Irony in Tim O’Brien’s How to Tell a True War Story Essay

Irony in Tim O’Brien’s How to Tell a True War Story Essay

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Irony in Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story”

“This is true.” (O’Brien, 420) – with this simple statement which also represents a first, three-word introductory paragraph to Tim O’Brien’s short story, “How to Tell a True War Story”, the author reveals the main problem of what will follow. “Truth” – when looked up in a dictionary, we would probably find definitions similar to sincerity and honesty on the one hand, and correctness, accuracy or reality on the other hand. When looking at these definitions, one can make out two groups of meaning: While sincerity and honesty are very subjective, correctness or accuracy are supposed to be objective by nature. One can be sincere and still not report the truth, due to the simple fact that one does not know any better. Accuracy, however, is supposed to represent facts, bits and pieces of information that paint a picture of an event, untouched by opinion or attitude.
In his short story, O’Brien unravels step by step the irony in the double meaning of truth, implied in this first statement, “This is true”, to the reader which is then woven through the entire story. By trying to characterize what constitutes a true war story, but never really achieving this goal, the true irony of his short story is revealed. Even though in some instances giving away his opinion explicitly, the sheer contradiction of honesty and reality becomes even more visible in an implicit way by following O’Brien’s explanations throughout the story while he deconstructs his first statement. The incongruity between his first statement and what is actually shown in his examples does not need any explicit statements to drive home his message.
An interesting combination of recalled events and editorial commentary, the story is not set up like a traditional short story. One of the most interesting, and perhaps troubling, aspects of the construction of “How to Tell a True War Story” is O’Brien’s choice to create a fictional, first-person narrator who might just as well be the author himself. Because “How to Tell a True War Story” is told from a first-person perspective and O’Brien is an actual Vietnam veteran, a certain authenticity to this story is added. He, as the “expert” of war leads the reader through the story. Since O’Brien has experienced the actual war from a soldier’s point of view, he should be able to present the truth about war...


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...r because it seems impossible to reconstruct an event from this objective point of view. Maybe the point of telling stories is not trying to recreate the reality of a past event, but it is the message that matters because that might be in the end the only thing that does not necessarily depend on single details of the story, but on the overall picture of an event. That is why to O’Brien another important component of a war story is the fact that a war story will never pin down the definite truth and that is why a true war story “never seems to end” (O’Brien, 425). O’Brien moves the reader from the short and simple statement “This is the truth” to the conclusion that, “In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nohting much is ever very true” (O’Brien, 428). These two statements frame the entire irony of the story, from its beginning to its end. Almost like the popular saying “A wise man admits that he knows nothing.”

Works Cited

O’Brien, Tim. “How To Tell a True War Story.” The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford St. Martins, 2003. p. 420-429.

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