This excerpt from Tim O'Brien's autobiographical fiction about the war in Vietnam is a reverie of memory, dream, and story that resurrects the dead. The dead are fellow soldiers, the enemy dead, and a first love who died in childhood.

Tim, the narrator and writer, was only four days into his tour of duty when his platoon commander ordered an air strike against a village that is the source of sniper fire. When the platoon walked through the destroyed village, they found one old, dead, mutilated villager. Tim's fellow soldiers had developed a ritual of "greeting the dead" in which they pretended the dead person was still alive, was someone to be greeted, spoken to, both in mockery and in respect. They applied this ritual to the enemy dead as well as to their own dead.

Both repelled and fascinated by the ritual, Tim remembered his own method for animating the dead-in childhood-friend, Linda, whom he mourned and continues to mourn. After she died of brain cancer, he intentionally dreamed her alive and held conversations with her, just as his compatriots held conversations with their dead colleagues. Now, years later, he is telling the story of these experiences, these dead, these rituals, "keeping the dead alive," and "trying to save Timmy's [his younger self's] life with a story."


In this poetic and self-reflexive piece O'Brien provides the rationale for storytelling and illustrates its power not only for the teller, but for the community of listeners (readers) who give life to the story, its author, and its characters. But, as the dead Linda tells him, the characters in a book that nobody is reading do not exist. To animate and make meaningful that which is lost requires both teller and listener(s). [See for example, reader response theoorist, Wolfgang Iser, "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach," in Reader Response Criticism (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press) 1980, pp.50-69.]

In remembering and re-telling, the narrator attempts to change his own role in the story--attempts to expiate the guilt of his inaction when others mocked the war dead, and of not coming to Linda's defense when she needed protection. While he knows that he cannot change what happened, it is by telling the story, by acknowledging and making present those events, that he hopes to come to terms with them.

It is useful to read and discuss the short piece, Good Form (annotated in this database), prior to discussing this longer excerpt. In addition to illustrating the importance of narrative in meaning-making, "The Things They Carried" also demonstrates the role of graveyard humor for those who work with the sick and dying.


First published by Houghton Mifflin in 1990.

Primary Source

The Things They Carried



Place Published

New York



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