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Free Study Guide-The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien-Free Book Notes
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Tim O’Brien

The main character and narrator of most of the stories, he is the lens through which we view most of the action in the book. We follow his recollections of the war, from receiving his draft notice until he eventually returns to Vietnam as a middle-aged father. The main conflict in the novel is an inner conflict as O’Brien struggles to release the pain and anguish that has built up as a result of his war experiences.


The classic stereotype of l’enfant terrible, Azar is the result of taking an aggressive, immature American teenager and showing him how to use an M-16 rifle. He treats his claymores as if they were firecrackers and has little respect for human of animal life. After strapping the puppy to a claymore and then detonating it, he wonders what everyone is so upset about. After all, isn’t that the type of behavior one expects from a child? Azar can always be counted on for an insensitive joke at an inappropriate moment. He mocks the Vietnamese girl who just lost her family. He jokes about Kiowa getting buried in the mud. This is why O’Brien can count on him to help scare Bobby Jorgensen when no one else will. However, when O’Brien realizes the joke has gone far enough Azar treats him with contempt for being weak - even kicking him in the head. Most of the platoon detests Azar because of his behavior. Henry Dobbins once held him over a well for mocking the dance of the little Vietnamese girl.


A deeply religious American Indian who carries a tomahawk and a bible in his rucksack when on patrol. Like O’Brien he is disturbed by a lot of what goes on around him - although he doesn’t always mention it. Although he doesn’t intend to become a man of the cloth, he is bothered most when the war infringes on religious territory, like when the platoon camps out in a Buddhist temple. When O’Brien refuses to shake hands with the scorched corpse of an old Vietnamese man, he takes razzing from most of the platoon. Kiowa takes him aside later and commends him on his courage, admitting he wished he wouldn’t have treated the dead that way. If there is a mentor figure for O’Brien, it is Kiowa. This is why his death in the muck field is such a traumatic event in the author’s life.

Norman Bowker

In his letter to O’Brien, Norman admits that he just lost his sense of direction in Vietnam. He is the veteran that returns home and can’t relate to anyone or find meaning in employment, relationships, or school. Everyone in his hometown has moved on with their lives, but he can’t make the transition from soldier to civilian. In part, this is due to his inability to communicate with other people, express what has happened to him and come to terms with his new reality. He feels that he has much to say, but lacks the words. Norman is somewhat symbolic of the isolation veterans feel once they return home. Eventually this isolation overwhelms him and he commits suicide.

Rat Kiley

The platoon’s medic, Rat has a reputation for embellishing his stories. O’Brien writes that you need to take the square root of Rat’s claims, and that would probably be close to the truth. He writes a tender letter home to Curt’s sister and is heartbroken when she doesn’t bother to reply. Although the platoon trusts him as their medic, he seems to be somewhat unstable mentally. After his friend Curt Lemon is killed, he systematically mutilates a water buffalo with his rifle. Towards the end of the novel, he comes unglued after a series of night marches and shoots himself in the foot to get out of the war. Surprisingly, the rest of the platoon seems to understand what he’s going through.

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross

The platoon’s commanding officer who is consumed by his love for a girl in his hometown. Try as he might, he cannot push the thoughts about Martha out of his mind and concentrate on the war. Every time a member of his platoons is killed, he blames himself for his distracted state. While marching down the trail he sucks on a pebble that Martha sent him and thinks about the New Jersey shore instead of looking for signs of ambush. After Kiowa dies, Cross doesn’t want to listen to the young soldier who tries to confess. He lies back in the muck and pretends he’s playing golf back in New Jersey. He didn’t want to be in charge and doesn’t feel up to the task. He is representative of the young officers that fought the war in Vietnam, brave boys who did the best they could despite their youth and inexperience. The platoon realizes his leadership is flawed, but most respect him because he cares.

Bobby Jorgensen

The young medic who replaces Rat Kiley and botches O’Brien’s wound so badly that the author almost dies from shock. It is because of this ineptitude that O’Brien develops such a hatred for Bobby. Along with Azar, O’Brien concocts a practical joke that eventually backfires and rattles him more than it does Jorgensen. At the end of the incident, O’Brien feels much closer to Jorgensen than he does to Azar, although he doesn’t admit it.

Mary Anne Bell

See Symbols/Motifs

Elroy Berdahl

O’Brien portrays the old man who welcomes him into the Tip Top Lodge as a guardian angel, a silent witness to the most agonizing decision of his young life. He even mentions that he’s writing the story as a way of thanking the man who “saved me.” (Page 48) Elroy has such a powerful effect on the author because he doesn’t judge O’Brien or pry into his personal life in anyway. He never asked where O’Brien was going, why he was all alone, or why he was so preoccupied. Most likely, he already knew.

There is some ambiguity regarding O’Brien’s feelings toward Elroy. He writes that Elroy saved him, yet clearly he is ashamed of the decision he made (to go to the war) while under the old man’s constant vigil. When the two men go out fishing only a few feet from the Canadian shore, Elroy brings the author face to face with the decision he had been putting off all week. It is then he realizes he cannot do what he feels he should do. Perhaps O’Brien feels he did ultimately choose the correct path by going to Vietnam, even if he chose that path out of shame.

Curt Lemon

Curt is the novel’s example of a type of courage, or of what we sometimes do to convince people that we have courage. Curt developed a reputation for being crazy, doing things out on patrol that no one in his right mind would do. One Halloween he paints his body, puts on a ghost mask, and goes out trick-or-treating completely naked. Despite the ostentatious acts, Curt faints when confronted with an army dentist. In order to avoid this humiliation, he goes back to the dentist later and forces him to pull out a perfectly good tooth - just so he can boast about going through the experience. Curt Lemon provides an example of the theme that shame causes us to exhibit all types of irrational behavior.


See Symbolism/Motifs

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