The Things They Carried: Fact Versus Fiction
Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried emphasizes not only the surreality of war, but also where to draw the line into reality. The makes up characters, places, and stories to get his argument across throughout the novel, making it contradictory and fictitious, but at the same time creating a sense of reality. In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien illuminates the differences between fact and fiction, mainly within the context of war, to demonstrate that no person can understand what takes place in a war unless he or she has actually been there.
Tim O'Brien contradicts himself and others by highlighting fact and claiming later it is fiction in order to show the truth of the war. At one point in the novel, he dictates that, in the interests of truth....Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own (O'Brien 154). By claiming that everything he has said up to this point is make-believe, O'Brien brings to light the very crux of the war: there is too much confusion to tell it truthfully. The only people who can truly know how to decipher the cryptic speech of war are those who are present for every moment of it; only then can they see the truth. O'Brien later voices that, to be truthful, Norman Bowker was in no way responsible for what happened to Kiowa. Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own (O'Brien 154). After writing for two chapters about Bowker's guilt and suicide over not being able to save Kiowa, O'Brien explains now not just the truth in the story, but the truth in the war. Although earlier he dictates the confusion of Bowker, who ends up not having the confusion at all, at least not for the stated reasons, the narrator decides to end the fiction and tell a little bit of truth; in all actuality, this truth is, though still made up, one of the only truths of the war. The narrator once has to answer his daughter's question of whether or not he killed anyone during the war, to which he muses, I can say, honestly, 'Of course not.' Or I can say, honestly, 'Yes' (O'Brien 172). It is impossible to tell the story of a war to someone who was not there in person while the war took place, but O'Brien attempts to display the confusion by contradicting himself while simultaneously explaining himself. He manages by creating a pretend daughter who, he writes, he has a conversation about realism with, at least in the context of war. With these contradictions, O'Brien is able to bring about the truth in war.
Tim O'Brien creates fictitious characters to tell imaginary stories so he can get the facts of war across. O'Brien once describes his friend Rat Kiley's stories, which were not lies, per se, but he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt (O'Brien 85). By creating the character of Rat Kiley and making him out to be a storyteller who enjoys lying to make his stories more dramatic, O'Brien succeeds in relaying the confusion of the war. Because of his description of Kiley's storytelling, there is a brief sense of surrealism within the passage that brings out the true nature and role of fiction of war. Later in the novel, O'Brien replays a conversation between two of his friends, in which Henry Dobbins claims that I do like churches. The way it feels inside. It feels good when you just sit there, like you're in a forest and everything's real quiet, except there's still this sound you can't hear (O'Brien 116). Because O'Brien creates a character who radiates coldness but who opens his heart when he tells a story, there is a huge contrast. In this way, the narrator succeeds in creating a channel with which he shows just how much war can make people open up to themselves, thus making the confusion of battle inevitable. Towards the end of The Things They Carried, O'Brien explains that, in Norman Bowker's case, if things had gone right, if it hadn't been for that smell, [he] could've won the Silver Star (O'Brien 143). By creating a character so grief-stricken by his own life story, O'Brien succeeds in demonstrating just how scarring war is for the soldiers, to the point where they are trying to unravel the truth from the lies themselves. In doing so, he elicits such realism from his fictional characters that there is no possible way to avoid the truth in their stories. By using unreal characters and portray them as story-tellers, O'Brien succeeds in getting the real facts of war across.
O'Brien narrates his story in an unorthodox order to convey the fictional and confusing aspects of the war, thereby reinforcing the message that no one can understand the true nature of war except its soldiers. In the opening lines of the novel, O'Brien states that the things they carried were largely determined by necessity (O'Brien 2). O'Brien chooses to begin the novel by rolling the title into a sentence about practicality in war. By starting the novel in this way, he is already jumping straight into the middle of the war, both representing how he feels when he enters battle and demonstrating the confusion that defines war. O'Brien later discusses a visit between himself and Jimmy Cross, where for a full day we drank coffee and smoked cigarettes and talked about everything we had seen and done so long ago, all the things we still carried through our lives (O'Brien 26). O'Brien, as a break between two chapters about war, skips ahead many years to force the story into a state of disorder. In doing so, he succeeds in creating a dysfunctional plot line, one which greatly resembles the time line of war, especially to those individuals involved in it at the time it is unfolding. In one of the closing chapters of the novel, O'Brien reminisces that his friend Linda was nine then, as I was, but we were in love (O'Brien 216). After skipping forward and then back to present, or within the duration of the war, O'Brien decides to slide backwards into his fictional self's past, wherein he finds himself in love and discovering that life made more sense back when his mind was innocent. He has an epiphany that it is only during the war that he loses his innocence in the violence, mayhem, and chaos that cause such confusion. By narrating the story out of chronological order, O'Brien demonstrates the surreal nature of war.
In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien uses contradictions, made-up characters, and an out-of-order plotline in order to highlight the differences between fact and fiction within the realms of war. In doing this, he proves that no person can truly explain war unless that person has been to war.
O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin Press, 1992. Print.