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Free Study Guide-The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien-Free Book Notes
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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

The novel flows from the typewriter of a middle-aged man who is trying to find meaning and redemption in his war stories. It has neither a conventional narrator not timeline, which makes a plot line difficult to identify in the conventional sense. The incident that begins the rising action is his decision to disregard his conscious, go back to Worthington and report for the draft. This decision leaves him with a cynical view of courage and bravery that develops throughout the book. It also marks the declaration of an internal war, as if he spends the rest of his life trying to atone for his inability to make a pacifist stand.

Throughout his tour of duty he develops close relationships with his fellow soldiers and witness the beauty and horror of war firsthand. When he returns home he carries the memories of conflict with him and is haunted by the deaths of both friends and enemies. The climax of the action is not until he returns to the field where Kiowa died and wades in for a symbolic baptism. Twenty years after the Treaty of Paris was signed, the conflict within him is finally over. The conclusion further explores how his writing aided his ability to grapple with the tragic memories and his own complicity in that horrible conflict.


The general theme of redemption connects a series of otherwise unrelated stories. The novel is very much a collection of stories about the truth that war and sorrow and reflection can teach us. Each story has a message, some buried deeper than the others. Stylistically, O’Brien often summarizes a story or a chapter in the final quote in the very last sentence. In the chapter “Church,” a discussion about religion and interaction with the Vietnamese people eventually boils down into the essence of Henry Dobbins final quote - “You’re right,” he said. “All you can do is be nice, treat them decent, you know?” (Page 123) O’Brien’s soldiers have an intuitive wisdom, capturing such truth in their ordinary commentary.

In terms of structure and style, The Things They Carried, breaks from the conventional first-person narrative of the Vietnam memoir. In fact, the book constantly shifts back and forth from first to third person. Thus, the reader is not locked into one perspective. We do not see the war and its aftermath only through the eyes of the Tim O’Brien character. The sequence of events is also jumbled.

The book begins is Vietnam, then drives ahead to an episode after the war, reverts back to the summer when he received his draft notice, ahead to the war, reverses to his childhood, etc. Not only are the chapter not connected in time, they’re often not connected by topic Even individual chapters suddenly fragment into sections of one or two paragraphs, memory flashes appear suddenly and the fade. In these sections, O’Brien dumps his memories onto the table as if they were building blocks, then sorts through them to see what he can assemble. O’Brien clearly does not want to give the impression that he has it all figured out, but rather this soul-searching process is what defines him as a writer.

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