The Things They Carried

A new discussion question has been posted. Please respond by Friday. It is worth 15 points.

The Things They Carried is fiction novel by Tim O'Brien. It is a story narrarated by an American soldier from the Vietnam war.

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Socratic Seminar Questions

  • What are your overall opinions of the novel so far?
  • Is this a useful novel to be reading as a high school student? What can we be taking from it?
  • Do you imagine contemporary soldiers carry similar items as those in Vietnam?
  • What are the narrator’s major conflicts?
  • How would you describe life in a combat zone?
  • Which characters do you have the most connection with?
  • What do you think of this quote?
a. War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Can truth and war ever co-exist? Why is there such an issue with the telling of war stories? How come the speakers change their stories?
  • Would you have crossed the rainy river?
  • As an author, what are O'Brien's challenges in telling his stories?
  • What have you learned from other students so far in the class – comments, links…
  • Are there mistakes you wish you could take back? Things that you know you can never change? Do we all have a little ‘stress disorder’? How do we deal with it?
  • What are your opinions now on the idea of truth and memory in this novel? What is truth? From a lecture given by O’Brien after telling about his story on The Rainy River…

Now, what I have told you is, is a war story. War stories aren't always about war, per se. They aren't about bombs and bullets and military maneuvers. They aren't about tactics, they aren't about foxholes and canteens. War stories, like any good story, is finally about the human heart. About the choices we make, or fail to make. The forfeitures in our lives. Stories are to console and to inspire and to help us heal. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. And a good war story, in my opinion, is a story that strikes you as important, not for war content, but for its heart content. The second reason I told you this story is that none of it's true. Or very little of it. It's - invented. No Ellroy, no Tip-Top Lodge, no pig factory, I'm trying to think of what else. I've never been to the Rainy River in my life. Uh, not even close to it. I haven't been within two hundred miles of the place. No boats. But, although the story I invented, it's still true, which is what fiction is all about. Uh, if I were to tell you the literal truth of what happened to me in the summer of nineteen sixty-eight, all I could tell you was that I played golf, and I worried about getting drafted. But that's a crappy story. Isn't it? It doesn't - it doesn't open any door to what I was feeling in the summer of nineteen sixty-eight. That's what fiction is for. It's for getting at the truth when the truth isn't sufficient for the truth. The pig factory is there for those dreams of slaughter - they were quite real inside of me. And in my own heart, I was certainly on that rainy river, trying to decide what to do, whether to go to the war or not go to it, say no or say yes. The story is still true, even though on one level it's not; it's made up.

  • So, if it’s the case that 90% of this is fiction, what are the specific ideas O’Brien wants us to come away with? Think about the vignettes individually and what they are there for.
  • If you were to write in this style about your life, what are the ideas you would want us to come away with, and what is an example of a fictitious ‘true’ story you might write to show that idea.
  • Isn’t it a strange dichotomy that the soldiers are there as violent participants, there to destroy, yet believe strongly in keeping things right (the dancing girl, the church)? How can you explain that?
  • What does the circling of the lake represent for Norman Bowker? Does that act help him?
  • Our Marlboro Marine is struggling mightily today – do we have any hope for him? Why is O’Brien faring better than Miller ,and most other returning vets for that matter?
  • Is this a war novel or a novel about something else? What do you think the book is really about? From an article about Tim O'Brien... "Yes, Vietnam figures in all of his books, either directly or obliquely, but O’Brien has often said he’s driven more by the larger mysteries of the human heart and the twinge of life’s fateful 'what ifs.'" Also... "O'Brien is writing for a contemporary audience that shares his knowledge of Vietnam, but he is also writing for all those who will have only the story to go by, not the experience."
  • Can we blame the character Tim for his actions in The Ghost Soldiers? Is he given a pass for the revenge he takes?
  • Is the story of Linda a fitting way to end the novel? How does she relate to everything else we have read?
  • Through all of our discussions, what have we missed that is of importance with the novel?
  • What is the difference, if any, between the stories in TTTC and the stories from this movie clip - City Slickers?


  • What are you final thoughts for the novel as a whole?