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In this lesson, we’ll learn about some of the literary devices that are used by the author Tim O’Brien in the novel ‘The Things They Carried’ to draw readers into this realistic portrayal of the Vietnam War.

Connecting to the Story

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a collection of stories that reflects on the experiences of those in the Vietnam War from the first reaction upon receiving a draft notice to the effect that involvement in the conflict has on some of the individual soldiers and civilians both during and after the war. The author employs literary devices to make the reader feel as if they are part of the story. Literary devices are the various techniques that authors use to help readers connect to the story. Let’s look at some examples of literary devices from the story.

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Imagery

Imagery uses the senses – taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing – to describe people, places, and events in the story. When the narrator describes the man he killed, he uses imagery, ‘; his clean black hair was swept upward into a cowlick at the rear of the skull, his forehead was lightly freckled, his fingernails were clean, the skin at his left cheek was peeled back in three ragged strips, his right cheek was smooth and hairless, there was a butterfly on his chin, his neck was open to the spinal cord and the blood there was thick and shiny;’ The amount of detail that the author uses to describe the dead man’s body reminds the reader of the enemy’s humanity while also providing a detailed account of the horrors of war.

Point of View

The point of view in a story describes what the narrator is able to see, hear, and feel from his perspective. Tim O’Brien narrates most of the stories in the book from a first person perspective, but switches to third person in some stories.

When using the first person perspective, the author sometimes tells the story from a seemingly semi-autobiographical view, incorporating his own experiences in Vietnam but also uses a fictional Tim O’Brien as a narrator, making it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. The author himself claims the story to be fiction, although he acknowledges that some events come from his own experiences. O’Brien also uses third person narratives to tell the stories of other soldiers in his platoon.

Setting

The setting of a story encompasses the time and place where the events of the story unfold. The setting of a story helps to define the mood. In this story, most of the action takes place in the jungles of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

However, the structure of the novel as a collection of stories lends itself to variations in setting. For example in ‘On the Rainy River,’ the author is in his parent’s house in Minnesota when he receives his draft notice. As he prepares to run off to Canada, he describes looking around the kitchen, ‘The old chrome toaster, the telephone, the pink and white Formica on the kitchen counters. The room was full of bright sunshine.

‘ The setting is important in this case because it helps describe the character’s feelings about leaving everything that is familiar to him behind.

Symbolism

Symbolism is the use of a person, place, or thing to represent a bigger idea. For example, in the story ‘Style,’ the narrator describes finding a girl of about fourteen years old that dances through the wreckage in her village where her family was killed. ‘Later we found her family in the house. They were dead and badly burned.

It wasn’t a big family: an infant and an old woman and a woman whose age was hard to tell. When we dragged them out, the girl kept dancing.’ The dancing girl represents the things we do as human beings to avoid facing devastating realities. The girl avoids facing the reality of her family’s death by dancing in the same way that Azar, a character in the novel, distracts himself from the death and destruction all around him by making fun of her for dancing.

Lesson Summary

Tim O’Brien incorporates literary devices in The Things They Carried, such as imagery, point of view, setting, and symbolism to produce reactions from the reader.

Imagery, the use of multisensory, comprehensive descriptions, provides a visualization of the man that O’Brien killed in a way that preserves his individualism while describing the horrific scene. Different stories in this collection allow the author to change the setting and point of view in ways that enable the reader to gain a broader perspective of involvement in the conflict. Symbolism is used in ‘Style’ to explore the lengths we take to avoid facing reality.

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