Things They Carried Study Questions
The Things They Carried:
1. In what
sense does Jimmy love Martha? Why does he construct this elaborate (mostly
fictional) relationship with her? What does he get out of it?
2. When is
Jimmy most likely to think about Martha? Why is he thinking about her while one
of his platoon members is in the tunnel?
3. Why did
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross feel guilty about Ted Lavender’s death? In what sense is
Ted Lavender’s death his fault?
4. Here is
his excuse for allowing his men to be lax: “He was just a kid at war, in love.”
Why does Jimmy use this excuse? In what sense does it excuse him? In what sense,
5. Why do
the soldiers tell jokes about war, about killing? Why do they use profanity?
6. How is
the idea of weight used and developed in this story (“Jungle boots, 2.1
pounds.”)? How do you, as a reader, feel reading those lists of weight? What
effect does it have on you?
7. If this
is a story about sacrifice, what does Jimmy sacrifice, and why?
8. How has
Jimmy changed by the end of the story? How will he be a different person from
this point on? What has he learned about himself? Or, to put it another way,
what has he lost and what has he gained?
9. Do you
think the war will affect him in a different way now that he refuses to think
about Martha? How will it be different? What did “Martha” save him from?
Love and Spin:
1. What did
Jimmy Cross carry AFTER the war, both physically and emotionally?
2. What do
you think O’Brien was referring to with the title “Love?” What kind of love was
he thinking about and between whom? Jimmy and Martha? Jimmy and the platoon?
Jimmy and Tim? Tim and his work? Love of country?
3. What do
you think that the narrator meant when he could put a “fancy spin on it, you
could make it dance” regarding the war?
4. What was
the average age of the soldiers in the narrator’s platoon?
5. What does
Tim, the narrator, say the role of stories is?
On the Rainy River:
- How do the opening sentences
prepare you for the story: “This is one story I’ve never told before. Not to
anyone”? What effect do they have on you, as the reader?
- Why does O’Brien relate his
experience as a pig declotter? How does this information contribute to the
story? Why go into such specific detail?
- Why did the Vietnam War seem
morally wrong to O’Brien (the narrator)?
- After receiving his draft
notice, the narrator experienced a variety of new emotions. What were they and
what did they cause him to do?
- What is Elroy Berdahl’s role in
this story? Would this be a better or worse story if young Tim O’Brien simply
headed off to Canada by himself, without meeting another person?
- After his time with Elroy, why
did the narrator realize that Canada was not an option for him? Explain.
- At the story’s close, O’Brien
almost jumps ship to Canada, but doesn’t: “I did try. It just wasn’t possible”
(61). What has O’Brien learned about himself, and how does he return home a
- In the last paragraph of Chapter
4, the narrator says, “I was a coward. I went to war.” Why do you think
O’Brien believed it was cowardly to GO to Vietnam rather than stay home?
- Why, ultimately, does he go to
war? Are there other reasons for going he doesn’t list?
Enemies and Friends:
What agreement did Jensen and Strunk make in Chapter 6?
2. Why did Dave Jensen break his own nose?
3. Why was Jensen relieved of "an enormous weight" when he learned that Strunk
How To Tell a True War Story and
- Why does this story begin with
the line: “This is true”? How does that prepare you, as a reader, for the
story? In what sense is “this” true?
- In this story O’Brien relates a
number of episodes. What makes these episodes seem true? Or, to put it another
way, how does O’Brien lull you into the belief that each of these episodes is
- Find a few of O’Brien’s elements
of a “true war story” (such as, “A true war story is never moral.”) Why does
O’Brien believe these elements are important to a “true” war story?
- In what sense is a “true” war
story actually true? That is, in O’Brien’s terms, what is the relationship
between historical truth and fictional truth? Do you agree with his assessment
that fictional truth and historical truth do not need to be the same thing?
- According to O’Brien, why are
stories important? In your opinion, what do we, as people, need from stories –
both reading them and telling them?
- Why is the baby water buffalo
scene (85) more disturbing than the death of one of O’Brien’s platoon members,
Dave Jensen (89, top of page)?
- Why does Rat Kiley torture and
kill the baby water buffalo? Explain the complex emotions he experiences in
- Explain how, according to the
narrator, war can be both ugly and beautiful.
- On page 90, O’Brien explains
that this story was “not a war story. It was a love story.” In what sense is
this a “love story”? Why?
- Finally, O’Brien says that “none
of it happened. None of it. And even if it did happen, it didn’t happen in the
mountains, it happened in this little village on the Bantangan Peninsula, and
it was raining like crazy…” If O’Brien is not trying to communicate historical
fact, what is he trying to communicate? Why change the details? What kind of
truth is he trying to relate, and why is the truth set apart from historical
truth? Is it OK that this “true” war story may or may not be entirely true?
- What additional things does Tim
O’Brien say about war stories at the end of this chapter?
- Why did Curt Lemon what his
Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong:
- Is this a war store, per se?
Does it use those elements we’ve discussed in class? If so, who is the main
character, and why?
- Again, this story plays with
truth. In the first paragraph (101), O’Brien tells us, “I heard it from Rat
Kiley, who swore up and down to it’s truth, although in the end, I’ll admit,
that doesn’t amount to much of a warranty.” How does O’Brien engage you in a
story which, up front, he’s already admitted is probably not “true”? How does
this relate to his ideas for a “true war story” found in an earlier story?
- How does O’Brien use physical
details to show Mary Anne’s change? (Think of her gestures, her clothes, her
actions.) How, specifically, has she changed? And why?
- Why do you think O’Brien keeps
stopping the story so that other characters can comment on it (i.e. page 108)?
How do these other conversations add to Mary Anne’s story?
- Does it matter what happened, in
the end, to Mary Anne? Would this be a better story if we knew, precisely,
what happened to her after she left camp? Or does this vague ending add to the
story? Either way, why?
- Why do you think she changed?
What did the change symbolize?
Stockings and Church:
1. Why did
Henry Dobbins continue to carry his girlfriend’s stockings even after she broke
up with him?
2. What was
Kiowa’s reaction to setting up camp in a pagoda? Why?
The Man I Killed and Ambush and Good Form:
- When Tim O’Brien introduces the
subject of “The Man I Killed,” he does it with the following description. Why
does he start here? Why use these details? “His jaw was in his throat, his
upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a
star-shaped whole, his eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman’s, his nose
was undamaged, there was a slight tear at the lobe of one ear, his clean black
hair was swept upward into a cowlick at the rear of the skull,” etc.
- “The Man I Killed” describes
fairly intimate aspects of the dead man’s life. Where do these details come
from? How can Tim O’Brien know them? What is going on here? “(From) his
earliest boyhood the man I killed had listened to stories about the heroic
Trung sisters and Tran Hung Dao’s famous rout of the Mongols and Le Loi’s
final victory against the Chinese at Tot Dong. He had been taught that to
defend the land was a man’s highest duty and highest privilege. He accepted
- For the remainder of the story
O’Brien portrays himself as profoundly moved by this death: “Later Kiowa said,
“I’m serious. Nothing anybody could do. Come on, Tim, stop staring.” How would
you describe O’Brien’s emotional state in this scene?
- In “Ambush,” Tim O’Brien’s
daughter, Kathleen, asks if he ever killed a man: “You keep writing these war
stories,’ she said, ‘so I guess you must’ve killed somebody.” Following this,
O’Brien relates two possible scenarios of the death described in “The Man I
Killed” to explain, “This is why I keep writing war stories.” In your opinion,
why does O’Brien keep writing war stories?
- Reread “Good Form” (it’s
extremely short). In it, O’Brien tells two more versions of “The Man I Killed”
story. In the first, Tim simply sees a dead soldier, the one with the
star-shaped hole in his cheek, lying at the side of the road. “I did not kill
him.” Following this, O’Brien admits, “even that story is made up.” In the
second version, he explains that he merely saw many faceless, dead men. Where
does truth reside in this book? What is the connection between O’Brien’s
actual experiences and the events in this book? Why is O’Brien using lies to
get at “the truth”?
- In “Ambush,” O’Brien tells part
of “The Man I Killed” story to his daughter, Kathleen. Consider that O’Brien
might not actually have a daughter. Would that change how you felt about the
story? If he doesn’t have a daughter, what is she doing in this novel?
. Why did
Azar make fun of the dancing girl later back at camp? More importantly, maybe,
why do you think Dobbins’ defended her?
2. For what
reason do you think the girl had to dance, if any, around all the death and
destruction of her village?
3. Why do
you think that O’Brien included this story in the book? How did this event
impact the soldiers in the company?
Speaking of Courage and Notes:
- To begin with, why is this story
called “Speaking of Courage”? Assume the title does NOT hold any irony. In
what sense does this story speak of courage?
- Why does Norman Bowker still
feel inadequate with seven medals? And why is Norman’s father such a presence
in his mental life? Would it really change Norman’s life if he had eight
medals, the silver star, etc.?
- What happened to Kiowa? Where
did this happen?
- What is the more difficult
problem for Norman – the lack of the silver star or the death of Kiowa? Which
does he consider more and why?
- Like other male characters in
this novel (for example Tim O’Brien and Lt. Jimmy Cross), Norman Bowker
develops an active fantasy life. Why do these men develop these fantasy roles?
What do they get from telling these fantasy stories to themselves?
- Why is Norman unable to relate
to anyone hat home? More importantly, why doesn’t he even try?
- In “Notes,” Tim O’Brien receives
a letter from Norman Bowker, the main character in “Speaking of Courage.” Why
does O’Brien choose to include excerpts from this seventeen page letter in
this book? What does it accomplish?
- What happened to Norman Bowker?
- What did Bowker what Time to
tell a story about? What was his reaction to the first version of the story?
How and why did Tim change the original story?
- What does the narrator say about
his transition from Vietnam to civilian life? Do you think this is true? Give
evidence to support your answer.
- Who else felt responsible for
- Consider for a moment that the
letter might be made-up, a work of fiction. Why include it then?
- In “Notes,” Tim O’Brien says,
“You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in
the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not
in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain it.” What does
this tell you about O’Brien’s understanding of the way fiction relates to real
In The Field and Field Trip:
- What does Jimmy Cross blame
himself for? Why?
- What was in Kiowa’s rucksack
when they found it?
- Who do you think the “boy” was?
- Why did the boy think he was
responsible for Kiowa’s death?
- What, for Tim, was the symbolism
of the field where Kiowa died?
- When Tim returned to Vietnam 20
years after the war, what did he bring with him and what did he do that
surprised his daughter?
- What was the significance of
this action for Tim?
Ghost Soldiers and Night Life:
- Knowing Rat Kiley’s personality,
why does he hug O’Brien when he gets lifted off by the chopper? Does it show a
little more insight into who Rat Kiley really is? How were you affected by
this show of emotion?
- What was the main “ghost” in
Vietnam? How did O’Brien become the ghost of this story?
- How had the relationship between
O’Brien and the rest of the soldiers from Alpha Company changed after
- Why did O’Brien what revenge
against Bobby Jorgensen? What was Tim’s plan to get revenge against Jorgensen?
How did Tim feel after carrying out that plan? Why?
- How did the relationship between
O’Brien and Jorgensen change after the “trick” O’Brien and Azar played on
Jorgensen? Why do you think Azar went along with O’Brien’s trick only to turn
on him once Jorgensen figured out what was going on?
- How does Tim say he changed
- How did Rat Kiley get out of
active duty in Vietnam?
The Lives of the Dead:
- Reread the first paragraph of
“The Lives of the Dead.” How does O’Brien set us up to believe this story?
What techniques does he use to convince us this story is “true”? In general,
how are details used in this collection of stories in such a way that their
truth is hard to deny?
- Who was Linda and what happened
- Why do you think the narrator
tells us the story about Linda? What does it accomplish?
- According to O’Brien what was
the role of stories in Vietnam and after? Why does he continue to tell stories
about the Vietnam War, about Linda?
- Reread the final two pages of
this book. Consider what the young Tim O’Brien learns about storytelling from
his experience with Linda. How does this knowledge prepare him not only for
the war, but also to become a writer? Within the parameters of this story, how
would you characterize O’Brien’s understanding of the purpose of fiction? How
does fiction relate to life, that is, life in the journalistic or historic
- Would it change how you read
this story, or this novel, if Linda never existed? Why or why not?
- At the end of the book Tim says,
“I realize it is Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.” Explain what
you think he means by that.