The Things They Carried Study Guide

The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried is a 1990 collection of short stories by Tim O'Brien about a platoon of American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. The stories follow the members of O'Brien's platoon, their traumas, their values, their losses and hopes. Although much of the stories reflects real events, O'Brien wrote the stories as fiction, believing that, unlike a chronicle of purely-factual information, fiction better conveyed the emotional and experiential truth of the war.

Main characters

Tim O'Brien

Narrator and also protagonist. While modeled after the author and sharing the same name, O'Brien (within the story) is a fictional character and not the actual author. The author intentionally blurs this distinction. He believes that some things cannot be explained at all: For example, he eventually reveals but cannot say that Kiowa's death was his fault.

Lt. Jimmy Cross

Cross is the platoon leader. He is obsessed with a young woman back home, Martha (who does not return his feelings), and later believes that his obsession led to the death of Ted Lavender. In the short story "In the Field," he also decides to camp the team one day on the "shitfield" (a field the nearby village uses as a toilet), which leads to Kiowa's death.

Bob "Rat" Kiley

A young medic whose exaggerations are complemented by his occasional cruelty, which is displayed in "How to Tell a True War Story," in which he tortures a baby water buffalo after the death of his friend, Curt Lemon. He enjoys comic books. Eventually, he sees too much gore and begins to go insane as he imagines "the bugs are out to get [him]." He cannot adjust to the new procedure of sleeping during the day, and moving at night. Finally losing it, Rat "dope[s] himself up" and shoots himself in the foot, which pulls him out of service.

Norman Bowker

A soldier who O'Brien says attempted to save Kiowa the night he died. When Kiowa slips into the "shitfield," Bowker repeatedly tries to save him but is unable to; as a result, he feels guilty for Kiowa's death after the war. His memories continue to haunt Norman at home as he realizes that the world has moved on from the war, and wants nothing to do with the "hell" in Vietnam. He is continually haunted by the fact that he could not save Kiowa from sinking under the "shitfield" on a rainy night. However, O'Brien admits eventually that Norman did not fail to save Kiowa, that was fictional. After the war he briefly assists O'Brien in writing a story about Vietnam, but he hangs himself with a jump rope in an Iowa YMCA facility, leaving no note and his family shocked.

Henry Dobbins

Machine gunner. A man who, despite having a rather large frame, is gentle and kind. He is very superstitious; as a result, he wears his girlfriend's pantyhose around his neck as a protective "charm," even after she dumps him. He briefly contemplates becoming a monk after the war due to their acts of charity.


A compassionate and talkative soldier; he demonstrates the importance of talking about one's problems and traumatic experiences. He is also a devout Baptist and a Native American that occasionally feels contempt and distrust towards white people. However, he appears to be Tim O'Brien's best friend in the company. Kiowa often helps other soldiers deal with their own actions, such as taking the lives of other human beings. He is eventually killed when camping out in the "shitfield."

Mitchell Sanders

He is the radiotelephone operator for the platoon. Like O'Brien, he is also a storyteller and is portrayed as a mentor.

Ted Lavender

A grenadier. He dies from a gunshot wound to the back of the head. He is notorious for using tranquilizers to cope with the pain of war, and for carrying a (rather large—six to eight ounces) stash of "premium dope" with him. Cross blames himself for Lavender's death, as he was fantasizing about Martha when Lavender was shot.

Curt Lemon

A young man that frequently attempts to assume the role as a tough soldier. However, he is also good friend of Rat Kiley. Lemon dies after setting off a rigged artillery shell. In one of the book's more disturbing scenes, O'Brien and Dave Jensen help clear the trees of Curt's scattered remains, during which Jensen sings "Lemon Tree" (something that "wakes [Tim] up"). After Lemon dies, Kiley writes a long, eloquent letter to Lemon's sister, describing his friendship with Lemon and emphasizing how good a person Lemon was; Lemon's sister never responds, which crushes Kiley emotionally.


A young, rather unstable soldier who engages in needless and frequent acts of brutality; in one story, he blows up an orphan puppy that Ted Lavender had adopted by strapping it to a Claymore mine, then detonating it. He also aids Tim O'Brien in gaining revenge on Bobby Jorgenson, but mocks O'Brien when he's not willing to take the revenge further. At one point, Azar breaks down emotionally, revealing that his cruelty is merely a defense mechanism.

Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk

Minor soldiers who are the main characters of "Enemies" and "Friends." Jensen fights with Strunk over a stolen jackknife, but they became uneasy friends afterwards. They each sign a pact to kill the other if he is ever faced with a "wheelchair wound." After Strunk steps on a rigged mortar round and loses a leg, he begs Jensen not to kill him. Jensen obliges, but seems to have an enormous weight relieved when he learns "Strunk died somewhere over in Chu Lai." Jensen is sometimes mentioned singing "Lemon Tree" after Curt Lemon's abrupt death. Jensen also appears in "The Lives of the Dead", where he pressures O'Brien to shake hands with a dead Vietnamese.

Bobby Jorgenson

Rat Kiley's replacement, after Rat "put a round through his foot" due to breaking under pressure. Green and terrified, he is slow to aid O'Brien when he is shot in the behind; nearly killing O'Brien after failing to treat him for shock. Filled with rage after his recovery, O'Brien elicits help from Azar to conspire and punish Jorgenson with a night of terrifying pranks; afterward, however, O'Brien and Jorgenson become friends. Jorgenson may be a reference to a similarly-named character from The Caine Mutiny .

Other characters

  • Martha - Cross's romantic love, though she has only platonic feelings for him. He burns her letters and photos while trying to get over the guilt he feels for being responsible for Ted Lavender's death.
  • Linda - Tim's childhood love. Nine years old, she dies of a brain tumor caused by cancer. She first gives Tim a reason to write stories: to "save her life" in his memory.
  • Kathleen - Tim's daughter, an observer to O'Brien's stories.
  • Mark Fossie - A soldier who sends for his girlfriend to stay with him on his base in Vietnam. However, this turns out to be a big mistake (see below).
  • Mary Anne Bell - Mark Fossie's girlfriend. She is originally sweet and innocent when she arrives at Vietnam from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, but soon feels drawn to the culture and the thrill of war. She joins the Green Berets in their ambushes and patrols until she walks off into the jungle, never seen again.
  • Elroy Berdahl - An 81-year-old man at the Tip Top Lodge, where Tim stops by on his way to Canada. Although he doesn't say much, he helps Tim come to grips with going to war.
  • Nick Veenhof - A 9-year-old boy who bullies Linda for wearing a cap to school. He later takes the hat during a spelling test, revealing that Linda has cancer; Nick is later forced to take Linda home, with Tim coming along.

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