The Things They Carried is a collection of related short stories sheds light on the perils of war in a way that will truly grip your readers. O’Brien employs vivid imagery, flashbacks, and figurative language to explain the brutal experience of a soldier in combat. The various accounts from the Vietnam War will give your students a new perspective on how the soldiers, each with their own specific backstory, cope—or fail to cope—with their draft. A background lesson on the Vietnam War including the draft, conditions on the ground in Vietnam, and guerilla tactics will help contextualize these stories.

O’Brien’s work explores profound themes that cannot be overemphasized, including the concept of “carrying” burdens (both emotional and physical ones), the traumatizing consequences of death and murder, and the concept of truth (Something can speak moral truths without being historically factual). In a sense, Tim the narrator is unreliable. The semi-autobiographical nature of the collection and the author’s use of real names blur the line between fiction and nonfiction and invite a lesson on metafiction and verisimilitude in writing.

Above all, students will certainly relate to high-school-aged Tim, a young man with dreams who must suddenly go to war and immensely struggles with the reality of having his plans ripped away.

1. Summarize The Things They Carried

Several decades after the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien is still in search of relief. In order to cope, he turns to writing and uses his imagination to stretch and manipulate the truth of his experiences. The Things They Carried is a series of short stories that convey the hardships that he and his comrades shared. Out of chronological order, the novel follows O’Brien’s platoon before, during, and after the war, and allows a glimpse into the minds of soldiers who carry the weight of their gear, along with the weight of their complicated emotions, as a result of their circumstances.

Content Warning: This novel contains graphic violence, profanity, and death.

2. Identify Objectives for Teaching The Things They Carried:

  • Describe the effects of war on soldiers, both while they are in the field and after they have returned home.
  • Understand the difference between “story truth” and “historical truth.”
  • Recognize elements of a “true war story.”
  • Explain why the collection of short stories is an effective form for the novel.
  • Analyze the bond soldiers have with each other and how the veterans fail to connect to those who have not shared their experience.

1. Pinpoint Key Facts and Literary Elements

Key Facts

  • Publication Date: 1990
  • Length: 256 pages
  • Lexile® Measure: 880
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9-10
  • France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger Award
  • Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize
  • Pulitzer Prize Finalist
  • National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

Literary Elements

  • Autobiography
  • Conflict
  • Flashback
  • Imagery
  • Metaphor
  • Symbolism

2. Understand Themes and Motifs

  • War — Many of the stories reveal the destructive consequences of war that affect not only other countries and cultures, but also the individual.
  • Innocence and Experience — Soldiers who are naïve to the horrors of war must learn quickly what lengths they must go to in order to survive. Any innocence they had quickly evaporates when faced with fatally 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.

3. Explore Related Works

Theme of war

Themes of innocence and experience

Theme of identity

4. Employ Films and Other External Resources

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.

5. Consider What Your Students Will Love

  • The multiple perspectives and experiences during wartime
  • The differing structures of the stories

6. Anticipate What Your Students May Struggle With

  • The writing style—some students may find the narration disjointed or repetitive.
  • The lack of a central plot

7. Order The Things They Carried Resources from Prestwick House:

Resource Format
The Things They Carried Paperback Student Edition
The Things They Carried Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Things They Carried Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Things They Carried AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Things They Carried Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Things They Carried Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Things They Carried Levels of Understanding Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Things They Carried Multiple Critical Perspectives Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set

More Teacher's Guides to Literature:

See all our Teacher's Guides to Literature here.