1. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston

    Short Story Club (10): The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by thirdwind, Apr 20, 2013.

    For this discussion we'll be reading "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. You can find a copy of the story here. It's in PDF format.

    Tim O'Brien is another writer I've never read but who has been on my to-read list for a while. His short story collection, The Things They Carried, is probably his most famous work.
     
  2. blackstar21595
    Offline

    blackstar21595 Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2013
    Messages:
    598
    Likes Received:
    34
    Location:
    Brooklyn,NY
    1 person likes this.
  3. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
  4. Eliemme
    Offline

    Eliemme Member

    Joined:
    Mar 29, 2013
    Messages:
    33
    Likes Received:
    0
    I really enjoyed the short story, though something about its end was puzzling me. I had to read some passages a few times to understand what it was.

    I loved the way 'O brien uses the verb "to carry" to explain the physical and emotional strain that soldiers experience. I like the way he repeats the verb over and over again, in an apparent list, which actually reports the most human and inhuman parts of the soldiers (they carry pictures of their sweethearts as well as fingers of dead 15 years old rotting in the open air...)

    I feel that the atrociousness of what is described is very intensely blended amidst the soldiers fears and thoughts. He describes very well their struggle to keep living, to find patterns of regularity in that insane environment, to distance themselves emotionally from what was happening, as a mere survival strategy. All this is very clear, yet it is mostly embedded in the "things carried", it is never told as such explicitly.

    The style changes at the end of the story. 'O Brien describes explicitly the coming to terms with reality of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. I think that it would have been more effective if O'Brien had kept the same style going. Rather than reporting the thoughts of the Lieutenant, it would have been more interesting to let us learn them by looking at the things he "stopped carrying", or the things he made the rest of the team carry. It would have been more interesting to see his changes in action, rather than in thought.

    Having said that, it made for a superb read.
     
  5. blackstar21595
    Offline

    blackstar21595 Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2013
    Messages:
    598
    Likes Received:
    34
    Location:
    Brooklyn,NY
    When I read this story, if there was one thing I loved about it, is how well the characters were characterized by what they carried. Something an amateur like me can learn when it comes to writing. And I loved how I was able to figure out that Kiowa was a native american just from what he carried with him. And it's great how he uses the verb "to carry." With the way he uses it, it makes everything they carry seem like a burden on their lives. And if there's one thing I liked, is that when O'Brien repeated certain aspects about the characters, it came off as emphasis, not redundancy. And I liked the third person narrative POV for this story. It works well with letting you know how all the soldiers feel, and how pointless they think the war is. I really enjoyed this story, and the way it progressed mirrored how pointless the character's efforts were in Vietnam.
     
  6. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,723
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    This story is fascinating. First, I found it extremely powerful – it’s a view into the Vietnam War I’d never seen before. It’s intense and moving. Somehow, O’Brien achieves this without getting anywhere near any of his characters. Even Lieutenant Cross is kept at arm’s length, even though we get to see some of his thoughts. The whole story seems like a newspaper report, for the most part. It’s almost all telling, very little showing. There’s some showing when Lee Strunk has to go down into the tunnel. There’s more showing – the most significant bit – when Cross digs his foxhole and sits at the bottom and cries. That part lasts until Bowker says “One thing I hate, it’s a silent Indian.” Then we’re back to telling.

    I think it takes a lot of brass to write using this technique, but as I was thinking about it after I finished the story, what other technique could O’Brien use? He’s trying to present a general Vietnam War experience without stretching his story into a big novel, and it turns out the best way he could do this is to step back from his characters so that they could stand for every soldier in the war. It works very well, I think.

    I was interested in how Cross is obsessed with Martha’s virginity. He seems to hang on to that idea as if it’s the last connection to innocence he has, even though it’s beyond tenuous – she’s likely not a virgin and she doesn’t really love him anyway. But given the world he’s in and the life he has to live, her virginity is necessary to him, at least until he comes to terms with Ted Lavender’s death. This seems to be connected to the thumb Bowker carries – when he’s given the thumb, there’s some talk of a moral, but the men can’t articulate what the moral is.

    Side note: I noticed a sentence that ended “… toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the rivers and up again and down.” That, if I remember correctly, is almost verbatim from Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa. I wonder if O’Brien was paying homage.
     
  7. blackstar21595
    Offline

    blackstar21595 Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2013
    Messages:
    598
    Likes Received:
    34
    Location:
    Brooklyn,NY
    Minstrel, funny you mention Martha like that because to me, Martha represented Cross's denial. He keeps trying to comfort himself despite all the things him and his platoon go through. Also, if anyone's interested, O'Brien made a flash fiction piece starring Henry Dobbins, the soldier who wore his girlfriend's pantyhose around his neck. It's called "Stockings."

    Anyone else liked Kiowa? It might just be me since I read a short story called "The Man I Killed," that featured Kiowa in it, and I loved how O'Brien shows us he's a native american without having to tell us. And cartographer, it's weird how this is a story that uses the 3rd person narrative POV very well. It's weird how O'Brien is "telling," but at the same time, his telling shows a lot about his characters through what equipment they carry and use with them. And I liked that conflict of the story is the soldiers against themselves,not the Vietcong. Goes to show how debilitating Vietnam was on the mind.
     
  8. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    I have to say that I really enjoyed this story. I liked O'Brien's writing, and he's someone I could see myself reading more of.

    For me, the things the soldiers carry are more important (or unimportant) in death rather than in life. If they die, their personal items will be all that's left of them. Thus, the memory of each man is basically reduced to the items he carried with him when he was alive. Things like memory and experiences die with the men. When Cross burns the letters and throws the pebble away, it's almost as if he has come to grips with his own mortality. He is essentially getting rid of his memories before his actual death.

    Cross' fixation with Martha's virginity tells me that he still holds on to an idealistic view of life. Everything is romanticized. The soldiers are "actors" and "when someone died, it wasn't quite dying, because in a curious way it seemed scripted." It seems that Cross still hasn't come to grips with the horror of the war at the beginning of the story and has distanced himself from what's going on around him. I would argue that the end of the story marks his passage into adulthood, though not in the same way most Bildungsromans do. His transformation is quite sudden, almost as if he had an epiphany after imagining the tunnel collapsing on him and Martha.

    I'm sure I'll have more to add once I think about the story a little more.
     
  9. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    I have to agree with this. He relies a lot on repetition, both with phrases and with the objects they carried. Speaking of the objects, it's interesting how they things they carry are determined by necessity. However, aside from a few basic items like water and rifle magazines, each person carries something different, and "necessity" is a very subjective concept. For example, "Ted Lavender carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity."

    I have to add that it's interesting how at the end of the story, when Cross burns the pictures and throws the pebble away, he's getting rid of the actual weight of the tangible objects he carries as well as the emotional burden of his memories and thoughts about Martha. In a way, the tangible things the men carry are linked to the intangible things. This reminds me of the philosophical notion of representationalism, which states that people are aware of ideas/experiences/memories because they are produced in our minds by external objects.

    As a side note, I'm thinking of moving on to the next story tomorrow. Hope that's OK with everyone.
     
  10. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,723
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    I agree with this 100%. O'Brien is clearly making his point when Lavender dies. Cross burns his memories of Martha, ditches the pebble, is no longer concerned with her virginity, is no longer concerned with innocence and normalcy. He is resolved, at last, to be a soldier and an officer, just as the military wants him to be. He is turning from man into robot, and is planning how to turn his men to robots as well. He is voluntarily becoming part of a machine, with no conscience nor weakness, just a tool of a military and a foreign policy he will no longer question. His orders no longer come from men, but from some kind of god, and must be carried out. The responsibility for Lavender's death has devolved to him, and he is responding the only way he knows how. Men must be dehumanized by war, otherwise they couldn't deal with it. The military machine is salvation.

    That's fine with me. I admire "The Things They Carried" but it creeps me out a bit (as it is intended to). I'm ready to move on.
     
  11. blackstar21595
    Offline

    blackstar21595 Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2013
    Messages:
    598
    Likes Received:
    34
    Location:
    Brooklyn,NY
    I'm cool with moving on too.
     

Share This Page