The things they carried


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An analysis of the narrative structure of The Things They Carried
NOTE: Lecture notes are in the notes section of each slide as well citation of articles used.

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  • Works Cited:Calloway, Catherine. “How to Tell a True War Story: Metafiction in the Things They Carried.” Web. 13 March 2013.Friedlander, Michele. “Metafiction and O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.” Web.14MAR2013.Harris, Robert. “Too Embarrassed Not to Kill.” New York Times. Web. 13 March 2013.LaDien, John. The things They Carried by Tim O’Brien: Plot Summary and Overview. Web. 13 March 2013.Weber, Bruce. “Novelist Tim O’Brien Pursues ‘Emotional Truth’. New York Times. Web. 13 March 2013.
  • Narrative structure is about ORDER OF EVENTS (sequence), it is about POINT OF VIEW (the perspective from which the events of the story are revealed), it is about CONFLICT DEVELOPMENT and RESOLUTION (rising action resulting from conflict, which is resolved to some degree and becomes falling action).In the traditional narrative (novel), we see:Freytag's triangle (you don't need to know this term), or what I call a plot diagram, plots the orientation or exposition, the rising action and minor crises, the climax and the resolution. The events along this pathway make up the STRUCTURE of the narrative.BUT, this sequence is not necessarily chronological. Narrative structure controls what the writer wants the reader to know.Source:
  • As you can see from my drawing (not a perfect representation, as some relationships couldn’t be adequately visually shown), O’Brien’s narrative structure is built upon 22 short stories. Each story has some inter-connected relationship with one or more stories. Some critics have called it a collection of short stories, and indeed, they were published originally as short stories. But the symphonic whole that is created is much more than simply a collection. At the center of this novel are four pieces: “The Things They Carried”, “How to Tell a True War Story”, “On a Rainy River”, and “Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong.” These four stories anchor the others, and it is to these that all the stories return in some way. We’ll get into the relationships between each short story later.
  • On one level, this novel is undeniably an anti-war novel; it emphasizes the COST of war and its devastation. O’Brien’s stories recount the loneliness, the existential angst of killing and what this act takes from a man, namely his humanity and sense of moral certainty, as well as the communal security of belonging to an organic, functional community. He does this by universalizing the stories; the balance of his incredible detail makes the stories not particular, nor bound to a particular moment or place, but seem timeless and relatable; this is how I, as a person who has never served in combat, can FEEL as if I know what it is to be a soldier in the middle of Vietnam. His constant revisions of what happened from one story to the next (Such as Ted Lavender, who dies in the first chapter but whom we return to again and again in the novel) force us to ignore the particulars of setting, and events. Whether or not there was a water buffalo in the story in “How to tell a true War story” is irrelevant; O’Brien adds these particular details in order to allow us to feel a particular emotional experience that WAS the truth of that moment. There are experiences in our lives that are at once particular and universal. The death of your parent, for example is a very personal experience. No one can tell you how that feels, and to some extent, it’s impossible to convey; yet there is a sense that this is also universal, and so it doesn’t matter whether or not a story about someone’s mother dying takes place in a nursing home or on a mountain; the emotional impact and sensation is the truth. Adding details that did not exist in the “real” event allows others to experience more fully how it is you FELT.
  • Both the real and fictional Tim O’Brien are in their forties and natives of Minnesota, writers who graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and from Macelester College, served as grunts in Vietnam after having been drafted at age 21, attended graduate school at Harvard University, and wrote books entitled If I Die in a Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato. However, unlike the real Tim O’Brien, the fictional O’Brien has a nine year old daughter named Kathleen and makes a return journey to Vietnam years after the war is over.The epigraph also is “lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha company and in particular Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa. Furthermore, the second epigraph from the nonfictional diary of a Union civil war solider (who wrote his experiences of his imprisonment in his diary) leaves the reader with the ambiguous impression that the quotation is referring to O’Brien’s book, when in fact, Ransom is referring to his own diary. This juxtaposition of a real person speaking of his own diary writing as “truthfulness” and who furthermore to other readers who have not experienced war suggests that such readers will see it as a “statement of actual things by one who experienced them to the fullest” suggests that readers must view both epigraphs as metafictional artifacts of relative truth.
  • This chapter further blurs the reader’s ability to distinguish between Tim Obrien the writer and real person and the Tim O’Brien the protagonist of the story. Both are writers and it is impossible to completely divorce the two.The second quotation where Jimmy Cross is cut off leaves the reader wondering what it was that he was not supposed to mention, but we presume that it has something to do with Ted Lavender’s death and that he will break this promise, if indeed he ever did make such a promise. Ted Lavender’s story will be leaked out throughout the novel, and this seems to suggest that one cannot completely silence the guilt that defines a soldier’s life but also that the actual “happening story” events may be withheld from the reader, but certainly, the “story truth” or the emotional truth is not—which is the nature of Jimmy’s sacrificial assumption of the team’s burden of guilt and thus in the truest sense, he does “tell” the truth, thus both breaking and honoring this promise at the same time.
  • This chapter further showcases O’Brien’s craft as a writer. This chapter further characterizes the fictional narrator, Tim O’Brien, who, unlike the real O’Brien, apparently has a daughter Kathleen. This daughter will re-appear in “Good Form” and in “Field Trip”, which is another example of when O’Brien presents his narrative in fragmented segments that interlock like a puzzle . This narrative structural device will cause the reader to question the TRUTH of the narrative, which is an integral part of O’Brien’s message (THEME), as he questions what he will distinguish between “happening truth” and “story truth.”
  • The checkers amplifies by contrast the ambiguity of the war and the soldiers’ need for clarity and rules. O’Brien’s fractured narrative style, where he teases the reader with some information, only to get information leaked out later accomplishes several things: it creates tension and interest in the reader, but it also amplifies O’Brien’s theme about the fracturing effects of the war, and how the truth is a casualty of war itself; this fragmented structure mimics the way memory functions, as we dance around painful memories and cannot usually just “spill out” the story, but like Norman Bowker will do in “Speaking of Courage” where he literally circles a lake, thus enacting his own inability to face the truth—this fragmented structure allows readers to feel the difficulty that the persona Tim O’Brien has in telling his story, even as it is in some ways cathartic and healing.
  • This chapter progresses the motif of guilt, (and therefore Jimmy Cross’ story) because this is story is a source of guilt for the persona Tim O’Brien. This is also where Tim serves as an actual character in the story. This chapter depicts the quintessential moral crisis. The old man in the story stands guard like a sentry, a soldier, metaphorically on the line of inner battle, which is no less violent than the one that will physically take place in Vietnam. This chapter reminds readers of the multiple dimensions on which soldiers battle and the fragmented vision of self and their worlds that result. Tim survives this battle and chooses to go to war, but it is out of fear and pride, and thus he cannot take pride from it.It is the most traditional story in the collection, with a clear beginning, middle, climax and end.
  • Unlike previous chapters, such as “The Things They carried”, which emphasize the sheer physicality of war, this chapter highlights the interior battle ground that is in the human person, which is no less violent. This chapter emphasizes the intellectual struggle and moral battle that Tim endures, and thus, this chapter helps to develop the emotional effect of the TOTALITY of war, and will further emphasize the reasons why the war is never over for the soldier. The emotional scars from a soldier’s choices both before war as well as during war continue to haunt him, which is emphasized by the first words of the story, “I have never told anyone this story” (which is technically not true in “happening story” but conveys the emotional truth of guilt and being haunted by one’s decisions).
  • This novel is written in this way: characters such as Curt Lemon are killed and then later introduced, or the narrator undercuts what he has previously lead the reader to believe, as in the cases of Norman Bowker’s suicide. A true war story is distinguishable as O’Brien states, “by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever” (76).There is no complete closure, except perhaps in the case where the character was killed. Even then, however, that particular loss had an impact upon the lives of the people who have survived. Even the end of the novel itself is indefinite and without resolution. “In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning” (77)
  • Ultimately, this novel is not about Vietnam—in fact, it is not about war at all. It is about the narrator’s attempt to find a place where the erosion of time will have no effect…by working through the “threads” of this novel, O’Brien’s intentions become obvious. Verbal irony of “uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” : This is a lie, because O’Brien is hoping we see beyond the irony . War is an allegiance to the brokenness of the human condition, but in telling us this story, our emotional empathy with the soldiers allows us to rise above it and hopefully we will learn. Our understanding of the situation and what is lost helps to restore what war takes from the soldier—his moral integrity and sensitivity to the truth. “Stories can save us…” (225)“That’s what a story does. The bodies are animated. You make the dead talk” (232)“I’ll never die…” (246)
  • The things they carried

    1. 1. Fitting the Pieces Together: The Narrative Design of The Things They Carried By Tim O’Brien
    2. 2. Defining Narrative StructureA story or a narrative is anaccount of events. But it is notjust any sort of account of anyevents. It is a selection andordering of events into ameaningful pattern. Moresimply put, narrative structureis about the ways in which astory has been structured orput together.
    3. 3. • It expresses the devastation of war while simultaneously keeping the dignity of the soldier intact• It develops one of the central themes regarding the nature of reality and what is TRUTH, what he will term “emotional truth”• This will feed into O’Brien’s metafictional musings on the nature of fiction and its ability to reveal truth more truly than reality
    4. 4. - Catalogues (listings)- Episodic , short story units- Multiple versions of the same event which has a circular effect- Repetition– on the sentence, paragraph, concept and chapter level- Characters through different points of view- Metafictional elements (protagonist’s name, the epigraphs, the self-conscious reflections about the fictional writing process)- Juxtaposition between highly figurative, often lofty syntax - Coarse, rough, sexual, common conversational diction of the soldier (like Rat Kiley and Azar) - Sureal, lofty imagery of nature - Brutal, journalistic descriptions of events
    5. 5. 1) Author’s name versus protagonist2) Usage of the epigraphs3) Multiple versions of events4) Protagonist’s admission that a story he just told was not true or the story is presented in fragments in a later chapter or chapters5) Changes in point in view (Rat Kiley’s story in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”)
    6. 6. “Metafiction is a term given to fictional writingwhich self-consciously and systematically drawsattention to its status as an artifact in order to posequestions about the relationship between fictionand reality.” –Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: TheTheory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction.
    7. 7. “ ‘You writer types’ he said, ‘you’ve got longmemories’ “ (28)“ ‘And do me a favor. Don’t mentionanything about—’ “‘No,’ I said, ‘I won’t.’ “ (30)
    8. 8. Symbolism of checkers: “There were red checkers and black checkers. . . You knew where you stood. You knew the score. . .There was a winner and a loser. There were rules” (32).O’Brien will introduce Curt Lemon’s deathon page 32 with horrific ambiguity andunderstatement: “Curt Lemon hanging inpieces from a tree” but then readers onlyget the full story in “How to Tell a True WarStory” and then it isn’t given to us as a fullnarrative, but rather in pieces
    9. 9. “I sit at this typewriter and stare through my words and watchKiowa sinking into the deep muck of a shit field . . . And as I write about thesethings, the remembering is turned into a kind of rehappening. . .The bad stuffnever stops happening: it lives in its own dimension, replaying itself over andover” ( 32).“The thing about remembering is that you don’t forget. You take your materialwhere you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present.The memory traffic feeds into a rotary up on your head, where it goes in circlesfor a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges andshoots off down a thousand different streets. As a writer, all you can do is pick astreet and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you.” ( 35).“Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours inthe night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to whereyou are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothingto remember except the story” ( 38)
    10. 10. “ America was divided on these and a thousand other issues” (40).“. . .Oddly, thought, it was almost entirely an intellectual activity”Stupidly, and with a kind of smug removal, that I can’t begin to fathom, I assumedthat the problems of killing and dying did not fall with in my special province” (41).“ I was above it” ( 41)“ I remember the rage in my stomach” ( 42)
    11. 11. Pages 57-59• Highlights O’Brien’s technique and usage of repetition to unify his narrative, as he returns to the format from “The Things They Carried”.• The highly poetic syntax and figurative diction are a departure from the bluntness and crassness of where he is in the trenches and the soldiers’ language reflects a raw brutality and visceral need to be brave.• The listing creates a different sense of his collective emotional memory. There are images that occur in the future to express the timelessness of this moment and amplify the element that he is at a crossroads of his fate, viewing, so to speak his entire fate of past, present, future.
    12. 12. Short, episodic chapters –reflect O’Brien’s craft as a writer in liking chapterstogether.• “Enemies” follows Tim’s moral crisis before the war; this chapter highlights the psychological impact of war when you are in the midst of the war. The moral ambiguity is intensified --from Tim’s sense of confusion regarding the lack of clear answers finds its way in Vietnam: “ The distinction between good guys and bad guys disappeared for him” ( 63).• “Friends” captures the soldier’s attempts to control their fate—to go out on their own terms and their desire to be whole in more than one aspect.• Ultimately, the desire to survive is too strong and overcomes it
    13. 13. • Symmetry of Rat Kiley as the narrator of the letter story: “ Rat had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts and for most of us it was a normal procedure to discount sixty or seventy percent of anything he had to say” (89).• This chapter is justifying the intent of The Things They Carried. The narrator is also providing clues to the content, structure, and interpretation of the novel“In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate whathappened from what seemed to happen…the angels of vision are skewed”(71).
    14. 14. “In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning” (77) “. . . You can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (69).“there is always that surreal seemingness, whichmakes the story seem untrue, but which in factrepresent the hard and exact truth as it seemed”( 71).
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