The Things They Carried: The Character’s Tones, The Narrative Point Of View And Genre

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In The Things They Carried, Tim O’brien emphasizes that diverging into reality is far more difficult than adapting to war. As the story continues, a variety of themes are taking a large role into defining what it means to tell a true war story. The theme constantly shifts due to the portrayals of numerous characters being depicted. In the duration of the novel’s storytelling, O’brien answers what it means to tell a true war story using the character’s tones, the narrative point of view and genre.

In regards to the war, the tone shifts from emotional to clinical and manipulative to epic as O’brien begins telling his story. This story is an introspective memory story and a self-conscious examination of the methods and reasons behind storytelling. The narrator is unreliable and speaks of the necessity of blurring truth and fiction in a true war story. Due to his constant alteration in tone as he speaks, he has complete confidence that his story is truthful both in and out. O’brien mentions, “The town could not talk, and would not listen. 'How'd you like to hear about the war?' he might have asked, but the place could only blink and shrug.” (Speaking of Courage. 32) Even when he shifts reality from under our feet, or uses oblique phrases like a town 'blinking and shrugging' coupled with casual language like 'How'd you like to hear about the war?', we never doubt that he knows what he is doing, and that his manipulations and language choices serve a purpose. O’brien also uses strong, straightforward tone on the other hand to emphasize a more direct side of the story. O’brien says, “There was something restful about it, something orderly and reassuring. There were red checkers and black checkers. The

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playing field was laid out in a strict grid, no tunnels or mountains or jungles. You knew where you stood. You knew the score. The pieces were out on the board, the enemy was visible, you could watch the tactics unfolding into larder strategies. There was a winner and loser. There were rules.' (Spin, 32) Nonetheless, O’brien most likely uses this direct tone to help the readers better understand the character’s traits and feelings in a “true” war story.

Most of the stories are told from the first person, but on several occasions, O’Brien uses the third person as either a distancing tactic or a chance to let one of his platoon-mates, such as Mitchell Sanders or Rat Kiley, tell his story. Although these stories are being told in third perspective, the narration quickly shifts to first person in the section “Love” as O’brien is talking to one of the characters in the story. Eventually, we realize this character was O’brien himself, but unnamed due to the fact that he accepts more responsibility in third person rather than the first. In relation to this, a narration from a third perspective view is being told in “The Man I Killed”, as there were a wide series of unconnected observations and different fantasies of the young, dead soldier that was killed. O’brien says, “He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole.” (Good Form, 115) In that being said, O’brien explains what it means tell a true war story by putting himself in this point of view and detaching himself from the facts and fantasizing about the daintiness within this soldier with the mystical and beautiful outcome of it.

Moreover, O’brien uses the genre of war to explain what it means to tell a true war story. Because O’brien finds the truth of the Vietnam War too complex to explain through a story, he uses other postmodern techniques such as nonlinear narrative and a blatantly ambiguous relationship with the truth. Most importantly, O'Brien has a main character who is named after and shares some biographical details with himself, but who is also totally not the same as O'Brien. He also uses magical realism to try to express the “weirdo” nature of life in Vietnam during the war. One example is when O'Brien tells the über-short true war story about the guy who unnecessarily jumped on a mine for his friends in 'How to Tell a True War Story,' and all the soldiers have a brief and hilarious conversation in the time between the mine going off and them actually becoming dead. It wouldn't be possible for that conversation to actually occur, but without it, O'Brien's story would lose its sense of both camaraderie and obscenity, and therefore be untrue. Another example is when O'Brien and Azar play the horrible prank on Bobby Jorgenson in 'The Ghost Soldiers' and O'Brien's spirit lifts out of his body to become one with the war: “I was

the land itself… I was the beast on their lips—I was Nam—the horror, the war.” (The Ghost Soldiers, 138) Obviously, it would be impossible for O'Brien's spirit to jump out of his body and fuse with the land and the war. Magical realism is used here to make O'Brien's descent into savagery more tangible, which makes the physical world resemble the emotional one.

To conclude, O’brien uses the three themes of tone, narrative point of view and genre to define what it means to tell a true story. As he runs from the main facts of storytelling, O’brien uses these themes with complete truth but also a twist to emphasize the direct meaning. O'Brien tells us that a true war story is not a moral story, that you can tell a war story is true if it contains obscenity and evil. Therefore, he combines what he imagines and fantasizes versus the actual reality itself, giving us the “perfect” true war story.

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The Things They Carried: The Character’s Tones, The Narrative Point Of View And Genre. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from
“The Things They Carried: The Character’s Tones, The Narrative Point Of View And Genre.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
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