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Reading Guide for The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried

by Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien X
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In the title story, soldiers carry things both tangible and intangible.  Which do you think were heavier? Which items spoke most powerfully to you?  Did any surprise you? What do you think specific items might reveal about the individuals carrying them and the experience of going to war? What do you carry around with you every day, materially and emotionally? If you had to go to war, what might you take with you?
  2. In what ways do you feel a soldier's experience of war is different today than it was during the Vietnam era?
  3. Although The Things They Carried is a work of fiction, why do you think that the author chose to disguise the book as memoir? What impact do you think this choice had on you as a reader? How do you think that your experience of the stories would differ if there was no Tim O'Brien presented in the book?
  4. Do you consider the narrator(s) in the book reliable? Do you think anyone's point of view is omitted from the book, and if so, what might we infer from their absence?
  5. What do you believe O'Brien means when he says in "Good Form" that there is "story-truth" and "happening truth"? Do you agree with him? Do you think there is even such a thing as a true war story?  Do you think truth can evolve over time, or is it fixed and absolute?
  6. According to O'Brien, what responsibilities does—or should—the storyteller bear? Do you agree with him? Do you think a storyteller writing about real-life events has an obligation to tell the truth?  Why or why not?
  7. How do the stories in this collection compare to other "war stories" you have read? Do you feel there are stereotypes the author employs or resists? What messages do you think the book delivers about war and the way that we talk about the subject? Did it change or influence your thoughts about war (the Vietnam War or any others)? Why do you think O'Brien says that the stories he tells are love stories and not war stories? Do you agree?
  8. Why do you think that O'Brien included a story in which his own character imagines the life and personhood of the man he tells readers he killed?
  9. What courageous acts did you find in the book, if any? O'Brien says: "I was a coward. I went to war"? Do you agree?
  10. Does there seem to be a clear sense of what is right and what is wrong throughout the book? Do you think the book suggests whether the author believes there is a fixed and universal set of moral rules or are bad deeds sometimes justifiable? What are your thoughts on the subject?
  11. In "How to Tell a War Story," O'Brien has some very specific guidelines for telling whether or not a war story is real and true. Following his instructions, can we say whether O'Brien's own stories are "true war stories"? What do you think O'Brien means when he says that "a true war story cannot be believed"? Do you believe he's correct?
  12. O'Brien writes, "A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe."  Which stories in this collection made your stomach believe?
  13. What tricks do the soldiers use to keep themselves sane?  Do you employ any of these – or any other – methods when you're in an unusually stressful situation?
  14. Three stories in succession deal with Kiowa's death from different perspectives.  Why do you think the author chose to do this?  Did the changing viewpoints impact your understanding of the incident, and if so, how?
  15. Repetition is a device O'Brien uses throughout his stories.  What do you remember about the man killed by the narrator?  How does the repetition of the same language enhance the event or affect your understanding of it?
  16. There are many different types of loss addressed throughout the book: the loss of life, of course, but also the loss of the past (for example, after Tim O'Brien gets shot for the second time, he feels the loss of being a "real" soldier very strongly and misses the excitement and fraternity of combat).  What else do O'Brien and the other characters in the book lose, in your opinion? What does resurrecting these losses through story accomplish?  What losses do you feel most strongly in your own life, and how do you deal with them? Do you talk about them?
  17. What was your experience of the Vietnam War?  Were you enlisted, or do you have any friends or relatives who were in the military during the Vietnam era? If so, have you/they spoken about the experience? What other wars have occurred in your lifetime, and how has the experience changed from conflict to conflict, in your view?
  18. Lieutenant Cross had differing reactions to the men under his command who were killed.  Do you think his distraction over Martha contributed to the death of Lavender?  How about his decision on the location of camp the night Kiowa was killed?  What do you think about his reactions to these events?
  19. O'Brien considers fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft.  He rants about the people in his town who didn't really know much about Vietnam or the war but supported it regardless. Was his anger justified?  Do you see any parallels with today's society?  In what ways do you think citizens today do a better or worse job of staying informed about world events?  In O'Brien's shoes, what would you have done?  How would you respond if this was your son? Your friend? A neighbor?
  20. Rat Kiley tells a story about Mark Fossie and his girlfriend, Mary Anne, who eventually abandons Fossie for a role with the Green Berets.  He says, "You got these blinders on about women. How gentle and peaceful they are.  All that crap about how if we had a pussy for president there wouldn't be no more wars.  Pure garbage. You got to get rid of that sexist attitude."  What did you think about Mary Anne's transformation?  Do you agree with Rat's assessment?

These questions are a combination of topics suggested by the publisher and by BookBrowse, and discussed in our book club.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Mariner Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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