Relationship between Fiction and Reality Explored in The Things They Carried
In many respects, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried concerns the relationship between fiction and the narrator. In this novel, O'Brien himself is the main character--he is a Vietnam veteran recounting his experiences during the war, as well as a writer who is examining the mechanics behind writing stories. These two aspects of the novel are juxtaposed to produce a work of literature that comments not only upon the war, but also upon the actual art of fiction: the means of storytelling, the purposes behind them, and ultimately the relationship between fiction and reality itself.
Through writing about his experiences in Vietnam, O'Brien's character is able to find a medium in which he can sort through his emotions, since "by telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths" (158). He does not look upon his stories as therapy--he recounts his stories since they are a part of his past, and who he is now is the direct result of them:
Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a life-time ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. (38)
O'Brien's character makes several comments on storytelling in certain sections of the novel, such as "How to Tell a True War Story." Through making these comments, the narrator is not only justifying the intent of The Things They Carried,but he is also providing clues to the content, structure, and interpretation of the novel. The narrator states that one fundamental truth is that "In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen....The angles of vision are skewed" (71). This novel is written in this way: characters such as Curt Lemon are killed and then later introduced, or the narrator undercuts what he has previously lead the reader to believe, as in the case of Norman Bowker's suicide. A true war story is distinguishable "by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever" (76). None of the anecdotes in this novel demonstrates complete closure, except perhaps in the case where the character was killed. Even then, however, that particular loss had an impact upon the lives of the people who have survived. Even the end of the novel itself is indefinite and without resolution.
Most importantly, "In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning" (77). Through extracting the true meaning of The Things They Carried, it is impossible to miss the deeper ...