Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (1991)

Tim O’Brien is a pacifist political activist and Vietnam War veteran who writes reflective and fictional pieces about the Vietnam War.  His short story collection The Things They Carried (1991) adds another title to his work on this subject. 

O’Brien sets out to define what he believes are the distinctive features of the Vietnam War that aroused public criticism: how it was a war without a clear objective, how it was treated as a war between states when it was a civil war, and how it was a war of national liberation rather than another example of communist expansion. 

O’Brien explores the experiences of combat infantrymen, highlighting the surreal, cryptic, and perplexing nature of the war experience that produces more contradictions, ironies and paradoxes than clear meanings and answers. 

O’Brien is particularly interested in the ‘psychology of the situation’, about how war changes the way men think and behave, often making them more callous or inclined to express a macabre sense of humour. 

O’Brien is fascinated by the issues of bravery and cowardice, which he subjects to sustained deconstruction and analysis.  He concludes that these two inclinations are not poles apart but closely related.  For example, often courageous acts are motivated out of a fear of being perceived as a coward. 

O’Brien cites true bravery as someone with the courage of their convictions.  Hence pacifist anti-war activists who dodged the draft and were derided as cowards by many Americans are celebrated by O’Brien as true heroes.  O’Brien even derides himself for not being brave enough to avoid the draft. 

O’Brien also shares a postmodern fascination with the nature of storytelling and the possibilities of fiction to illuminate truths that may not surface through a recounting of verifiable facts.  O’Brien tells many war stories in the collection, and he continually tantalises his readers with the possibility that they may or may not be factually true.  On the other hand, he believes that they are true in what they reveal about the nature of the world and the human condition. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

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