What is truth? The age old question that many have been asking over and over again, from the time of Aristotle, to today with Cornel West. For some, truth is found in religion. To others, truth is found in self. Some spend their lifetimes seeking genuine truth. Others do not give it a second thought. In Tim O’Brien’s, The Things They Carried, the truth is explored through a series of personal encounters, with fabrication and fact tightly intertwined. For O’Brien, truth has the traits of being experiential, perceptive, and contradictory.
Personally in my own life, I find the topic of truth to be one that is extremely interesting. The truth subjective, but has the ability to hold a tremendous amount of weight. For many, it holds everything. Yet, one fact of truth can shake the entire entity of what one person can hold to be their one and only truth. Relating back to my example of religion, there are millions who base their whole life on the fact that they believe it all to be their own truth. But if one thing could break it, then in turn, their whole life is broken.
The Things They Carried is a novel about a group of solders fighting in the Vietnam war and their experiences throughout it. I chose to write about this short story collection, wrote about Tim O’Brien because it is one of my favorite books, and when I was assigned to read it in high school, the heaviness of truth presented in the book flew over my head. Re-reading the novel and writing my final paper on this was a good choice. Also, my grandfatther fought in the Vietnam War, and although it is a work of fiction, I was able to relate it to him, and understand further about where he truly came from.
By focusing on the truth, the novel reveals the importance of experience through telling stories. At first glance, the concepts of truth and storytelling may seem to be opposing, but that is not the case. Storytelling makes it possible for a listener to feel genuine compassion and empathy, making another person’s experience seem like his own. The feelings and emotions of a character become personal for the reader. O’Brien explains” the difference between “happening-truth” and “story-truth” (171). He explains that while happening-truth is situationally accurate, story-truth allows the reader to experience the same feelings which he had felt. He gives an example when he describes what he saw on the battle field:
His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole, his eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman’s, his nose was undamaged, there was a slight tear at the lobe of one ear, his clean black hair was swept upward into a cowlick at the rear of the skull, his forehead was lightly freckled, his fingernails were clean, the skin at his left cheek was peeled back in three ragged strips, his right cheek was smooth and hairless, there was a butterfly on his chin, his neck was open to the spinal cord and the trail, a slim, dead, almost dainty young man. (124)
Despite the graphic and specific description of the “dainty young man”, O’Brien later admits that he had never actually witnessed this scene. Still, although he might not have actually seen the individual faces of bodies lying in a field, by describing a “star-shaped” gouge in the dead soldier’s eye, he is able to incite the same feeling of terror that he had truly felt during his time in Vietnam, making the story-truth emotionally true as well. He paints an eerily realistic picture that allows the reader to believe the story is true in order to bring his story to life, enhancing the emotive experience. Therefore, despite understanding the fictional basis of O’Brien’s stories, people will continue reading The Things They Carried as if were is autobiographical, simply because of the overwhelming power behind story-truth.
In this way, stories can possess a mystic power over the human mind. A good narrative can transport readers from where they are to a far-away land, a different time, or even an alternate reality. For example, “The Allegory of the Cave”, the philosopher Aristotle challenges his fellow thinker, Glaucon, to question what is true. He asks Glaucon to imagine a situation in which people are chained and forced to believe their entire realities consist of shadows dancing on a cave wall, cast from a fire and puppets behind them; the captives’ “happening-reality”. He then asks what would happen if a captive should dare to stray from the familiar images cast upon the wall; “And if he is compelled to look straight at the fire, will he not have pain in his eyes which will make him turn away and take refuge in the shadows which he can see?” (Plato). Aristotle implies that even when given a glimpse of reality, an individual will still return to what is comfortable. This is also true for many who read The Things They Carried. Although O’Brien consistently reminds us that this novel is a work of fiction, we still retreat to the ease of believing that his story is truth. The power behind experience is revealed through both narratives. Like the captives chained within the cave walls who still choose to believe the images on the wall despite seeing the reality of fire, readers remain bound to believing O’Brien’s story-truth because the feelings he incites is not easily shaken. To them, their experience stands to be the truest.
The slipperiness of truth is also revealed through perception. After the death of Ted Lavender, Lieutenant Cross is found curled deep within a foxhole he had dug while struggling to fight back tears. His troop listens on as he weeps throughout the night. When they see him, they see a boy who is hurting, a leader who cares so deeply for his men that he can hardly carry the heavy burden of loss. And while there is truth to the men’s perception of the situation, this is not the entirety of it. “In part, he was grieving for Ted Lavender, but mostly it was for Martha, and for himself, because she belonged to another world…” (16). Unrequited love. She would never love him the way he loved her. Cross is certainly mourning, but that sorrow is not reserved for Lavender as the others had thought. Truth to Kiowa and Bowker was that Cross had lost a soldier. Truth to Cross was that he had lost his love back home.
Truth in perception can also be seen beyond the scope of The Things They Carried. In October of 1967, tensions grew high throughout the nation as news was released of the usage of chemical warfare by American troops. There was a clear division in where people stood; either for or against the Vietnam War. On that day in October of ’67, students of the University of Wisconsin began boycotting the use of napalm. Shortly after the protests began, the Madison police arrived at the scene. In the matter of moments, the boycotts broke out into riots, as police forcefully pushed students out of the commerce building.
Clouds of tear gas and screams of horror filled the air. The terrified students watched as an inescapable wave of batons, helmets, and uniforms quickly approached them. Administrators, professors, and peers watched as bleeding protestors stumbled out of the crowd, collapsing to the floor in agony (Two). Even in this situation, perception is the key to truth. To the students, the war was senseless. To many others, it was necessary. To the protestors, the police were brutal beasts of destruction. To the authorities, they were keepers of peace. Perception deeply affected the scope of how each party viewed the situation and was the deciding factor on what actions should be taken.
Because truth is so heavily influenced by perception and experience, truth is also contradictory. In many instances, there are multiple truths to one experience. Despite the pain that childbirth brings, it also bears the miracle of life. In death there is loss, but also relief from the hurt of this world. O’Brien leaves another perfect example; “The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat” (77). In this, O’Brien explains the conflicting angles of a single instance. Through the destruction of war there still stands a sense of beauty. Both statements stand true, but it is also a matter of who’s scope you view it through.
“War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead” (76). According to O’Brien, the truth is messy. Truth is fabrication and concrete simultaneously. Truth is personal and yet still universal. Truth is ubiquitous. Truth is important. Truth is not easily defined. Through the muddiness of it all, one thing is for sure; the truth is certainly uncertain.
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