passage shows his innocence and his humanity. This scene is the opposite of a traditional battle scene where there’s simply a victor and a loser. This scene reveals the human side to war and morality that goes with it.
This second section of reading reminds me of Jane Eyre in how the author talks to you. The author brings you away from the book to tell you who he is, on page 179 the author says, “I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier. Almost everything else is invented.” He goes on to reveal that the character named Tim O’Brien is a work of fiction in that the author never killed anyone before. He makes several interjections in the book where he mentions conversations he’s had with his daughter about the war.
I have to agree with Nancy’s comment about not knowing exactly “what the young draftees must have felt about going to war” because I don’t really hear much about the soldier’s lives previous to the war. Most of the time a soldier’s life is told from when he is in the war and onward. This book shows how not every person wanted to go to war. Tim O’Brien was an educated individual who, as Nancy put it, had a “bright future.” It’s a shame that some of these individuals had to sacrifice such a future to instead watch a close friend die in your arms, but life as this book reveals is unpredictable.

nFrye said...

Nancy F.
pp 137 to end

The last half of "The Things They Carried" puts a great emphasis on the family-like bonds between the members of a military unit. As certain "characters" (which doesn't seem to be the right word) are killed or move on, the family grows smaller and the author becomes more reminiscent of the times that were spent with the individuals. Even at the beginning of the book, when Lavender was killed, the author was sentimental about his loss. Beginning with the story "Speaking of Courage" and through until the end of the book, the author expresses guilt at having "allowed" his friend Kiowa to die. These references that are made to friends that have passed on all express some sort of guilt due to their loss. Just as Jimmy Cross makes himself responsible at the beginning of the book, so also does the author make himself responsible for the death of Kiowa.

In "Speaking of Courage", Norman Bowker attempts to cope with his sense of responsibility and guilt for the death of Kiowa. He explains to people that he "almost won the Silver Star." It seems odd that, even though he did win other medals, including a Purple Heart, he emphasizes the fact that he "almost won the Silver Star." But to look past what appears to be gloating, it is possible to see that Bowker does not want to brag. Rather, he wishes to make a statement about how he was not brave enough. "He wished he could have explained some of this. How he had been braver than he ever thought possible, but he had not been so brave as he wanted to be." This statement expresses a profound thought of a young soldier at war. War makes one brave; adrenaline and fear make one capable of more than they could ever imagine. But when confronting death, bravery is just not enough. He wishes that he could have been brave enough to save Kiowa, but a person can only take so much, and cannot stop death.

As in Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five", the soldiers in "The Things They Carried" carry with them the guilt of not being able to prevent things that just are not preventable. As Billy Pilgrim shies away from the real world due to the massacre at Dresden and his uselessness as an individual person, so too does Norman Bowker. He clings to memories that outline a clear fault in himself. However, the fault lies in the nature of death. Kiowa was going to drown in the muck of the field, no matter how hard Bowker pulled. But Bowker clings to the idea that he could have and should have saved him. The matter of the blending of what is or was and some form of fiction (more exaggerated in "Slaughterhouse Five") relates war stories as outlined by O'Brien in "How to Tell a True War Story".

As Nick stated, "This book really is about the things the soldiers carried in Vietnam." He goes on to say that, while they carried heavy artillery and packs, the emotional burdens placed on the soldiers easily outweigh their physical ones. The soldiers carried the deaths of their friends as well as the Vietnamese upon their hearts. They carried loss, loneliness, and fear. O'Brien's title is remarkably well-suited to the contents of its pages.

fenkor said...

The Things They Carried By: Tim O’Brien

H. Ono

I agree with Andrew’s post about the narrator, Tim O’Brien’s guilt and regret over killing a soldier. Another way to show his guilt and regret would be when Tim says, “it was not a matter of live or die” and that “almost certainly the young man would have passed by” (p 133). Then at the end of his story titled, Ambush Tim says that he imagines a past where the young man would “pass within a few yards of [him] and suddenly smile at some secret thought and then continue up the trail to where it bends back into the fog.” (p 134). On the same page Tim says that “sometimes I forgive myself, other times I don’t” in response to what his fellow soldier Kiowa says, along with all the other experiences up until the present time, to try and reason out his killing of a soldier.

At another part of the story Tim shows indifference by writing about throwing a grenade at a person as an almost habitual action. This is shown when he writes “I had already pulled the pin from the grenade. I had come up to a crouch. It was entirely automatic.” (p132). Then he finally says “I had already thrown the grenade before telling myself to throw it” (p132). The actions show the training that Tim received as a soldier taking over and as Andrew said “There was no thought process; he just did what he was trained to do”. A similar sort atmosphere is conveyed in The Stranger, by Albert Camus. There the narrator lives through life almost on automatic without really explaining himself or taking a side. This becomes a form of training and when the narrator kills a man he ends up not defending his actions. At the court proceedings the narrator lets his lawyer do the talking and when he gets up to talk the only thing he manages to say in response to killing an Arab man is to say “it was the sun!” (Camus). This of course causes the killer to appear indifferent or impulsive with no real thoughts behind his actions.

Meredith S said...

I found that the second section of The Things They Carried (pages 117-246) was even more helpful than the first in terms of conveying the experience of the soldiers in the war. The author began to talk more personally about his own memories (some certain, others foggy) about specific events and the guilt that he still associates with some of them. In particular is "Ambush" the story about the man he killed. He begins this story by recalling a time when his young daughter asked if he had ever killed anyone. To begin this serious story with an innocent question from a child puts the story into perspective, showing how much time has gone by since the event and how much the narrators life has changed. Like Nancy said, these stories show the bond that the soldiers had and how it was almost familial. The fact that he mentions his daughter so much creates a connection between his past and present. He shared the war with his fellow soldiers, and now he shares his memories of the war with his daughter. He does this quite directly in "Field Trip" when he takes his daughter to the place in Vietnam where his close friend Kiowa died. Returning to this location does not have the desired effect, however: "I pictured Kiowa's face, the way he used to smile, but all I felt was the awkwardness of remembering." This made me think of earlier in the book when he says to be skeptical of war stories, and I wonder if he was referring to his own war stories as well, because who can say what gets created or destroyed in "the awkwardness of remembering." I think this story has the most closure at the end when his daughter asks if an angry-looking Vietnamese farmer is mad at him and he says "'No, all that's finished.'" The fact that this story is placed directly before the story that deals with his terrifying recollection of being shot shows that it's actually not finished, not really. Even though the war is in the past, the author and other soldiers still carry memories of it.

andrew said...

In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Tim expresses his anger toward a young medic named Jorgenson who during a firefight was slow to help Tim’s butt wound. Tim is enraged and holds a vengeance toward Jorgenson because due to Jorgenson slow response to Tim’s cries of pain, Tim’s butt started to rot as a result of going into shock. This is only time that Tim expresses rage, for the most part he expresses feelings of guilt and sorrow. Like Nancy says “these references that are made to friends that have passed on all express some sort of guilt due to their loss.” Tim makes it evident that he feels guilty and responsible for Kiowa’s death since he never helped him out of the mud. Tim’s extreme anger toward Jorgenson is baffling because he cannot see that the injury was a mistake. He knew that Jorgenson was a young medic, but this doesn’t lessen Tim’s anger. His anger toward seems to get the better of him in that he decides to scare Jorgenson while Jorgenson is on scout patrol. Tim scares Jorgenson by firing off flares near Jorgenson’s position during the night. Tim gets a sick pleasure once he realizes Jorgenson is afraid, and on page 211 Tim goes on to explain how now they’re even when he says, “He made a short, low cry- not even a cry, really, just a short lung-and-throat bark- and there was a blurred sequence as he lunged sideways and rolled toward a heap of sandbags and crouched there and hugged his rifle and waited. “There,” I whispered. “Now you know.” I could read his mind. I was there with him. Together we understood what terror was: you’re not human anymore. You’re a shadow. You slip out of your own skin, like molting, shedding your own history and your own future, leaving behind everything you ever were or wanted or believed in. You know you’re about to die. And it’s not a movie and you aren’t a hero and all you can do is whimper and wait. This, now, was something we shared. I felt close to him. It wasn’t compassion, just closeness. His silhouette was framed like a cardboard cutout against the burning flames.” This quote is significant because it brings Tim back to when he was a soldier. This quote also shows how Tim has lost a part of his humanity. He is no longer the impressive scholar he was, war has changed him, it has taken his morals and ethics. This cruel trick brings Tim back to when he was a soldier, but sadly his former soldiers do not see him as a soldier anymore.
This book is similar to Invisible Man in that Tim, like the invisible man, has been changed as a result of society and his surroundings. Had Tim’s or the invisible man’s surroundings been less harsh, they would have been drastically different. Each of their environment’s had taken away their possessions and morals.

Nick B said...

I think a huge part of what makes The Things They Carried so powerful is the way in which it is written. O’Brien confuses stories, the ones telling them, and the ones in them, on purpose for dramatic effect. For example, on page 161 O’Brien, writing from his point of view, says “I want to make it clear that Norman Bowker was in no way responsible for what happened to Kiowa… That part of the story is my own.” This succeeds Bowker’s story about camping in the waste field and Kiowa’s death, as well as ‘his’ failure to save him. By revealing afterward that it was really the narrator’s fault, O’Brien emphasizes the pain and guilt he feels for what he’s done in his inability to even tell the story truthfully.

I liked what Andrew said about the passage where O’Brien kills the young Vietnamese soldier. It’s true that the way he rights it – saying there’s no conscious thought process, no decision to kill – shows how innocent the soldiers were, and why the war can be so traumatizing. Shoot first ask questions later isn’t a practice kind to young men’s consciences.

I see much of Invisible Man’s message in this book as well. The quick and brutal loss of innocence that the invisible man experienced is much like the one that almost every character O’Brien has introduced went through. Mary Anne relates to Invisible Man especially well. When she entered the war she was behind everybody else, in experience and knowledge, much like the invisible man was unprepared and unknowing going into the battle royal. Sadly she couldn’t cope with the sudden exposure to the world, and she lost herself to it, like invisible man did when he gave up and moved underground.

Nick B said...

The issues of betrayal and alienation really interested me in the last part of The Things They Carried. Throughout the book, whether the narrator likes it or not, he's part of the war, part of his company; he belongs. I think a big part of what makes war somewhat bearable for many soldiers is the brotherhood and comraderie they share with their fellow men. "I hate to say this, man, but you're out of touch. Jorgenson - he's with us now. -And I'm not?... -No, I guess you're not." O'Brien is still in Vietnam, in the war, enlisted as a soldier, but now he's lost his place. That alienation and loss of friendship, as much as the fear, terror, and death, probably drove many soldiers crazy.

I liked how Nancy related The Things They Carried to Slaughterhouse Five. O'Brien's point about war stories, and the story-truth versus the reality-truth, could be in turn applied to Slaughterhouse Five. Billy Pilgrim is the most unlikely of people, and goes through the most unlikely events in the novel, but is it really true? Now having read The Things They Carried I look back and ask not if the things Billy Pilgrim said are true, but if they really happened. Either way they're true, but I think it's more a story-truth than a reality-truth. Billy had to invent stories to make sense of the world in his head, much like the soldiers in The Things They Carried have to exaggerate their war stories to make them more true.

Nick B said...

GOING AFTER CACCIATO:

From the back of the book I never would have guess what Going After Cacciato would be like. It made it seem like it was one man’s journey/flight away from the war, but that’s nothing like how it is. Superficially it’s one United States Army squad chasing after a young member who deserted their Vietnam deployment to flee to Paris. Really though, it’s a combination of all of their mixed feelings regarding the war, culminating in their flight. Cacciato starts the flood by having the guts to break out on his own and lead them away. Throughout his flight he, to their confusion, continually leaves clues for them to follow him by. This is really because he knows they all should leave the war, not just him, but none of them are able to realize it yet.

As they progress through their journey, the shift in mood begins with the narrator, Paul Berlin. After realizing how much more he enjoys the relaxing, not-afraid feeling of friendly territory, he starts shifting his omnipresent daydreams to thoughts of them really reaching Paris, and forgetting the war altogether. After meeting a Vietnamese refugee, whom he soon becomes infatuated with, her extreme desire to reach Paris augments his growing passion to do the same.

Cacciato becomes more of an idea than a person as he repeatedly escapes every attempt they make to capture him. They surround him completely and he’s somehow gone, Stink (a fierce, stronger man who hates Cacciato) sneaks up and ambushes him yet somehow loses, and Paul finds him in Mandalay but just barely loses him. Cacciato’s singularly impersonal characterization adds to his mystery; the reader never meets him directly. Everything known about him is through Paul’s descriptions, which are questionable due to his friendship with Cacciato.

The style of writing, mostly due to the fact that it’s the same author and same subject matter, is strikingly similar to The Things They Carried. This book, however, focuses more on escaping the war rather than enduring it and exposing its flaws, though much of the subject matter overlaps. Going After Cacciato so far has been an enjoyable experience in which, ironically, I’ve learned the feelings of men in Vietnam through a story about them not being in Vietnam.

Nick B said...

GOING AFTER CACCIATO:

I have to say, after finishing Going After Cacciato, I was less impressed than I was while reading it. The end had the potential to be great, and it didn't quite come through for me. As I progressed through the book I anticipated the end more and more, because it seemed like the characters were backing into a corner and their escape would be entertaining. Though it's somewhat obscure at the end, I believe what O'Brien was getting at is that when they first went after Cacciato and Stink tripped the smoke grenade, Paul Berlin dreamt the entire trip to Paris, and woke up at the end of the book. The observation post was a parallel story woven throughout to instill doubt as to the truth of the story we were reading. Though it's an interesting twist to claim that it was all a dream, I feel like that's the easy way out. Even regardless of whether it's a dream, why not finish the story; what happens when they barge into Cacciato's room? Though I really liked the majority of this book, much as i liked The Things They Carried, the ending of Going After Cacciato didn't quite live up to its potential, and left me feeling the book was incomplete.

fenkor said...

H. Ono

I agree with Nancy F. when she said that she had not really thought about "what the young draftees must have felt about going to war." (Frye) In the same way, I had also thought of war as "being fought by politicians and artillery." (Frye). In the book that I am currently reading called "The Wolf King" by Alice Borchardt, there is an element of war too. But, it talks about kings and how they are the ones that want war. There appears to be a big power struggle between countries and this is the same in our present world with politicians. Only, the country of America has been very stable and there has not been a war in the country for some time. We experience war through movies and books that can never fully let us experience what war is like. Then in class I learned about the industrial military complex that supports the war effort. There are entire industries devoted to the creation of new weapons and supporting the armies. On the news there are word such as casualties that mean deaths but a detached way of looking at it and to the viewer the statistics are only numbers.

Then there is the chapter titled "Speaking of Courage" that talks about a man after the war. Norman Bowker says that "the war was over and there was no place in particular to go" (137). This is followed by a "seven-mile loop around the lake" that continues on till the end of the day (137). This repetitive act allows Norman to look at the people around him and to think. There is a sense of a lost purpose and a hesitation to go forward. After experiencing a war it may be hard to go back to a normal life. Relaxing in a normal way and the past could seem very far away so that you are a different person.

fenkor said...

H. Ono

"The Things They Carried" by O'Brien "warns against believing every aspect of a war story" (Meredith S.). This is particularly true in "Notes" where there is real information on Norman Bowker and how he changed jobs four times and none of them lasted over ten weeks or a little over three months. Norman eventually killed himself by hanging and talked about "the problem of finding a meaningful use for his life after the war." (155). His story is used by O'Brien and "to provide a dramatic frame" the author set the story around a lake. Later the chapter goes on to describe the problem of finding the right place to put the story.

Borchardt's "The Wolf King" doesn't have an author that creats a chapter specifically to say that a story was not real. Instead, historical facts are twisted around as well as the motives behind the people in power such as kings and the pope. This could be compared to what Dan Brown does to make his story fit the facts and to make things interesting. There was the book titled "The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown where George Washington and the structure of many buildings were used to create a compelling story. But, like many conspiracy theories it is up to the viewer whether he or she believes part or all of the story.

fenkor said...

H. Ono

Nancy F. talks about the "family-like bonds between the members of a military unit." "In the Field" is a chapter in "The Things They Carried" by O'Brien that particularly focuses on this aspect. Kiowa, a soldier has died and Jimmy Cross feels responsible even though the orders came from above and did not have any knowledge about where he was or what was going to happen. Like a family there are some arguments and Bowker defends Jimmy and says that it was "nobody's" fault (166). While a "young soldier was trying hard not to cry" over the death of his friend. Jimmy, as the one in command helps the soldier look for the body. Together they look and Jimmy tries to comfort the soldier. There is talk about blame and both Jimmy and the soldier feel that they are to blame and don't run away from responsibility.

"The Silver Wolf" by Borchardt also deals with a family. The mother tries to do what is best, but she is easily influenced by her brother. This lead to the mother divorcing a husband she loved to marry a man with money so that her brother could have some. It ends with the mother helping in the killing of her second husband under orders from her brother. With this, the money goes to her and this meant that the brother had full control of the money. Later her daughter is in a similar situation and this time the daughter's uncle is killed.

fenkor said...

H. Ono

Nick B. said that in "The Things They Carried" Tim O'Brien was a "part of the war, part of his company; he belongs". The soldiers talked about corpses and how when they weren't human it did not really "matter much if it's dead." (238). So, the author talks about using words that meant the same thing in a different way but was something entirely different to deal with death. There were even stories that they created to keep the dead alive such as the one about Ted Lavender and "how tranquil he was" now (239). Later, the author writes stories about Linda to keep her alive in his memories.

"Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut also deals with stories. They often do not make much sense and are about toilet plunger aliens. But there are moments of clarity that deal with death and how being a prisoner was like. Vonnegut has experienced the tragedy inside the book and he is involved with the story as a character like with O'Brien.