1. Why is the first story, "The Things They
Carried," written in third person? How does
this serve to introduce the rest of the novel?
What effect did it have on your experience of
the novel when O'Brien switched to first person,
and you realized the narrator was one of the
2. In the list of all the things the soldiers
carried, what item was most surprising? Which
item did you find most evocative of the war?
Which items stay with you?
3. In "On The Rainy River," we learn
the 21-year-old O'Brien's theory of courage:
"Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in
finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by
being frugal and stashing it away and letting it
earn interest, we steadily increase our moral
capital in preparation for that day when the
account must be drawn down. It was a comforting
theory." What might the 43-year-old
O'Brien's theory of courage be? What does this
story have to say about choices and
4. In the second section of "On the Rainy
River," the narrator describes in vivid detail
his job as a declotter in a meatpacking plant.
How are the images he uses in describing this
job similar to the images he uses to
characterize fighting in Vietnam? What effect or
idea does the book convey with this related
5. Often, in the course of his stories, O'Brien
tells us beforehand whether or not the story
will have a happy or tragic ending. Why might he
do so? How does it affect your attitude towards
6. According to O'Brien, how do you tell a true
war story? What does he 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 the difference between
7. In "Sweetheart of the Song Tra
Bong," what transforms Mary Anne into a
predatory killer? Does it matter that Mary Anne
is a woman? How so? What does the story tell us
about the nature of the Vietnam War?
8. What is the effect of "Notes," in
which O'Brien explains the story behind
"Speaking Of Courage"? Does your
appreciation of the story change when you learn
which parts are "true" and which are
the author's invention?
9. Does your opinion of O'Brien change throughout
the course of the novel? How so? How do you feel
about his actions in "The Ghost
10. In "The Man I Killed," the narrator
repeatedly describes details about the victim.
What point do you think the book makes in this
chapter and elsewhere about the humanity of the
11. In "Speaking of Courage," the narrator
describes the experiences of Norman Bowker after
he returned from fighting in Vietnam. What
points do this chapter and the remainder of the
book make about veterans’ lives after the war?
12. The Things They Carried has several different
accounts of a single event, Kiowa’s death. How
does this relate to memory, storytelling and
13. How is the story of Linda, the little girl, in
the final chapter, "The Lives of the Dead,"
related to themes and issues raised earlier in
These questions come from reader’s guides
published by Random
House, Inc., and the Chicago