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Truth & Myth in O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”


Literature as art aims at retrieving readers’ emotions by conveying accurately created characters, plots, and symbols. In such a way, those who read a literary work obtain an opportunity not only to receive information but also to relive it through the author’s experience. In its essence, therefore, literature cannot be a mere retelling of reality because it would fail to serve the esthetic role. In his book entitled “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien has created a unique type of fiction, where truth and myth about the Vietnam War and America’s participation in it are meticulously intertwined. The very ambiguity of the historical events related to the conflict in Vietnam imposes the blurred distinction between reality and fiction.

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Here, it is argued that in “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien uses the concepts of myth and truth to modify the readers’ perception of actual reality to enhance the empathic influence of the stories. He achieves a literary effect by mixing and poetizing the scattered images, stories, and characters as experienced while in the army into a work of fiction. The essay will provide an overview of O’Brien’s war biography as a core of his writing inspiration, the history of the creation of “The Things They Carried,” and the analysis of truth in the book.

Tim O’Brien’s Participation in the Vietnam War

The question under investigation concerning whether “The Things They Carried” is truth or myth should start with the understanding of the facts around the creation of the book. According to the narration style chosen by the author, the events presented in the stories are rendered as first-hand experience, implying that the creator of the plots was a witness of the war. This assumption is validated by the biographical facts from the life of Tim O’Brien.

Tim O’Brien was a direct participant of the Vietnam War as he joined the American army service. The experience of participating in securing Vietnamese villages, shooting, killing, as well as the observation of destructed morality and loss of the feeling of what is right and what is wrong made its influence. By the end of his service in the army, Tim O’Brien had gained several rewards and a military promotion to sergeant (Vernon 4). He also worked as a journalist and wrote articles for the military newsletter. The reality of the experience the writer obtained throughout his service in Vietnam created a myriad of characters, stories, and emotions, which found their creative implementation in his writing. In this regard, the O’Brien is a mere representative of his epoch because all of his contemporaries were impacted by Vietnam.

The Things They Carried” as a Literary Work

The impact of the Vietnam War on the national identity of the American people was omnipresent and very significant. The very involvement of the USA in the Vietnamese conflict was marked by moral ambiguity and the lack of clear justification (Chen 77). Such an elusive role of the truth in regards to everything that concerned the war imposed the active portrayal of Vietnam in the American literature, in particular, and cultural domain, in general. As a direct participant of those historical events, Tim O’Brien could not stay aside from the discussion and had to tell his true story about Vietnam.

The book “The Things They Carried” was published in 1990. It consists of twenty-two separate short stories connected by the theme of the Vietnam War. In these stories, the author describes the lives of soldiers at the front, as in “The Things They Carried” or presents his experience in the first-person perspective, as in “Ambush.” In some stories, the writer directly addresses the readers and tries to explain the distinction between truth and lie in a work of fiction, as he does in the story entitled “How to Tell a True War Story” (O’Brien 64). Overall, the collection represents the combination of multiple lives and events intertwined by the war, which are a combination of true experience and specifically created literary elements.

Relative Meaning of Truth in “The Things They Carried”

The author tries to bring together a scattered system of stories, events, terror, and fear that were everywhere in Vietnam during the war. The majority of the details presented in the short stories of the book are fictional, created by the writer to draw a realistic background. Also, the intensity, lyricism, and a novel-like development of the plot, which are not necessarily true, bring life to the narrations, making them prominent examples of literature. Everything in the book, including thoughts, fears, expectations, and sceneries, is real, although fictionally rearranged so that the literary form of a short story reaches the reader and conveys a targeted message. As Chen states, “O’Brien renders the indescribable experiences of “Vietnam” as moments one may gesture to but never fully represent” (77). Therefore, the author’s aim is to make the audience feel the same emotions the writer felt by interpreting his own truth gained through his immediate experience.

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Indeed, the fact of the author’s presence at the scenes depicted in his book contributes to the truthfulness of his writing; however, at the same time, it adds an extent of subjectivity. Truth changes depending on the passing time and on people. When it comes to the issue of war, the notion of truth becomes blurred (Chen 78). In the severe conditions where politics, morality, perception of life and death are too complicated to comprehend, it is very difficult to judge what is true and what is false. The narration in the book starts with the stories describing the lives and worries of the soldiers in Vietnam.

Such history-related plot delivery is suddenly interrupted by the story entitled “How to Tell a True War Story,” directly addressing to the reader and telling that the exact events presented earlier are a myth (Volkmer 246). Here, O’Brien does not create any character or plot but rather explains the writing mechanics of creating literature. The author states that “often in a true war story there is not even a point,” implying that the dullness of factual history does not necessarily convey any meaning (O’Brien 78). Fiction, on the other hand, allows for retrieving the essence from the facts and events and placing them in the emotional setting. Such an approach helps to transform the truth, at the same time, not making the story a lie. However, the reader becomes confused and more actively involved in the process of finding out.

This confusion might occur even at the very beginning of the collection of short stories. One who opens the book and reads its first pages finds out that all events and characters are imaginary. However, the names of real people, to whom the book is dedicated, coincide with the characters’ names (Volkmer 246). The author intentionally mixes truth and fiction to create a “state of never coming to a conclusion,” which provides “a “truer” sense of the experience of Vietnam than a consistent narrative could do” (Volkmer 245). Although the details might be a myth, the emotions that Tim O’Brien delivers are very true and are formed by the realities of war.

One such reality deals with the things necessary for a soldier to survive in warfare and their moral sense. The deadly weapons the soldiers brought everywhere across Vietnam made them think about the “terrible power of the things they carried” (O’Brien 7). However, the unbearable burden is caused not only by the material things but by the heavy load of emotions of fear, hope, love, despair, morality, and loss. In this regard, “what stories can do … is make things present” (Chen 78). They help unload the weight of vivid memories, feelings of guilt, and responsibility for what has been done. The author adds myth to his narration of the truth to render such a meaning through his stories.

Indeed, when there is no correct answer that could explain the driving forces and the moral justification of such a horrible thing as war, the notion of truth becomes very relative. It depends on the time when the story is told, a person who tells it, and the recipient who experiences in with the author. Therefore, the collection of stories about the Vietnam War, as presented by Tim O’Brien, is the subjective truth that draws the realistic image of war, allowing the readers to perceive its inside reality.


In summary, the book “The Things They Carried,” written by Tim O’Brien, is a reminiscence of his time in the American troops participating in the Vietnam War is a work of art. However, the masterfully created characters, plot, and setting are an accurate collective representation of the reality of that time and place. The author justifies his position of using the notions of truth and myth by stating that truth is elusive and changeable. Nonetheless, the hardships that the American people went through physically, emotionally, and culturally are relevant to US history and play a significant role in the people’s perception of the past and the future.

Works Cited

Chen, Tina. “Unraveling the Deeper Meaning: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 39, no. 1, 1998, pp. 77-83.

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O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

Vernon, Alex. “Field Notes on The Things They Carried.” War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, vol. 28, 2016, pp. 1-20.

Volkmer, Jon. “Telling the ‘Truth’ about Vietnam: Episteme and Narrative Structure in The Green Berets and The Things They Carried.” WLA: War, Literature & the Arts, vol. 11, no. 1, 1999, pp. 240-55.

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