Truth and Fiction in Tim O'Brien's "The things they carried"

Term Paper, 2011

13 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents


2. Truth and Fiction in Vietnam War Writing
2.1 What is truth?
2.2 Vietnam War Writing

3. Truth and Fiction in The things they carried
3.1 Tim O'Brien's Reasons for Using Fiction
3.2 O'Brien and Vietnam War Writing
3.3 Effects of Using Fiction
3.3.1 Fighting Trauma

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography


In the book The things they carried by Tim O'Brien, the narrator says that a good war story is never true. He admits that nearly everything in the book is made up, after saying that it is true before. However, the reader learns that not until the 7th chapter, in which O'Brien, the narrator, tells the reader that everything up to now has been invented. Similarly, he leaves open if some things are true or not. Even the narrator, who is named like the author himself, is made up and has no or little similarity to the author, e.g the author O'Brien does not have a daughter, whereas the narrator O'Brien does.

Reading The things they carried, a question keeps coming up again and again: Why does he do that? Why does Tim O'Brien, the narrator, constantly tell the reader that everything is made up? It does not make any sense. The reader just gets confused.

In addition to this question, I found myself wondering if there was a clear difference between truth and fiction in the book, namely if you could say this is true and this is untrue and this is certain and this is uncertain. And if yes, was it O'Brien's intention to draw this clear line, or did it just happen by accident? Of course, one cannot know everything for certain and no one can look into O'Brien's brain, but you can make assumptions based on the knowledge you have.

In my paper I will focus mainly on the aspect why the principle of truth and fiction is used in The things the carried and which effects come out of that. I think this is very interesting, because, in my opinion, this is the main aspect of the whole book. Someone who reads it will not be able to stop themselves from asking questions in their head. The main process while reading is that you just keep asking yourself these questions again and again and you cannot find any answer to them. My goal, however, is not to find any answers, but to try to explain this aspect truth and fiction as a whole and to examine what it might contribute to describe the Vietnam war.

As a start, I will focus on the aspect “Truth and Fiction”. At first, I will examine how this topic is treated in general Vietnam war writing, especially under the consideration of what truth actually is.

In the second section I will come to the main topic of the paper, namely “Truth and Fiction in The things they carried.” Here, I will concentrate on the reasons for using ficticious things O'Brien gives in an interview. Afterwards, I will compare these reasons with the general aspects of Vietnam war writing. Furthermore, I will take a look at the effects that the use of fiction has and then, as a consequence, I will examine the topic trauma and its aftermaths.

In the end, I will come to a conclusion.

To make it easier, I will use the male article for soldiers and war writers, because they they were all men.

2. Truth and Fiction in Vietnam War Writing

2.1 What is truth?

In real life, the word “truth” does not seem to be so difficult to explain. If something is true, you do not need to go further or explain anything else. “Truth” seems to be something that is determined and accepted in our society.

In literature, on the other hand, this understanding of “truth” can be ambiguous. Documentaries, for example, are to be totally true. Fiction writers, in contrary, are completely free in their choice of truth. They can invent stories, characters, places etc. and everyone will know that it is not true, because it is a book. But what about war books? They are supposed to be documentaries, because war is an event that really happened. So are all war writers forced to write the truth? What if they do not? Is untrue literature even good literature?

Telling the truth is seen als some kind of catharsis among few Vietnam war writers. Catharsis means that you feel excitement and passion during a difficult situation, e.g in combat, and that this feeling purges your soul. For soldiers it means that they can process what happened in war. In The Cambridge Companion to War Writing, it is stated that “[...] having 'the truth told' about combat constitutes a vital opportunity for veterans to reconnect with their former lives.” (McLoughlin 20). This says that you need to tell the truth to get your former life back, without a trace of trauma or similar illnesses. Another source supports this view: “[...] it became clear that “light” would be possible only if we could get all our 'facts' straight” (Lomperis 41). In this case, “light” is to be understood as a synonym for truth. Truth is compared to enlightenment. The purpose of the writer is to enlight society and himself as well (cf. Lomperis 45). It is also said that being honest is a responsibility of the war writer (cf. Lomperis 41).

Furthermore, the question what good literature is, arises. The general answer would be that it tells the truth, but then the question of how to tell the truth comes up (cf. Lomperis 43). To find a solution to this second question, you can say that there are several truths in fiction writing. Every author has his own “individual angle of vision” (Lomperis 52) which allows him to create his own truth. So, truth is relative (cf Lomperis 52). But lying is regarded as unmoral.

So, the war writer is in a dichotomy: Either he writes only the truth and risks to be boring but is honest and moral, or he invents his stories. These two paths are set for war writers.

2.2 Vietnam War Writing

There are many differences in writing about the Vietnam War, or war in general. The author has to decide whether he bases his novel on personal experiences and makes it autobiographical, or whether he tries to record the war with a documentary or a history novel. Then, he has to choose whether to make the novel completely based on facts or to embellish the facts a little, which makes the book less useful as a historical document but more exciting to read.

War writing can be differentiated in two ways: On the one hand, it has a certain concreteness to portray war, its feelings and its excitement in detail and is well described, and on the other hand it has “a distinct awareness of engagement in a primary process of sensemaking” (Beidler xiii) and a way of discovering (cf. Beidler xiii). The war writers want to create a new culture in war writing, without denying the literature that has been there before them. They also want to make sense of the war, explain it to others and make them feel what they felt. The Vietnam writers like to create new ways of literature to make war significant and to touch people in their hearts. Some of them do that by inventing new techniques of writing and new symbols. War writers want the war and its effects to be remembered (cf. Beidler xiv). Another reason for writing is that “war novelists do not write for other combat veterans but really more for the historical record” (Lomperis 45). So, they want to keep the memories alive, stop the world from forgetting and show how it was in war. They want to create a reality for people who were not in war. Creating realities often involves including ficticious things, like I discussed above. Authors, however, do not only write for others, they write for themselves. Catharsis is one example, trauma is another. Authors with a trauma from war need to write about it, hoping to find closure (cf. Heberle xxii). Unfortunately, this closure can not be achieved, says Heberle: “But although stories can both replicate and relieve trauma by displacing it formally, they cannot give it closure” (193).


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Truth and Fiction in Tim O'Brien's "The things they carried"
University of Mannheim  (Anglistisches Seminar)
In Times of Crisis. Representations of War in American Literature and Film from the Civil War to Iraq
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ISBN (Book)
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truth, fiction, brien
Quote paper
Larissa Pöltl (Author), 2011, Truth and Fiction in Tim O'Brien's "The things they carried", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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