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Critique the book The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

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In this essay, I will analyze a novel, give my conclusions and thoughts. Let me start from the chosen book, I picked out the novel The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. I chose this book, because I have read a lot of positive opinions. I was interested if it is so or just popularization and respect to the topic of the Vietnam War. It is always a challenge to take a popular book, well-known works are fully developed and described, and lots of critics have already given their opinions, and those facts influence the reader. From the very beginning it stays in your mind: "Oh, God, if I do not like this novel then I am tasteless and have no idea about high literature". On the other hand, I am from that category of readers, who want themselves make an opinion, and even if I liked that book myself, it would not depend on mutual opinion. That is why I chose The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien for my analysis.

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 Now, I want to present you the plan of my essay.

1. Give brief information about the author and his background as an important point in analyzing the book;
2. Analysis of major characters;
3. The characteristic of the things "they carried";
4. Conclusions.

Let us start from the first point. Tim O'Brien was born in a small town Minnesota on October 1, 1946. He wrote about his native town: "If you look in the dictionary under the word "boring", you will find a little pen and ink illustration of my hometown." "It was a town full of typical Kiwanis boys and holier-than-thou preachers: Mid-America". He graduated from Macalester College in 1968 with the Bachelor Degree in politic science. O'Brien was against the war and took part in political demonstrations; nevertheless he has been sent to Vietnam. He came back with a Purple Heart in 1970 and after it he entered Harvard. He has been working as a journalist at the Washington Post. Magazines started publishing his stories: "The Things They carried" in 1986, "How to Tell a True War Story" in 1987, and "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" and "The Lives of the Dead" in 1989. Exactly these stories made a ground for a novel The Things They Carried, published in 1990. Now, I am coming to my topic, the only thing I would like to say before starting my analysis, is the Tim O'Brien's words of his own book: "A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil."

I proceed to the second point of my plan – analyzing the major characters. Under our attention, there are several main heroes and, of course, one protagonist.

Tim O'Brien is the main character, who appeared in two images: as a soldier at the war and a Vietnam veteran, who started writing novels after returning home. The whole story we observe through his eyes. There is an opinion that we should not put equality sign between the protagonist and the author of the novel. Yes, Tim O'Brien gave his main character his own name, but it does not mean that all the facts are real, it is still a fiction, the reader should remember about it. He did it for drawing the reader’s attention, because obviously it is always more interesting imagine that the author describes exactly himself, that it is not fiction, but all the truth. Maybe, but I think, in this case we have a kind of outward form, the filling is made from fiction: "He explains his technique in The Things They Carried by distinguishing between happening-truth and story-truth. The former pertains solely to facts, whereas the latter attends to emotional truth and the pursuit of meaning" (Gaertner, 2010). The only thing, which probably was taken from real Tim O'Brien, is that the character was against the war, but he did not want to seem awkward, that is why he made a decision to take part in it: "his protagonist, struggling with his moral dilemma over the war, comes close to fleeing to Canada and decides he’s a self-betraying coward for not doing so: Unwilling to risk disgrace and mockery, he sets aside his doubts about the war's moral legitimacy. The novel grimly recounts war and its effects. The language is vibrant, the characters colorful and haunting, the work experimental in its use of both fiction and nonfiction techniques" (Smith, 2011).

Through the eyes of this character, we see the horror of the war, but sometimes the story is told from the third person. Such narration gives the possibility to understand the Alpha Company from different points of view. While I was reading a book I felt like I was talking with an old soldier and he made his confession and just shared his pain, which did not become less, it still hurts and pains. One more important thing is that the narrator by telling his story brings dead people to life; they were not just a part of his previous life, as you cannot leave war in the past, and it is forever in your soul. Therefore, he needs them in his life, because no one, except soldiers, can understand his feelings. Following his story, the reader can only try to understand and imagine that hell.

One of my favorite characters is Jimmy Cross. His story is the most touching for me. The story is about a young boy, a sophomore, who signed up for the Reserve Officers Training Corps only because it worth a couple of credits and because his friends did the same. He does not care about the war, but who can reproach for this, nobody and never is ready for taking part in a war, sometimes it is just a point of honor. His tragedy is in his dreams. I was impressed how he loves Martha, how he carries her letters, how he imagines that she loves him back. He lied himself, but it was his way out of war horror. He tried to find in Martha’s letters a hint on some feelings; he imagined that her signature "Love, Martha" means something. I would like to mention an important fact, that his name – Cross - is a speaking name, O'Brien compares him with Christ. Like Christ, who suffered for people, Cross lives with grief about Lavender's death. All his life he had been thinking that it was his fault, that if he had not thought that morning about Martha, he would have saved him. For me, he is the most tragic character, by all means, my favorite one.

Two more main characters are Mitchell Sanders and Kiowa. As for Mitchell, he is a devoted friend; he has a sense of irony and a little bit naive, because looking for morality. Kiowa is an honest, pious and a bit naive boy. The fact, when he tried Tim to feel better he killed a man speaks about his kindness. They are also deep and unique characters.

It is time to proceed to the next and the most interesting point of my plan,– analyzing the title. What Tim O'Brien meant under the things they carried? Of course the reader needs to find some symbolic meaning of the title. All those things can be divided into two groups: tangible and intangible ones.

Intangible things are fear (they were young boys, who were scared being soldiers and kill people), guilt (the story of Jimmy Cross, who believed that Lavender’s death on his conscience), love (gloomy love story of Cross: "Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps...Lieutenant Cross remembered touching left knee. A dark theater, he remembered,...when he touched her knee, she turned and looked at him in a sad, sober way that made him pull his hand back, but he would always remember"), grief (for dead friends, for dead youth and broken lives). That is a huge "baggage" of feelings and emotions, which is sometimes much harder to carry than some material stuff. They cannot just leave, or hide somewhere their emotions and run away, they must keep everything in their minds, which is much difficult. Because of that, they are all heroes to me; I cannot imagine myself carrying such "things".

On the other hand, there are lots of literal things (“Grief, terror, love, longing these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight”), which I want to describe. Thus, in the novel, for the description of each character, O’Brien provides them with some stuff, which helps a reader to understand a character deeper. O’Brien is very specific in his descriptions of things they carried: “As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a 45 caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds full loaded”; “The weapon weighed 7.5 pounds unloaded, 8.2 pounds with its full 20 round magazine. The riflemen carried anywhere from 12 to 20 magazines...adding on another 8.4 pounds at minimum, 14 pounds at maximum”. All these details the author uses to plunge the reader into the waters of his story; without those details we can understand only the top of the iceberg, in the case of the novel The Things They Carried details play the extremely important role.

The description of material things helps to understand each character better. Thus, Henry Dobbins has corpulent figure that is why he carries machine gunner, but at the same time his inner world is very touching: he holds his girlfriend’s pantyhose on his neck. On his example, we can see how appearance can disagree with the inner world.

Ted Lavender is a nervous guy that is why he carries tranquilizers and marijuana for getting relaxed. As for Kiowa, he carries the New Testament- he is very religious, and that is important for him to have Holy Book next to him, also, this book is his father’s present.

My favorite character Jimmy Cross, according to his Lieutenant rank, carries important for his people things: maps and compasses; but more important is that Jimmy carries a huge responsibility for their lives. On the other hand, he is very sensitive and holds his girlfriend’s letters as a treasure, but when Ted was killed outside Than Khe, he felt his guilt and burnt down all the letters.
All of the characters in the novel The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien are the unique ones, they are different, but there is one thing, which all of them carried – Vietnam. Whatever you carry in your bag or in your mind, the place of the war would swallow everything. That is a feature of the war; you cannot throw it away even after coming back home. That is the reality and these are the things they carried. In the article, titled ''The Vietnam in me,'' he wrote: ''Last night suicide was on my mind. Not whether, but how. Tonight it will be on my mind again.'' He went on to equate the horror of war with the horror of heartache. ''You don't have to be in Nam to be in Nam,'' he wrote. It was an astonishing bit of self-revelation, widely discussed, criticized as both embarrassing and courageous (Weber, 1988).

I am happy that I have chosen this book. I made sure that all good reviews about this novel are deserved. I would not believe O’Brien, if had not known about his own participation in the Vietnam War, I believe in each word. The author gave me the possibility to see different situations through his eyes. I like metaphorical subtext, which refers to the title and those figurative and literal things they carried. Those people, who have not still read this book, must do it, because it is our history, but not the dry information from a textbook, but vivid language and the confession of the witness, adorned by fiction.

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