The Theme Of Imagination Used By Tim O'Brien In The Things They Carried

The human capacity for imagination helps cope with reality. Imagination creates stories that help the mind try to understand events in life. It is at first an escape from life, but also a way to accommodate with reality. In the end, what is imagined may become truer than the real truth. In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien illustrates a series of stories that shows the concept of the imagination through stories that are surreal and ambiguous in communicating truth in the Vietnam War.

There is always some kind of uncertainty within every story in this book. In each chapter, there is a retelling of an event, which the truth may then be found. Although O'Brien mentions that the stories are real, he reminds the reader that they are all made up. For example, in “How to Tell a True War Story,” before telling a grisly story of a soldier killing a baby water buffalo, O’Brien writes, “This one does it for me. I’ve told it before – many times, many versions – but here’s what actually happened”. Although the baby water buffalo story is told in many different ways, readers believe that they experience the true story because O’Brien says, “here’s what actually happened.” A true war story is not about courage and heroism but about the reality of misplaced anger and the inability of soldiers to deal effectively with their feelings about a horrible experience.

Imagination also allows stories to be made, and these stories allow the soldiers to survive during and after the Vietnam War. Although O’Brien writes fictional stories, these narratives are telling events that happened in the Vietnam War. Whether they are true or fictional, the stories portray the instability a soldier experiences in a war. They are true to a soldier that went to war. For example, Mitchell Sanders tells a story about a patrol group who goes to the mountains to monitor enemy movement. After a week, the patrol group started to hear eerie, strange noises. It seemed like they were listening to a cocktail party and soon reported it as a supposed enemy movement. What they heard was just a hallucination from the exhaustion. Nobody discussed it after the fact, because they were not even sure what they had experienced. Sanders later admits that he made some parts of the story because he still wanted to convince O’Brien the story was true. O’Brien writes, “I could tell how desperately Sanders wanted me to believe him, his frustration at not quite getting the details right, not quite pinning down the final and definitive truth.” Sanders was being insistent because he did not want to be interpreted as crazy, and the more assertive he was, the story became more realistic. According to O’Brien, stories can serve as a therapy for writers and he writes, “But this is true too: stories can save us.” The very act of writing the stories in The Things They Carried is used to heal O’Brien. Stories can make events happen over again and can bring people and memories that have died back to life. He writes, “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.”

Furthermore, unjustified beliefs and tangible objects as a representation of luck, play a role in the way the soldier cope with the Vietnam War and their imagination. The soldiers carry many figurative and literal things which hold different meanings in the soldiers’ hearts. Among these things are Jimmy Cross’s pebble and Henry Dobbins’ talisman. Cross’s pebble is a representation of the obsession he had over Martha, who didn’t see Cross as a lover. He believes the pebble to be a lucky charm because it is a remembrance of the things he left behind and importantly the love he had for Martha. The superstition helps him maintain hope and sanity. Dobbins’ Talisman is the stockings of an ex-girlfriend and the act of wearing them around his neck symbolizes the longing he has of love and they became so powerful that it is to protect Dobbins from any harm.“Like many of us in Vietnam, Dobbins felt the pull of superstition, and he believed firmly and absolutely in the protective power of the stockings”.

Imagination can also hinder us when control is lost. An example of this could be Jimmy Cross obsessed over a girl named Martha. He thinks about her all the time and his focus is more and more moving away from the war. “He would slip away into daydreams, just pretending, walking barefoot along the Jersey shore, with Martha, carrying nothing”. He continues with “pretending” almost losing himself into imagination. War brings lots and lots of horrors and especially when someone’s imagination comes into play. Just like in the Chapter, ”The Dentist,” Curt Lemon decides to purposely make himself believe there was something wrong with his tooth. Upon visiting the dentist, he seemed very nervous and when it was his turn to be examined, he fainted. It was embarrassing for him, and he got his tooth pulled. So He made himself imagine that there was something wrong with a perfectly good tooth. He wanted to remain masculine in everyone's eyes in compensation for his outburst. “There was some pain, no doubt, but in the morning Curt Lemon was all smiles,” and he dealt with the pain so he could recuperate some dignity. These stories show how the imagination can be a killer in the soldiers’ minds.

In summation, the theme of imagination used by Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried, had plenty about how it can be good to back up some truth but at the same time, it can affect your story very fast. Imagination leads to storytelling that portrays a certain truth in something that is unperceivable from the beginning, and allows an exploration on the story-telling tactics the soldiers used. The stories are told and retold to emphasize on the aftereffects veterans of the war went through and for the reader to understand experiences that will personally not happen to them. As O’Brien said, “Exercising the imagination is the main way to find the truth…” Imagination is so important for the soldiers that go through hard times and it is a way to get away from reality without covering it up. 

09 March 2021
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