Justification for Teaching:

The Things They Carried is a collection of short stories that will not only interest your students but will get them talking. War is a disastrous and troubling issue, and Tim O’Brien’s various stories from the Vietnam War will give your students different perspectives on how the soldiers handled their respective situations, as well as giving their specific backgrounds.

The collection spans multiple topics ranging from morality to the isolation of war. While The Things They Carried may seem like a complex set of stories to read, your students will find themselves taking apart each story and dissecting its meaning, and they will certainly enjoy discussing the stories. Emotional and down-to-earth, this semi-autobiographical collection will have your whole classroom turning the pages.

Key Literary Elements & Techniques

  • Conflict
  • Flashback
  • Symbolism
  • Metaphor
  • Imagery

Themes and Motifs

  • War — Many of the stories reveal the destructive consequences of war, not only to other countries and cultures, but to oneself.
  • Innocence and Experience — The collection of stories show the innocence of soldiers that quickly evaporates when faced with deadly serious situations.
  • Identity — The stories depict how the resulting experiences of war can make a soldier question if he is the same man who first entered the service.

Related Works

Themes of war

A Farewell to Arms

A Time to Kill

All Quiet on the Western Front

Themes of innocence and experience

The Giver

Heart of Darkness

Fallen Angels

Themes of identity


Native Son

The Turn of the Screw

Key Facts

  • Length: 256 pages
  • Lexile® Measure: 880
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9-12
  • Publication Date: 1990


  • New York Times Bestseller
  • ​Chicago Tribune​ Heartland Prize
  • Pulitzer Prize finalist
  • France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger


A movie adaptation of the story “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” was released under the name A Soldier’s Sweetheart in 1998, starring Kiefer Sutherland. It is currently only available on VHS.

Potential Objections

  • Violence: There isn't much war violence in The Things They Carried, but the book does contain graphic descriptions of violent acts.
  • Profanity: The book contains some profane language.

Your students will love:

  • The multiple perspectives and experiences O’Brien provides in his stories
  • The fact that they won’t feel stuck in one story or its details for an extended period of time

Students may have problems with:

  • The book’s violence. Some of it is quite graphic, and some soldiers are sadistic
  • O’Brien’s use of profanity. O’Brien insists the language is necessary to portray the atrocity and chaos of the Vietnam War, but some students may feel overwhelmed

Available from Prestwick House:


The Things They Carried — Paperback

The Things They Carried — Hardcover

Teaching Guides:

Literature Teaching Unit:

Teaching Unit

Downloadable Teaching Unit

30 Books + Teaching Unit

AP Literature Teaching Unit:

AP Literature Teaching Unit

Downloadable AP Literature Teaching Unit

30 Books + AP Literature Teaching Unit

Activity Pack:

Activity Pack

Downloadable Activity Pack

30 Books + Activity Pack

Multiple Critical Perspectives Guide:

Multiple Critical Perspectives Guide

Downloadable Multiple Critical Perspectives Guide

30 Books + Multiple Critical Perspectives Guide

Downloadable Formalist Theory Mini-Guide

Downloadable Psychoanalytical/Freudian Theory Mini-Guide

Downloadable Mythological/Archetypal Theory Mini-Guide

Levels of Understanding Guide:

Levels of Understanding Guide

Downloadable Levels of Understanding Guide

30 Books + Levels of Understanding Guide

Response Journal:

Response Journal

Downloadable Response Journal

30 Books + Response Journal

Vocabulary from Literature:

Vocabulary from Literature

Downloadable Vocabulary from Literature

30 Books + Vocabulary from Literature

Complete Teacher's Kit:

Complete Teacher's Kit

30 Books + Complete Teacher's Kit

Other resources:

Downloadable Novel Test

Things They Carried, The