"The difference between fairy tales and war stories is that fairy tales begin with 'Once upon a time,' while war stories begin with 'Shit, I was there!'" (Lomperis 41). How does one tell a good war story? Is it important to be accurate to the events that took place? Does the reader need to trust the narrator? In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien examines what it takes to tell a good war story. He uses his own experiences in Vietnam in conjunction with his imagination to weave together a series of short stories into a novel.
First, the reader must understand just what makes a good "war story". The protagonist of the novel, Tim O'Brien, gives us his interpretation of it in the chapter "How to Tell a True War Story".
A true war story is never moral. 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 if 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 (O'Brien 68-69).
With this concept, we can assess and place value on the stories presented in The Things They Carried. Yet, it is still not that simple. The reader is continually challenged to question what is real and what is imagined. The evaluation of each narrator is constant. While the protagonist continues to remind the ...
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...y matter if they're true stories (Lomperis 54).
Bonn, Maria S. "Can Stories Save Us? Tim O'Brien and the efficacy of the text (The Vietnam War)." CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 36.1 (Fall 1994); 2-16.
Calloway, Catherine. "How to tell a true war story: Metafiction in 'The Things They Carried'." CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 36.4 (Summer 1995); 249-258.
Kaplan, Steven. "The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried'." CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 35.1 (Fall 1993); 43-53.
Lomperis, Timothy J. "Reading the Wind" The Literature of the Vietnam War . Durham: Duke UP, 1987.
Neilson, Jim. Warring Fictions: American Literary Culture and the Vietnam War Narrative. Jackson: Mississippi UP, 1998
O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried . New York: Broadway, 1990.
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