Truth & Storytelling In The Things They Carried

The importance of storytelling is explored throughout The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. In doing so, the author raises many questions about the aspect of storytelling. Can a story be truer than the happening true? Why do we tell stories? Does it matter how a story is told?

The storytelling technique the author, Tim O’Brien, uses blurs the line between what really happened and what is simply a story. This is achieved by naming the narrator of the story after himself. With this, the text can be read almost as a memoir instead of a fictional piece. For instance, the narrator, Tim O’Brien, considered his participation in the war to be cowardly because he did not want to be shamed by his parents and neighbors and other people in his town for avoiding the war. This notion is expressed in the story called “On the Rainy River”.

This raises the question if the author, Tim O’Brien, felt the same way and if not, then does that take away from the narrator’s feelings or does one simply accept the fact that similar notions of cowardice must have circulated the minds of other soldiers who ultimately accepted their enrollment in the army.

The narrator also goes through a transformation, from being an anti-war student with the hopes of going to Harvard, to wanting revenge on a medic who he felt wronged him in the story “The Ghost Soldiers”. When the narrator points out this transformation, one cannot help but think of how war changes the individual. No matter who you were prior to the war, you were going to be someone else afterward. To me, this transformation is made more real because of the author’s choice to blur the line between fact or fiction. Having read other war novels where the main character is changed due to the war, the effect does not seem as concrete as potentially having the author himself be changed. The novel does a good job at eliciting emotions that perhaps only a memoir can do.

However, what if all of it is just fictional? An exaggeration of what really happened. After all, the text is still a novel. The idea of truth is brought up in the novel and how the different ways of telling a story can have an impact on the truth. Can a story be truer than what really happened? If it didn’t really happen does that mean it isn’t true?

The feelings elicited by the stories seem to be real. When the narrator Tim O’Brien describes his first kill and the disfiguration of the Vietnamese soldier in the story “The Man I Killed”, one cannot help but feel sorry for not only the individual who has died but also O’Brien himself for by killing the soldier, he kills a part of himself. However, it is then revealed that the narrator never killed the man but rather he walks up to a corpse of the disfigured individual but to him, it was the same thing. He had played a role in the killing by participating in the war. However, by having described the scene as if he was the one who had killed the Vietnamese soldier, it adds an extra layer to the storytelling, a realistic coat and although we have two accounts of what happened, they both still feel real and both are believable. A soldier did kill that Vietnamese soldier and a soldier did wake up to find the disfigured body and have feelings of guilt and sadness.

The narrator suggests a true war story cannot be written, which calls into question the point of this war novel. Perhaps this is why certain passages are exaggerated, stories that come into the realm of fictional, that cannot be believed, maybe that is the only way to actually tell a true war story. One such story being the “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” where a soldier flies in his girlfriend from America and in the course of a few weeks, the girlfriend transforms from an innocent girl from the Midwest to a savage soldier who disappears in the Vietnamese forest. Such a thing may have never happened however, there were countless soldiers, innocent themselves, who fought and got lost in Vietnam. In that sense, the story about the girl is as true as anything else.

Or perhaps the only way to tell a war story is by shouldering the responsibility of the war and with it, the death of the soldiers. This can be seen with the death of Kiowa in the story “In the Field”. Several soldiers believe that it was their fault that Kiowa died. In the same way, the narrator believed that it was his fault that the disfigured Vietnamese soldier died. By assuming responsibility, one may be able to explain what happened, why it happened, how it happened, even though that individual was not at fault. In this way, the truth is different than the story however, the story could still be true.

Furthermore, the narrator explains why he is writing this story. To me, the narrator’s explanation seems to be the explanation of the author, Tim O’Brien for the reason behind the novel is that through storytelling, one is able to capture the soul of the individual who is not there anymore. In the story, that individual gets to live. This notion is expressed fully in the text “The Lives of the Dead”. The story keeps the soul alive. Which may be the reason why the author decided to name all the characters after people he knew. The soldiers that had passed away were still alive in this text. The girl that he loved when he was a kid is still alive in this text for in the story, she is dancing and laughing and the two of them can talk to each other. Perhaps the reason why the narrator is named Tim O’Brien is so that after the author has passed, his soul still lives on through this story.

Essay: Kafka & The Consequences of Set Truth

Franz Kafka in the story, “A Comment”, speaks of the importance of finding one’s own path in life, discovering one’s own truth (p. 161). However, when one constructs an understanding around their own truth to the point where this truth is set in the individual’s mind, it can lead to biased thinking and sometimes even harmful consequences.

In the “Penal Colony”, the officer’s belief in the truth of his predecessor leads him to develop a dogmatic approach which not only causes him harm but also blurs his understanding of right and wrong. This is demonstrated by the character of the condemned man who is sentenced without having an opportunity to defend himself for the officer believes that the condemned man’s words would be lies while his own judgment is correct (p. 40). The officer’s dogmatic thinking is a result of the past traditions and how things used to be and as a consequence, the officer associates himself with the institution. While the character of the researcher helps contrast the officer’s truth with his own views as the researcher believes the punishment and sentencing to be inhumane and the procedure to lack justice (p. 46). The officer cannot relate to this point of view because it would interfere with his set truth. This idea is taken to the extreme in the story by Kafka for the officer rather condemn himself in the name of justice rather than realizing his own wrong actions and perhaps confronting what he had acknowledged to be true and by doing so, create some new understanding (p. 54).

The theme of judgment and truth is visited in “The Judgement” as well. Kafka displays the consequences of adopting someone else’s truth as your own. Such truth is harder to escape when it comes from an authority figure. In the “Penal Colony”, the officer takes upon his truth because it is related to his predecessor, to the past tradition, hence giving it authority and in “The Judgement”, the truth is that of the narrator’s father, who has always been an authoritative figure in the narrator’s life (p. 6). By taking on this truth, it results in the narrator’s death (p. 12) and similarly, the officer’s death.

Viewing life through one’s own truth is observed in “Josephine, the Singer or The Mouse People” story. Kafka demonstrates a contrasting point of view as the narrator of the text has a different opinion of Josephine and her abilities compared to what Josephine regards to be the truth (pp. 99-100). Josephine has her own truth and in which she believes her art to be important, so much so, that she believes that others need her and her singing (p. 103). The narrator disagrees and even believes if Josephine were to disappear, she would not be missed (p. 108). Furthermore, her truth can be harmful. Due to the fact that she is a popular artist, this allows for large gatherings and the narrator informs the reader that on more than one occasion such large gatherings have resulted in tragedy for it made it easier for predators to find and hunt them (p. 103). However, Josephine believes that she is needed when tragic episodes occur in the community, she believes that her squealing helps people. Here, Kafka shows how ones own truth can bring about contradictory results for her gatherings can cause tragedies as well.

In “Researches of a Dog”, although the narrator attempts a research project, his approach is muddled with his existing biases. In a way, the narrator takes his premise as a conclusion and in doing so, his truth is set and this causes him misunderstanding or at least stops him from viewing things beyond his premise (pp. 132-133). A clear example of this is the fact that the narrator does not perceive human beings (133). He is focused on this belief that food either comes from the dogs wetting the ground or else, it falls from the skies. It is in this narrow view that causes the narrator not to consider an alternative. Kafka is able to demonstrate the constraints truth can have on the individual if they believe it to be the only truth. Furthermore, set truths without flexibility can even cause the individual harm. This is shown in the narrators choice of self-deprivation in order to prove his point. In doing so, the narrator adopts a fasting lifestyle which is contradictory to the communities way of living and this leads to the point where he loses consciousness (pp. 155-157). Additionally, In an attempt to seek his truth, the narrator slowly becomes distant from his community. The narrow thinking brought on by his believed truth results not only in self-harm but also in ostracization (p. 150). 

However, by exploring what he thought to be the truth, it results in the narrator opening himself to what he did not know. In the text, “A Page from an Old Document”, Kafka explores the notion of how by facing the outside, the unknown, it can have an effect on what you had considered to be the truth and so, it can change your truth (pp. 66-67). Similarly, the research dog adds to his research with the inclusion of music in his next project (p. 160).

In “The Burrow”, the narrator gives himself a simple narrative, something that grounds his reality, this being the importance of his abode (p. 170). For the narrator does not feel danger when he is with his passages, chambers and above all, his castle court (p. 177). Here, Kafka visits similar themes explored in the “Researches of a Dog”, for his truth, the simple narrative, has caused him to be isolated from others (p. 173). However, unlike the research dog where the alienation was taken on in order to search for the truth, in “The Burrow”, the alienation is a result of his truth. Furthermore, unlike the “Penal Colony” where the officer never challenged his set truth, in “The Burrow”, the narrator is forced to come to terms that the narrative he has given himself may be false. Kafka showcases this through the foreign sound the narrator begins to hear (p. 178). Due to the fact that the burrow is supposed to be protective, this intruding sound causes the narrator to panic especially when he gives in to the notion that the sound is perhaps coming from something that can cause him harm (p. 181). Furthermore, Kafka also put forth the notion of how when one invests a lot of time in something, the importance of that thing becomes greater and hence, that individual is more likely to affirm their truth because they don’t want to realize that their effort and time was spent on something useless (p. 187). The fact that the narrator has spent so much time working on his burrow, to the point that it has caused him self-harm and deprived him of sleep when he is forced to change his narrative, the narrator finds himself in a disorganized state of mind.

The text is unfinished but perhaps, “A Report to the Academy” can give hints to how having his truth shatter would have affected the narrator. For in, “A Report to the Academy”, the notion that one can transform due to the necessity to survive is explored (p. 80). The narrator of the text learns human mannerism and this allows him to escape captivity. Similarly, in “The Burrow”, the narrator may have had to develop a new thought pattern or a new truth in order to deal with the loss of his simple narrative.

Kafka’s texts act as a cautionary tales towards the notion of accepting ones own truth as the only truth. For this narrow point of view can result in misunderstanding and in some cases cause the individual harm or worse, harm others.

Jordan Peterson on Telling the Truth and Building Character

There are two types of ambitions. One is external. This would be the gain of power, the gain of status, financial rewards and this willingness to do whatever it takes to get what you want. The other is internal. This type being where one is building discipline in their life. Building work ethic. Building consistency. Telling the truth. Being reliable. Of course, it is not as black and white as this. External ambition may require the development of things like discipline and consistency. However, it is the mindset behind it that matters.

Why do you do the things you do? What is the reason behind your actions? The why is what matters. If the why is external rather than internal then, there is little personal growth towards a positive direction.

One of the rules, in Jordan Peterson‘s book 12 Rules For Life, is Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie. In this chapter, Jordan Peterson explains how as a young psychology student, he worked at Douglas Hospital where he observed and interacted with individuals with mental disabilities, patients suffering from issues like being bipolar, having schizophrenia and other psychotic episodes. Here, Jordan Peterson found the value of telling the truth, and how through truth one gets to know themselves.

I soon divided myself into two parts: one that spoke, and one, more detached, that paid attention and judged. I soon came to realize that almost everything I said was untrue. I had motives for saying these things I wanted to win arguments and gain status and impress people and get what I wanted. I was using language to bend and twist the world into delivering what I thought was necessary. But I was a fake. Realizing this, I started to practice only saying things that the internal voice would not object to. I started to practice telling the truth – or, at least, not lying. I soon learned that such a skill came in very handy when I didn’t know what to do. What should you do, when you don’t know what to do? Tell the truth. So, that’s what I did my first day at the Douglas Hospital.

To accept the truth means to sacrifice – and if you have rejected the truth for a long time, then you’ve run up a dangerously large sacrifical debt.

This to me is the proper ambition. Ambition to develop one’s character. The focus should be aimed internally, consciously and objectively ripping apart the things that you don’t want to be and constructing the ideal you.

Set your ambition, even if you are uncertain about what they should be. The better ambitions have to do with the development of character and ability, rather than status and power. Staus, you can lose. You carry character with you wherever you go, and it allows you to prevail against adversity. Knowing this, tie a rope to a boulder. Pick up the great stone, heave it in front of you and pull yourself towards it. Watch and observe while you move forward. Articulate you experience as clearly and carefully to yourself and others as you possibly can. In this manner, you will learn to proceed more effectively and efficiently towards your goal. And, while you are doing this, do not lie. Especially to yourself.

Do not lie to yourself. If you can’t trust yourself, then, who can you trust? If you can’t tell yourself the truth, then, who can you tell the truth to? To be objective about your actions comes through a type of struggle. To understand the why behind what you do. It can be uncomfortable, unveiling the lies behind certain things, the comfortable lies that mask the ugly truth. However, that ugly truth is beautiful for you.

Like everything, a balance can be achieved. The internal and external ambition can live in harmony together. There is nothing wrong with wanting financial freedom. Materialistic ambitions are neither good nor bad. They are simply ambitions. It is our intent that places feelings of good or bad upon them. If our intent comes from a higher place, then the balance can be made.

Perhaps it is better to conceptualize it this way: Everyone needs a concrete, specific goal – an ambition and a purpose – to limit chaos and make intelligible sense of his or her life. But all such concrete goals can and should be subordinated to what might be considered a meta-goal, which is a way of approaching and formulating goals themselves. The meta-goal could be “live in truth.” This means, “act diligently towards some well-articulated, defined and temporary end. Make your criteria for failure and success timely and clear, at least for yourself (and even better if others can understand what you are doing and evaluate it with you). While doing so, however, allow the world and your spirit to unfold as they will, while you act out and articulate the truth.” This is both pragmatic ambition and the most courageous of faiths.

This is a pursuit of ambition without compromising your character. First, one needs to build their character, to know their limits and lines that they will not cross or be pushed back from. Then, one can join external ambition along with that character and achieve what one wishes to achieve in life. The external always being kept in check by the internal through the process of objective reflection.