Study Questions

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Vietnam War
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Discussion Questions for “The Things They Carried” by Tim O'Brien


  1. Discuss the title of the story; what are the things the soldiers carried?  Are all of them material or even tangible things?  In the list of the things they carried, what item was most surprising? Which items stay with you as a reader?  Discuss the variety of things each soldier carries and how O’Brien catalogues them.
  2. Discuss the role of military language or jargon in the story (“M-79 grenade launcher,” “RPG’s,” “flak jacket”).  Why does O’Brien include this language, with which many readers will be unfamiliar?  What affect does this language have on the reader?   How does it help create setting?
  3. Describe Jimmy’s love for Martha. Why does he construct this elaborate (mostly fictional) relationship with her? What is the purpose of this relationship?
  4. Jimmy allows his men to be lax because "He was just a kid at war, in love." Why does Jimmy use this excuse?
  5. What is the role of women in the story?  How are women marginalized by war?  How do relationships between men and women affect men at war?
  6. Discuss the role of death and humor in the story.  Why do the soldiers tell jokes about the war, about killing?  What is the purpose of humor?
  7. How is the idea of weight used and developed in this story ("Jungle boots, 2.1 pounds")? What effect does it have on you?
  8. What is the role of memory and imagination in the story?  At one point, O’Brien writes, “Imagination was a killer.”  What does he mean?
  9. How has Jimmy changed by the end of the story? How will he be a different person after the war? What has he learned about himself?
  10. Why does Jimmy Cross burn Martha’s letters and photos?  How does he change after he burns them?  Do you think the war will affect him in a different way now that he refuses to think about Martha? How will it be different?
  11. Based on the story, in what mental condition do you believe these men will return home from war?  How will their participation in war affect them?  How can you tell from their depiction by O’Brien? 
  12. Many wars are couched in terms of “good” and “evil.”  World War II pitted the liberating forces of the United States against the evils of Hitler and Nazism.  How do the soldiers in this story view the “enemy”?  What do they see as their purpose in fighting?
  13. What does O’Brien mean when he says that true war stories are never about war? What does he mean when he writes of one story, "That's a true story that never happened"?  What is a “war story”?  Is “The Things They Carried” a “war story”?
  14. On the copyright page of the short story collection appears the following: "This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary." How does this statement affect your reading of the story?
  15. Does this seem to be a pro-war novel or an anti-war novel, or is the story neutral on the ethics or morality of war?  Explain.

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