The Things They Carried Topic Essays

1. “The Man I Killed” is the only story that focuses primarily on a Vietnamese character. Why does this shift in focus occur in this particular story? Why are Vietnamese characters largely absent from the rest of the text?

2. Although the work is supposedly about the Vietnam war, the final story focuses not on the war but on an episode from O’Brien’s childhood. Discuss how this story relates to the stories of the war. What is O’Brien’s purpose in ending his collection of stories this way?

3. What do the terms “story-truth” and “happening-truth” mean in the context of the book? How do they differ?

4. Although The Things They Carried contains a story called “The Man I Killed,” it is unclear whether O’Brien actually killed anyone in Vietnam. What purpose does this ambiguity serve?

5. How does shame fit into O’Brien’s portrayal of the war experience?

6. Discuss the structure of the work. Do the stories progress in a linear manner? How does the work’s fragmented style contribute to the themes that run through the stories?

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Essay Topics: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - Book Report Ideas



1) c

2) a

3) b

4) d

5) c

6) a

7) c

8) b

9) c

10) d

11) a

12) b

13) c

14) c

15) a


1) According to O’Brien, what is the difference between story-truth and the real truth? What examples from the novel help explain this distinction?

2) How does the author’s notion of courage change over the course of the novel? What does he think courage is before the war, and how does he view it now?

3) O’Brien maintains that his writing is not a form of therapy. What purpose does it serve in his life? How did he make the transition from military to civilian life so easily when Norman Bowker found it so difficult?

4) How is O’Brien’s portrayal of Lieutenant Cross a commentary on the Commanding Officers in Vietnam?

5) In WWII the average age of an American GI was 26; in Vietnam it was 19. What characters or examples in the novel are a reflection of this younger army?

6) Explain the paradox of the following quote: “I survived, but it’s not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.”

7) Explain why Azar refers to the conflict in Vietnam as ‘fantasyland’? (page 204) Why do the soldiers sometimes feels as if they’re all actors? Why do they have difficulty distinguishing what is real?

8) Explain the symbolism of Mary Anne Bell. How is she transformed after arriving in Vietnam?

9) Explain the significance of the books title. What are the soldiers carrying and how does it affect them?

10) Who does O’Brien blame for the war? The government? The USA? Ho Chi Minh? Himself? How is assigning blame for the war different than assigning blame for an individual death?

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