The Things They Carried: Top Ten Quotes

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  1. “ . . . he would slip away into daydreams, just pretending, walking barefoot along the Jersey shore, with Martha, carrying nothing. He would feel himself rising. Sun and waves and gentle winds, all love and lightness” (“The Things They Carried,” p. 8).

    Lt. Cross has a problem with obsessive daydreaming, unable to focus on what he or his men are doing in the war. It is his way of coping.

  2. “By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost” (“The Things They Carried,” p. 14).

    O'Brien describes the ambiguity of the Vietnam war for the men who were supposed to stop communist guerrilla fighters. There are no defined battles, just endless searches for the enemy, leading to the men hallucinating on night patrol and overreacting to stimuli, never sure if they are being attacked. It is never clear to them what is real and what is not.

  3. “He wished he could find some great sadness, or even anger, but the emotion wasn't there and he couldn't make it happen. Mostly he felt pleased to be alive” (“The Things They Carried,” p. 17).

    Kiowa is a Christian and is surprised he can feel nothing about Ted Lavender's death. He notices how good it feels to be alive instead. This is a typical response to death in Vietnam. It is so sudden, it feels unreal. Sometimes the survivors feel guilt and other times they feel numb or happy they were not the ones killed.

  4. “For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn't, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die” (“The Things They Carried,” p. 18).

    The narrator, through his passionate style, shows the paradox of war, how the men tried to appear courageous and hold it together, but that it was too much to expect humans could live constantly in this kind of terror of instant and constant death without cracking sometimes.

  5. “That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future . . .  Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story”(“Spin,” p. 36).

    The narrator is forty-three, looking back at the war, but feeling it as though it is happening now because the writing makes him reexperience it. The book is as much about how important stories are as about war. Storytelling is at least as ancient as making war.

  6. “The only certainty that summer was moral confusion. It was my view then, and still is, that you don't make war without knowing why” (“On the Rainy River,” p. 38).

    The narrator speaks of the summer of 1968 when he was drafted for the Vietnam War. The country was exploding with protest, assassinations (Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy), and debate. No one agreed on whether the war was legitimate, and O'Brien thinks it is too late to decide about it after all the people have been killed, which is what happened. Historical hindsight showed that it was a mistake.

  7. “I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace . . . I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to” (“On the Rainy River” p. 57).

    The narrator illustrates the terrible social pressure on the young to conform to public ideas of right and wrong, with the fear of ostracism greater than the fear of death.

  8. “I feel close to myself . . . I'm full of electricity and I'm glowing in the dark . . . I know exactly who I am” (“The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong,” p. 106).

    Mary Anne Bell, the fictional female soldier of Rat Kiley's story, explains the thrill of going out on night patrol with the Green Berets. She is high on her own adrenaline and hyperaware, one of the experiences of combat that O'Brien brings out in the book. The war engendered many extreme experiences since it was a situation close to death. Mary Anne Bell feels liberated from her social stereotype, living instead on the edge of survival, with a sense of power.

  9. “ . . . a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.  Almost everything else is invented” (“Good Form,” p. 171).

    The author-character, Tim O'Brien, reflects on his own metafictional writing style, admitting that though he tells the true story of Vietnam, much of the detail is invented to make his points vivid.

  10. “. . . the presence of death and danger has a way of bringing you fully awake . . . You make close friends. You become part of a tribe and you share the same blood—you give it together, you take it together”  (“The Ghost Soldiers,” p. 183).

    O'Brien explains something about the war that is more powerful than death—the bonds of love forged with his buddies.

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