Writing About A Text
The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
The stories we have read by Tim O'Brien deal with the Vietnam War, but they also contain many compelling issues about the human condition unchanged by the 30 years since that conflict. For your last essay of the semester, write an essay in which you draw from these stories some issue, conflict, theme, or motif that interests you. As stated in the portfolio requirements, "This should not only discuss an author's ideas but should also present the student's opinion and interpretation as distinct from the author's." Don't simply tell the story; construct an argument for a particular point of view about it. Below are several topic choices for your to consider; if you have another topic in mind, please discuss it with me before proceeding. Your essay should refer to and quote from at least three of the stories.
Refer to Keys for Writers for additional guidance on writing about literature (pages 67-72). Refer to the Text-Based 098 essays in New Voices for successful examples.
1. In "The Things They Carried," O'Brien writes that "Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to" (21). Find three characters from the assigned stories and explain how their actions, attitudes, and beliefs reflect O'Brien's point of view in regards to such issues as masculinity, cowardice and courage. What are your conclusions regarding the issues O’Brien raises? Use plenty of examples from the stories to support your point.
2. Why is it so hard to "tell a true war story"? Write an essay in which you examine O’Brien’s use of imagination and invention, and the difficulties posed by wartime conditions on truth-telling.
3. Throughout the stories, O’Brien juxtaposes images of great beauty with images of great horror, the scene of Curt Lemon’s death in "How to Tell A True War Story" being one notable example. Write an essay in which you trace the use of such contrasting images across at least three of the stories. What do these contrasting images say about O’Brien’s experiences in Vietnam?
4. The men deal with the uncertainty, fear, and death around them in sometimes surprisingly tender, irreverently funny, or horrifyingly brutal ways. Choose three characters from the stories to examine how these characters respond to their circumstances and the men around them. What conclusions can you draw about men and war through these examples?
5. People are usually profoundly changed by their experiences in war. Choose at least 3 characters from the stories and examine how these characters were changed by their experiences. What conclusions can you draw from these examples about the effects of war on the human spirit?
6. What is the role of women and girls in the book? Examine the various female characters in the novel and explain what each may represent.
7. The "Speaking of Courage" sequence, as well as the stories related to "the Man I Killed," deal a lot with the issue of responsibility and guilt. Discuss how at least three characters deal with their feelings of guilt over the deaths of those around them.
- a clear thesis statement and introduction which sets out for your reader the point you wish to make about the stories. Please do not repeat verbatim the essay prompt.
- A very brief synopsis of the stories you are discussing. This means writing a sentence or two about each story (no more than one paragraph in total).
- an analysis supported by examples from the text, properly quoted (or paraphrased) and cited.
- You are not required to use sources other than O’Brien’s book to support your views; if you do use any outside sources, make sure you properly quote or paraphrase and cite. The use of outside sources for this essay is strongly discouraged!
- Length: 3-4 pages
- All drafts must be typed (10 or 12 font), double-spaced, 1" margins. .
- Must have a title other than the book title.
- Use MLA format for citing. You are not required to use a separate sheet of paper for Works Cited.
- Remember to save all drafts!!
- First Draft Workshop Wednesday, April 18 (Bring 4 copies for workshopping, plus"Before the Workshop" portion of Writer’s Process Review)
Comments Due Friday, April 20
Revised Draft Due Wednesday, April 25
- 3rd Draft Due Friday, May 4
Please note that it is MOST IMPORTANT that you adhere to this schedule! No Late Papers PLEASE!
March 11, 1990Too Embarrassed Not to Kill
By ROBERT R. HARRIS
THE THINGS THEY CARRIED
By Tim O'Brien.
nly a handful of novels and short stories have managed to clarify, in any lasting way, the meaning of the war in Vietnam for America and for the soldiers who served there. With ''The Things They Carried,'' Tim O'Brien adds his second title to the short list of essential fiction about Vietnam. As he did in his novel ''Going After Cacciato'' (1978), which won a National Book Award, he captures the war's pulsating rhythms and nerve-racking dangers. But he goes much further. By moving beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear, by questioning the role that imagination plays in helping to form our memories and our own versions of truth, he places ''The Things They Carried'' high up on the list of best fiction about any war.
''The Things They Carried'' is a collection of interrelated stories. A few are unremittingly brutal; a couple are flawed two-page sketches. The publisher calls the book ''a work of fiction,'' but in no real sense can it be considered a novel. No matter. The stories cohere. All deal with a single platoon, one of whose members is a character named Tim O'Brien. Some stories are about the wartime experiences of this small group of grunts. Others are about a 43-year-old writer - again, the fictional character Tim O'Brien - remembering his platoon's experiences and writing war stories (and remembering writing stories) about them. This is the kind of writing about writing that makes Tom Wolfe grumble. It should not stop you from savoring a stunning performance. The overall effect of these original tales is devastating.
As might be expected, there is a lot of gore in ''The Things They Carried'' - like the account of the soldier who ties a friend's puppy to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezes the firing device. And much of the powerful language cannot be quoted in a family newspaper. But let Mr. O'Brien explain why he could not spare squeamish sensibilities: ''If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth; if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.''
In the title story, Mr. O'Brien juxtaposes the mundane and the deadly items that soldiers carry into battle. Can openers, pocketknives, wristwatches, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, matches, sewing kits, C rations are ''humped'' by the G.I.'s along with M-16 assault rifles, M-60 machine guns, M-79 grenade launchers. But the story is really about the other things the soldiers ''carry'': ''grief, terror, love, longing . . . shameful memories'' and, what unifies all the stories, ''the common secret of cowardice.'' These young men, Mr. O'Brien tells us, ''carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.''
Embarrassment, the author reveals in ''On the Rainy River,'' is why he, or rather the fictional version of himself, went to Vietnam. He almost went to Canada instead. What stopped him, ironically, was fear. ''All those eyes on me,'' he writes, ''and I couldn't risk the embarrassment. . . . I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. . . . I was a coward. I went to the war.''
So just what is courage? What is cowardice? Mr. O'Brien spends much of the book carefully dissecting every nuance of the two qualities. In several stories, he writes movingly of the death of Kiowa, the best-loved member of the platoon. In ''Speaking of Courage,'' Mr. O'Brien tells us about Norman Bowker, the platoon member who blames his own failure of nerve for Kiowa's death. Bowker ''had been braver than he ever thought possible, but . . . he had not been so brave as he wanted to be.'' In the following story, ''Notes'' (literally notes on the writing of ''Speaking of Courage''), Mr. O'Brien's fictional alter ego informs the reader that Bowker committed suicide after coming home from the war. This author also admits that he made up the part about the failure of nerve that haunted Bowker. But it's all made up, of course. And in ''The Man I Killed,'' Mr. O'Brien imagines the life of an enemy soldier at whom the character Tim O'Brien tossed a grenade, only to confess later that it wasn't ''Tim O'Brien'' who killed the Vietnamese.
Are these simply tricks in the service of making good stories? Hardly. Mr. O'Brien strives to get beyond literal descriptions of what these men went through and what they felt. He makes sense of the unreality of the war - makes sense of why he has distorted that unreality even further in his fiction - by turning back to explore the workings of the imagination, by probing his memory of the terror and fearlessly confronting the way he has dealt with it as both soldier and fiction writer. In doing all this, he not only crystallizes the Vietnam experience for us, he exposes the nature of all war stories.
The character Tim O'Brien's daughter asks him why he continues to be obsessed by the Vietnam War and with writing about it. ''By telling stories,'' he says, ''you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths.'' In ''Good Form,'' he writes: ''I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.'' You come away from this book understanding why there have been so many novels about the Vietnam War, why so many of Mr. O'Brien's fellow soldiers have turned to narrative - real and imagined - to purge their memories, to appease the ghosts.
Is it fair to readers for Mr. O'Brien to have blurred his own identity as storyteller-soldier in these stories? ''A true war story is never moral,'' he writes in ''How to Tell a True War Story.'' ''It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.'' Mr. O'Brien cuts to the heart of writing about war. And by subjecting his memory and imagination to such harsh scrutiny, he seems to have reached a reconciliation, to have made his peace - or to have made up his peace.
Robert R. Harris is an editor of The Book Review.
FLASHES FROM THE FOLIAGE
Almost all the dramatic furnishings of ''The Things They Carried'' - characters, scenery, incidents - are embedded in the Vietnam War. But the book is not about Vietnam and not about war, Tim O'Brien said in a telephone interview from his home in Boxford, Mass. There are almost no Vietnamese in the book, none with names anyway, a reflection of ignorance among the soldiers, the 43-year-old writer said. Mr. O'Brien draws on his year in Vietnam, but the character named Tim O'Brien is ''just a 21-year-old kid at war. I did not know the culture or the language. I was afraid of dealing with stereotypes. I did try once, with the Tim character, to imagine the life of the man I killed, and that was the nearest I could come.''
Nor is there much war in ''The Things They Carried,'' and that too was typical. ''It was like trying to pin the tail on the Asian donkey,'' Mr. O'Brien said, ''but there was no tail and no donkey. In a year I only saw the living enemy once. All I saw were flashes from the foliage and the results, the bodies. In books or films it is desirable to have a climactic battle scene, but the world does not operate in those gross dramatic terms. In Vietnam there was a general aimlessness, not just in the physical sense, but beyond that in the moral and ethical sense.''
So what's the book about? ''It is a writer's book on the effects of time on the imagination. It is definitely an antiwar book; I hated the war from the beginning. [The book] is meant to be about man's yearning for peace. At least I hope it is taken that way.''
-- BARTH HEALEY
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