National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried

by Tim O'Brien

Abstraction may make your head believe, but a good story, well told, will also make your kidneys believe, and your scalp and your tear ducts, your heart, and your stomach, the whole human being.


Tim O'Brien (Copyright Marion Ettlinger, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin)

The writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the discussion questions in the Reader’s Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are interesting and specific. Other ideas for essays are provided below.

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis—that is, an argument or interpretation—about the poem or poems in question. This statement or thesis should be focused, with clear reasons to support its conclusion. The thesis and evidence should be supported by references to the text.

  1. What did Tim O'Brien gain by serving in Vietnam? What did he lose? Support your opinions with passages from the text.
  2. Analyze the symbolic role of one of the objects a soldier carries in the book's title story. Describe what the object represents to that character and why he chooses to carry it. Support your analysis with passages the text.
  3. Tim O'Brien's writing constantly seeks to give meaning to the events that happened in Vietnam. Create a written portrait of Tim O'Brien using three or four carefully selected passages that describe the narrator's inner thoughts as evidence to support your ideas. What does each reveal about his concerns, hopes, and fears? How do certain word choices reveal the way he sees the world?
  4. Throughout the book, O'Brien casts doubt on the veracity of his stories. Why does he do so? Does it make you more or less interested in the book? Does it increase or decrease your understanding? What is the difference between facts and truth? Is it fair to readers that the author uses elements of his own life and blurs the lines between fact and fiction in these stories?
  5. If the United States instituted the draft and your number came up, would you choose to serve? Explain in detail why you would make one choice and reject the other. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the choice you would make?
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