In Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” we are transported to various scenes of a troop of young soldiers in the middle of the Vietnam War. O’Brien tells story after story about the war, the soldiers, and about the many physical and emotional things they carried with them while at war.
While there were various select sentences in Tuan’s chapter on “Intimate Experiences of Place” that pertained to “The Things They Carried,” I didn’t quite feel that the bulk of what he was talking about related too much to O’Brien’s work, particularly because Tuan spends so much time discussing the notions of “home” while the boys in the army are so very far from their homes. I can understand that in many ways, the soldiers find a type of “home” within each other, such as Norman Bowker and the way he couldn’t find meaning in life outside of the war. Still, I think that the whole point of the story is largely about how they are NOT home, they are not in a place of comfort, they are not surrounded by familiarity of childhood memories. On the contrary: they are destroying the homes of others. In this sense, I don’t feel Tuan was particularly helpful in understanding “The Things They Carried” despite how beautiful many of the concepts discussed were.
However, there were a few things I thought related well to O’Brien’s book. Tuan talks about how it is the people and objects within our spaces that turn them into intimate places. He explains that “in the absence of the right people, things and places are quickly drained of meaning so that their lastingness is an irritation rather than a comfort” (140). This holds particularly true for when O’Brien returns to Vietnam with his daughter. She couldn’t possibly see how much these scenes meant to him, and he couldn’t possibly explain it to her, because his experience wasn’t really about the place itself in its physical meaning. Rather, it had to do with the people he knew, fought with, and lost there.
Another aspect of Tuan’s work that I thought related well to “The Things They Carried” was about expressing memory. He says that intimate places “may be etched in the deep recesses of memory and yield intense satisfaction with each recall, but they are not recorded like snapshots in the family album” (141). I find this statement to be extremely significant because everything O’Brien is doing in “The Things They Carried” is recalling memory and trying to project what he saw and felt unto us, the readers. Note that whether the details in the memories are true or not is completely irrelevant. Memories aren’t like photographic evidence in which you can pinpoint exactly who was standing where and what they were wearing. Rather, what sticks out in a memory is what was important to the overall feel of the experience, and this is what O’Brien is doing in his book. Tuan sites a story of a professor in a California university whose “day was brightened” because he saw his two favorite students sitting under a skimpy looking tree waving to him (141). Tuan explains, “all who read the passage and nod in recognition, whether or not they have taught in an American college… share it to some degree” (148). This is particularly important because it shows how we all have experiences of intimacy and emotion without being able to fully express how or why it made us feel a certain way, but the knowledge that that phenomenon has occurred is enough to allow us to identify. In this way, O’Brien retells his experiences and projects emotions and occurrences revolving friendship, disappointment, and life being simply unfair. Even without having gone to war, most of us can identify with these feelings. Reading O’Brien’s work only heightens our sensitivity to them, and allows us to share in some of the experiences he discusses in “The Things They Carried.”
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