Magic Realism and Postmodernism

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Used as a way to show that all the soldiers were different and was relatable to the reader and of the time period. Tim O’Brien is a veteran who served during the Vietnam War and has since become a writer of magic realism and postmodernism, and his novel The Things They Carried conforms to the conventions of both genres. His novel conforms to the conventions of the genres by consisting of metafiction and themes of magic realism, while also including ideas of postmodernism through the eyes of the soldiers.

The Things They Carried shows many characteristics of magic realism, which is described as a an artistic genre with realistic narrative and a naturalistic technique which Tim O’Brien uses to show the soldiers relationships to their surroundings. This is combined with surreal elements of fantasy which makes this a broad genre as there is many techniques to create this genre of writing.

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Tim O’Brien’s short stories in The Things They Carried seem completely normal as he describes stories that could be true as they use believable human characters and naturalist settings, however they contain elements that would be too unfathomable such as Curt Lemon being blown into a lemon tree. These short stories give a sense of surrealism, and the Vietnam War helps to create this by separating the soldiers from their homes and the normal outside world, constructing an alternate reality in which these characters live their lives. The first person narrative helps convince the reader that the stories told are real, when in fact they are not.

Since the reader only sees through the eyes of the narrator, the information the reader receives is seen only through the narrators eyes. The reader’s perception is solely based on what the narrator does, so our understanding of the characters and development of the story are based on what we comprehend from the narrator. When the reader is given a first person view it also helps relate to our narrator better and as we create a relationship with him the stories become more real.

One aspect Tim O’Brien uses brilliantly is the lack of clarity which is associated with magic realism and very present in The Things They Carried. The readers are often left uncertain how specific events happened or if they were another device to further the surrealness of the short stories.

In the novel, instead of a overarching ending or a sense that the story is developing, the reader learns what each character carries with them and their role in the squad as the short stories go back and forth between past, present, and the occasional foreshadowing in the future. The repetition of the things they carried creates this delay as if they’re searching for the missing piece of a puzzle in order to develop the story.

The individual short stories tend to not fully piece together leaving the reader with a random set of memories: Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon playing catch with a smoke grenade, where Curt Lemon steps on the booby trapped artillery round, and Azar blows up the dog which he strapped a claymore to where he states: “I mean, Christ, I’m just a boy,” (Spin 35). The straightforwardness of these images resemble the simple fact that as the stories progress, the more people die, and the idea of everything having a cause is gone.

This is incredibly helpful in creating a lack of clarity as it leaves the reader to think to themselves what really happened. One other feature of magic realism Tim O’Brien uses is hybridity to create clashing opposites to illustrate change and the mixing of boundaries. This is done by having himself be drafted into this platoon of soldiers that are all very different in character, but also in the ways they all think. Another genre O’Brien uses is metafiction which is when the narrator alludes to the fact that the stories are a work of fiction. This can confuse the reader as he describes the stories as if they’re real when they are in fact fiction.

A good example is when he describes the painful stories of Curt Lemon as it actually happened, but then talks about seeing ghosts in another short story. O’Brien also uses postmodernism throughout his novel as a way to deviate from everyday people at the time of the Vietnam War. He shows off this postmodernism through the thoughts of the soldiers before they’re deployed and during their deployment.

One example of postmodernism is during the short story “On The Rainy River”, where Tim O’Brien narrates what went through his head when the draft notice had arrived at his house on June 17,1968. This story shows the ideas and thoughts that went through young adults during the 1960s as many started to deviate from the traditional modern lifestyle. This resulted in what is now Atheism and is also what lead to many people believing in science.

Tim O’Brien uses the soldiers as a way to express the views they had at the time such as Azar being the person who thinks life is a game or Kiowa who’s religious. The soldiers show a contrast between peoples views on life, but it also shows that there isn’t one way to view the world or the war. This is a great example of postmodernism because it shows the general distrust of normal theories and ideologies, and how the country at the time was deviating away from the common theories and proposing their own new theories and ideologies.

Overall, The Things They Carried conforms to the traditional genre conventions of postmodernism and magic realism by having many aspects and themes of both magic realism and postmodernism through the use of the soldiers characteristics and views on the Vietnam War.

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Magic Realism and Postmodernism. (2021, Sep 29). Retrieved from

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