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Discussion Questions for The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien: An Evolving List. Rev. 5/21/07

These questions are arranged by department and numbered consecutively for ease of reference. The first section offers a (self-explanatory) "General" question; it is followed by a category that combines several departments; and then comes an alphabetical list moving from AMERICAN INDIAN STUDIES to UNIVERSITY 100. Clearly questions in any section might be useful in other sections as well. Thanks to the members of the 2007 Common Reading Academic Integration Subcommittee, especially Karen Abramowitz (who took the lead in this effort), Eric Garcia, Sharon Klein, and Cheryl Spector. Thanks also to Scott Andrews, Karren Baird Olson and Susanna Eng.


  1. Did you like this book? Why or why not? What book would you recommend for CSUN's Freshman Common Reading next fall? Please send the title, the author, and a short explanation of your choice to
  2. Must-see "Teaching Resources" meta-site about The Things They Carried compiled and posted by CSUN faculty member Amy Reynolds:


  1. There is an epigraph at the beginning of the text. What is an epigraph? How do writers use them? This epigraph is a citation from John Ransom's Andersonville Diary. Who was he? What was Andersonville? Who "wrote" or "edited" the Diary? Given what you discover about the epigraph and what it introduces, what do you think it accomplishes?
  2. "On the Rainy River" questions the American war in Vietnam (40), referring to a series of names and places. Look them up. What was the USS Maddox? Where is the Gulf of Tonkin and what is its relationship to the Vietnamese War? Who was Ho Chi Minh? What was SEATO? What were the Geneva Accords? What was the Cold War and why are dominoes mentioned?
  3. Compare the "things" the soldiers carried in Vietnam to the "things" soldiers are carrying in Iraq, both standard issue and personal objects.
  4. At the end of "On the Rainy River," the narrator makes a kind of confession: "The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war" (61). What does this mean?
  5. According to Mitchell Sanders, "What you have to trust your own story. Get the hell out of the way and let it tell itself" (106). What is "metafiction"? Why might someone call this book metafiction? See this web site about O'Brien for more information:
  6. Are there any clues about what O'Brien thinks of his narrator? What should the reader think of him?
  7. One of the web sites treating O'Brien and his books leads to a site about magical realism. What is magical realism? Here's the site: Find other examples of magical realism in the novel.
  8. Tim O'Brien once made the following assertion in an interview with Texas Monthly: "Good movies -- and good novels, too -- do not depend upon 'accurate portrayals.' Accuracy is irrelevant. Is the Mona Lisa an 'accurate' representation of the actual human model for the painting? Who knows? Who cares? It's a great piece of art. It moves us. It makes us wonder, makes us gape; finally makes us look inward at ourselves." (Texas Monthly, Nov. 2002. Qtd. In )

    What is an "accurate portrayal?" How does The Things They Carried function as art? Does it provide "accurate portrayals?" Of what?
  9. Try taking any two chapters (or just Chapter 1 or just Chapter 3) and find all the metaphors and similes that O'Brien uses. List them and discuss how they work.
  10. In the set of review snippets on the front pages of our paperback edition of the book, the one from The New Yorker says that " are recalled and retold again and again, giving us a deep sense of the fluidity of truth and the dance of memory." What does this comment refer to? Are there examples in the text that gave rise to it? What makes truth fluid? And how can memories dance?
  11. O'Brien talks about courage in a range of ways. Discuss.
  12. Compare Hemingway's war stories to O'Brien's. (For instance, in his collection In Our Time, which surely inspired "On the Rainy River"). Do O'Brien's characters exemplify Hemingway's definition of "guts" as "grace under pressure"? Hemingway also writes, "in modern war... you will die like a dog for no good reason." Is the Vietnam War experience different from that of WWII?
  13. "Stories are for joining the past to the future" (38). Is this statement true? Can "stories" affect the future?
  14. "Love" is the title of an entire chapter. Are there other treatments of love in the work?
  15. In "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," what happens to Mary Anne Bell? (89).
  16. What is the form that the chapter "Good Form" talks about? (179).
  17. What do the following sentences mean? "I want you to know what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth" (179).
  18. How can the narrator answer his daughter's question in both the ways he speaks of in "Good Form" and be honest?
  19. Using O'Brien's The Things They Carried as a model, what is the weight of the things students carry?
  20. Where are soldiers of color in this narrative vs. where were they in real life in the Vietnam War?
  21. O'Brien makes intertextual references to Brigadoon, Barbarella, and The Man That Never Was. What is intertextuality? In what way do these references add to the fabric of the novel?
  22. What is the legacy of Vietnam for America today?
  23. Is it possible to "win" a war? Are there any victors?


  1. Critique Kiowa as "the Indian." For help, check these two websites: --provides first-hand accounts of American Indian veterans of the Vietnam War --a brief introduction to some issues involved in studying/discussing the American Indian experience in Vietnam by CSUN English professor Scott Andrews


  1. Discuss the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Compare it to other war memorials.
  2. Analyze various photos from the Vietnam War, Iraq War and previous wars. Discuss the visual representation of war.


  1. In "The Lives of the Dead," a nine year old friend of the narrator dies of cancer. How do children cope with death? Is the narrator's reaction typical, realistic, or merely a literary device? What effect does the narrator's behavior have on his daughter? How does this chapter relate to the other sections of the book?
  2. How do you think that the narrator's stage in life affected his decision when he was drafted? Is there any research that his age/stage affected what he finally did? What does research show about the effect of age on feelings toward wars and actually fighting in them?


  1. Show a film about Vietnam such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July, BlackHawk Down. Compare The Things They Carried to the film(s)
  2. The Vietnam War was the first "televised" war. Was this significant? How were people affected by watching the war at their dinner table? The movie and the TV series MASH were explicitly about the Korean experience, but had a profound effect on people's thinking about Vietnam. What kind of effect?


  1. What happened to the US economy during the War? Were the effects temporary or permanent? What were the political ramifications of the change in the economy? What about the economy of Vietnam? What does the phrase "guns and butter" mean?


  1. There are many public health issues related to veterans (Vietnam and otherwise). How representative is Norman Bowker's history?
  2. Re-read the long discussion of emergency medical procedures in "The Ghost Soldiers" (189). What accounts for the failed response of Bobby Jorgenson in that story?
  3. In the short piece "Friends," the discussion centers on some of the issues facing a soldier with "a wheelchair wound" (65-6). How applicable are these issues today?
  4. With each subsequent war, medical care of the wounded has improved and more lives are saved. How is this accomplished?


  1. (Since VW is history and there are loads of possible questions, perhaps it would be a good idea to put links here... like the National Archives; PBS, Vietnam memorial.)
  2. Image of a 1970 draft notice (primary document):
  3. Find photos -- perhaps even family photos -- documenting real people who served in Vietnam. How old is each person in the picture?
  4. On April 2, 2007, issue of Newsweek published a special issue called "Voices of the Fallen: The Iraq War in the Words of America's Dead." Why? How does it differ from O'Brien's book? How is it similar? How can you view this issue electronically?


  1. Popular music during the Vietnam War period expressed many views of the conflict. What role did music play during the conflict? Consider some of the following songs:

    War: "Yellow River," "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," Leavin' on a Jet Plane"

    Patriotic: "Ballad of the Green Berets," "Everything's O.K. at the LBJ," "Okie from Muskogee"

    Protest: "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," "Hitler Ain't Dead," "Where Have All Our Heroes Gone?" "Piss on Johnson's War"

    Recovery: "Born in the USA," "Reunion at the Wall," "Vietnam Blues"

    See also this slow-loading but really interesting site on "Vietnam Era Anti War Music":


  1. What is the "just war theory"?


  1. How and why do people cope with war differently? What happened to Mary Anne? (114). Why did Norman commit suicide? ("Notes" 154). Why did Rat Kiley shoot his foot? (220).
  2. "I watched Lemon turn sideways. He laughed and said something to Rat Kiley. Then he took a peculiar half step,... and the booby-trapped 105 round blew him into a tree. The parts were just hanging there, so Dave Jensen and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off. The gore was horrible, and stays with me. But what wakes me up twenty years later is Dave Jensen singing 'Lemon Tree' as we threw down the parts" (83). What is the significance of this passage?
  3. What is post-traumatic stress syndrome?
  4. What was the psychological cost to the Vietnam veterans who were treated as criminals unlike veterans from other wars who were embraced by the country?


  1. What is napalm? Agent Orange? How effective was it? Why did some think it was needed? What were the arguments for and against using such "tools"? What are the long term effects on the environment and the populace?
  2. With each subsequent war, medical care of the wounded improves and more lives are saved. How is this accomplished?


  1. What was the impact of the war on society? The affect/effect of student protests? Who were the SDS and Yippies?
  2. Why is the narrator of "On the Rainy River" concerned about what "the community" will think of him if he does not go to war? What is "community?" Why wouldn't anyone is Norman Bowker's town listen to him in the story "Speaking of Courage"?
  3. What is the dynamic of group behavior in a combat group such as O'Brien describes?


  1. Faced with the decision of going to Vietnam or evading the draft by fleeing to Canada, the narrator says, "I would go to the war -- I would kill and maybe die -- because I was embarrassed not to... I was a coward. I went to the war" (59-60). What ethical principles appear to govern the narrator's decision?
  2. "Enemies" (62), "How to Tell a True War Story" (67), "Style" (135), and "Ghost Stories" are chapters that deal with difficult situations. Analyze these situations from an ethical perspective taking into account, "did they do the right thing, a good thing, what causes this behavior, what would happen if everyone did this" and so forth.
  3. What is the role of ethics in a time of war?
  4. How can a nation be against the war and still support its troops? Is that even possible?

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