Upon finishing the novel The Things They Carried, I was amazed at the clarity of the vignettes. The stories felt extremely moving because of their detail, even though I almost couldn’t believe the story about Mary Anne who, after being in Vietnam for a short time, became “part of the land.” Just as I was about to go research the truthfulness of the book, I accidentally flipped to the cover page. That was when I saw the words “A Work of Fiction By Tim O’Brien.” I started to make sense of the novel, but it never crossed my mind that the entire book is fiction, including O’Brien’s daughter, Kathleen, and the letter from Norman Bowker–two instances that are the hardest for me to believe are actually fictitious..
When this falsehood was discussed in class, people felt “robbed” that the stories presented to them were factually false. But I still felt satisfied–authors I like, such as Jane Austen, make me interested and emotionally connected to worlds that are so distant from mine, whether it be the idyllic countryside of 19th century Britain or the horrors of the Vietnam War. Just as the knowledge that Elizabeth’s romance with Mr. Darcy was fictionalized does not make me feel less “robbed” about understanding the hardships of finding love and making quick judgements, the discovery that O’Brien’s stories are false still leaves me with a clear message of the horrors and difficulties of war for its soldiers. Stories, especially those that contain some falsehoods, are sometimes the best at informing readers of harsh truths.
I now realize that, despite my initial impression, this novel is not simply a war novel. O’Brien devotes an entire chapter about how to distinguish true war stories from made up ones and the characteristics of each. This is perhaps the most confusing chapter to me as he describes true war stories yet presents fictitious ones to readers. He talks about how amidst action, facts can be skewed and what seems true isn’t actually true. He notes that true war stories never have any morals and that true war stories are never just about war. These statements demonstrate the importance of O’Brien’s unorthodox format. Presenting fictitious stories and leaving readers in awe of the veracity of the vignettes allows O’Brien to incorporate deeper meanings into his writing. Because of this, readers are able to extract a variety of themes ranging from friendship to love to guilt to death–themes that might not be as clear from actually true war stories. I do believe that some of the stories are influenced from O’Brien’s time in the military, but I would categorize this book as fiction. As Foster mentions in his novel How to Read Literature Like a Professor, all authors are influenced by their life experiences when they write. And although the stories may feel more real in The Things They Carried, this novel is just another case of what Foster develops in his book.