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Things They Carried Essay Topics

English 098

Writing About A Text
The Things They Carried

by Tim O'Brien

The stories we have read by Tim O'Brien deal with the Vietnam War, but they also contain many compelling issues about the human condition unchanged by the 30 years since that conflict. For your last essay of the semester, write an essay in which you draw from these stories some issue, conflict, theme, or motif that interests you. As stated in the portfolio requirements, "This should not only discuss an author's ideas but should also present the student's opinion and interpretation as distinct from the author's." Don't simply tell the story; construct an argument for a particular point of view about it. Below are several topic choices for your to consider; if you have another topic in mind, please discuss it with me before proceeding. Your essay should refer to and quote from at least three of the stories.

Refer to Keys for Writers for additional guidance on writing about literature (pages 67-72). Refer to the Text-Based 098 essays in New Voices for successful examples.


1. In "The Things They Carried," O'Brien writes that "Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to" (21). Find three characters from the assigned stories and explain how their actions, attitudes, and beliefs reflect O'Brien's point of view in regards to such issues as masculinity, cowardice and courage. What are your conclusions regarding the issues O’Brien raises? Use plenty of examples from the stories to support your point.

2. Why is it so hard to "tell a true war story"? Write an essay in which you examine O’Brien’s use of imagination and invention, and the difficulties posed by wartime conditions on truth-telling.

3. Throughout the stories, O’Brien juxtaposes images of great beauty with images of great horror, the scene of Curt Lemon’s death in "How to Tell A True War Story" being one notable example. Write an essay in which you trace the use of such contrasting images across at least three of the stories. What do these contrasting images say about O’Brien’s experiences in Vietnam?

4.  The men deal with the uncertainty, fear, and death around them in sometimes surprisingly tender, irreverently funny, or horrifyingly brutal ways. Choose three characters from the stories to examine how these characters respond to their circumstances and the men around them. What conclusions can you draw about men and war through these examples?

5.  People are usually profoundly changed by their experiences in war. Choose at least 3 characters from the stories and examine how these characters were changed by their experiences. What conclusions can you draw from these examples about the effects of war on the human spirit?

6.  What is the role of women and girls in the book?  Examine the various female characters in the novel and explain what each may represent.

7.  The "Speaking of Courage" sequence, as well as the stories related to "the Man I Killed," deal a lot with the issue of responsibility and guilt. Discuss how at least three characters deal with their feelings of guilt over the deaths of those around them.


  1. a clear thesis statement and introduction which sets out for your reader the point you wish to make about the stories. Please do not repeat verbatim the essay prompt.
  2. A very brief synopsis of the stories you are discussing. This means writing a sentence or two about each story (no more than one paragraph in total).
  3. an analysis supported by examples from the text, properly quoted (or paraphrased) and cited.
  4. You are not required to use sources other than O’Brien’s book to support your views; if you do use any outside sources, make sure you properly quote or paraphrase and cite. The use of outside sources for this essay is strongly discouraged!
  5. Length: 3-4 pages
  6. All drafts must be typed (10 or 12 font), double-spaced, 1" margins. .
  7. Must have a title other than the book title.
  8. Use MLA format for citing.  You are not required to use a separate sheet of paper for Works Cited.
  9. Remember to save all drafts!!

Due Dates:

  • First Draft Workshop Wednesday, April 18 (Bring 4 copies for workshopping, plus"Before the Workshop" portion of Writer’s Process Review)
  • Comments Due Friday, April 20

  • Revised Draft Due Wednesday, April 25

  • 3rd Draft Due Friday, May 4

Please note that it is MOST IMPORTANT that you adhere to this schedule!  No Late Papers PLEASE!

  • 1

    Is the book told in first person or third person? How does this affect the seeming reliability of the narrative?

    The Things They Carried is narrated, alternately, in third person and first person. The first person "I" narratives feel trustworthy and personal, but O'Brien warns the reader against this very pitfall. He writes that war stories should always be mistrusted, no matter who is telling them.

  • 2

    What is the role of shame in the soldiers' lives? Does shame propel them to heroism or stupidity?

    Shame is the reason that Tim O'Brien decided to go to Vietnam. Many of the characters feel shame as a primary motivator, too. Not only does it lead them to war, but it keeps them there. It is the one thing that keeps them from shooting themselves in the foot so that they would be discharged from the army or some similar such act. But some characters, like Curt Lemon, think that shame impels them to heroism, not stupidity.

  • 3

    In "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong how does gender seem to affect reactions to war?

    Mary Anne is one of the few females featured in the book, and her experience seems to suggest that war is a great equalizer between the genders. When she arrives she is innocent, sexy, and very feminine. After the war "gets to her" she becomes a killer like the others.

  • 4

    The central topic of The Things They Carried is the Vietnam War, but the book is also about writing and storytelling. How would you describe O'Brien's conception of the role of fiction?

    O'Brien writes that fiction serves a higher purpose than merely recounting what happened. He writes that a good war story makes you wonder "is it true?" It makes you care about the answer to that question. After having provoked that authentic feeling, it does not actually matter if the story is true or not. Fiction is as good as experience.

  • 5

    A reoccuring theme throughout the book is expressed by the title. What do the characters carry aside from physical objects?

    The characters carry emotions like sadness and fear. Jimmy Cross carries responsibility for the lives of his men. O'Brien sets up a dichotomy between weight and lightness, with war always described in terms of weight, love in terms of lightness. His characters are condemned to carry the war for the rest of their lives.

  • 6

    What role does Kathleen play in this book? Does she make her father feel guilty?

    Kathleen, O'Brien's daughter, is a stand-in for the reader. She listens to her father's stories just as the reader does. But because she is a character she can ask him questions, including whether or not he has ever killed anyone. O'Brien's makes a guilt-tinged decision whether or not to lie, or make up stories for his daughter.

  • 7

    Soldiers' tales are often an opportunity for the teller to swagger, to play the hero, to seem macho. How does O'Brien portray this macho culture?

    Because O'Brien is so ambivalent toward the whole project of war, it is not surprising that this book disapproves of macho storytelling. Curt Lemon is the most macho character, a man who asks a dentist to pull out a perfectly good tooth to demonstrate that he is not a sissy. Lemon dies the most horrible death imaginable, but he is still the least likeable character in the book.

  • 8

    Read the dedication page of the book. How is it part of the narrative?

    O'Brien dedicated his book to his characters, the men he served with in Vietnam. This exemplifies the uneasy position of the book with regard to fiction and non-fiction. The author insists it is a fictional account. But elements like the dedication continue to point to the reality of what happened in Vietnam.

  • 9

    O'Brien writes that a story is "like a kind of dreaming." How so?

    O'Brien tells war stories partly so that he can relive them again and again. He argues that each time time one tells or reads a story one breathes life into the characters. When the story is over, they are dead again, he writes. For O'Brien, fiction also resembles dreamingbecause both are involuntary: he cannot help that his experiences haunt him.

  • 10

    What is the role of death in this book? Is it a release from a nightmarish life, or something to be feared?

    O'Brien, the narrator, is a profoundly non-religious man. For him, death is the end of the story. The sense of senselessness pervading this book is rooted in two things: the Vietnam War seems to have no real cause or justification, and the young men killed there reach the end of their lives and effectively disappear. O'Brien's non-belief in the afterlife lends a special tinge of horror to the already horrifying events.

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