A Literary Analysis of How to Tell a True War Story

Topics: Short story, Fiction, Diction Pages: 5 (1803 words) Published: February 3, 2009
A Literary Analysis of How to Tell a True War Story
The short story that will be discussed, evaluated, and analyzed in this paper is a very emotionally and morally challenging short story to read. Michael Meyer, author of the college text The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, states that the author of How to Tell a True War Story, Tim O’Brien, “was drafted into the Vietnam War and received a Purple Heart” (472). His experiences from the Vietnam War have stayed with him, and he writes about them in this short story. The purpose of this literary analysis is to critically analyze this short story by explaining O’Brien’s writing techniques, by discussing his intended message and how it is displayed, by providing my own reaction, and by proposing why this story has withstood the test of time and is worthy of inclusion in an anthology.

The writing techniques used within this short story will be discussed first. O’Brien uses various writing techniques for the construction of the language. He uses informal diction and colloquial diction. Meyer states that informal diction “represents the plain language of everyday use, and often includes idiomatic expressions, slang, contractions, and many simple, common words,” and that colloquial “refers to a type of informal diction that reflects casual, conversational language and often includes slang expressions” (1619-1620). The characters in O’Brien’s story speak with an extremely conversational style, and O’Brien uses lots of military slang. He uses informal diction whenever he is telling the war stories or paraphrasing his friends’ stories, and an example of the colloquialism within this story is when O’Brien has Mitchell Sanders say, “They bring in the Cobras, and F-4s, they use Willie Peter and HE and incendiaries” (476). In addition, O’Brien uses middle diction, which Meyer states “maintains correct language usage, but is less elevated than formal diction” (1620). O’Brien’s narration in between war stories and during others is written in middle diction, and he uses middle diction for writing about his own experiences and his own opinions about war stories.

The author uses many other writing techniques, as well. O’Brien uses accents to emphasize certain words. For example, O’Brien writes, “Cooze, he says. He does not say bitch. He certainly does not say woman, or girl. He says cooze” (473). This example places the heightened emphasis on the word ‘cooze.’ O’Brien also uses paradoxes, which Meyer states is “a statement that initially appears to be contradictory but then, on closer inspection, turns out to make sense” (1630). For example, O’Brien writes, “he looks at you with those big gentle killer eyes” (473). It seems that gentle eyes and killer eyes are contradictory descriptions, but it becomes clear that most of these military men are young and gentle, but they are forced to be killers as well. Situational irony is also evident. Meyer notes that situational irony “exists when there is an incongruity between what is expected to happen and what actually happens due to forces beyond human comprehension or control” (1625). O’Brien displays situational irony by writing “what wakes me up twenty years later is Norman Bowker singing ‘Lemon Tree’ as we threw down the parts” (480). It is ironic that Lemon is blasted into the tree, which no one expects to happen, and the tree ironically becomes a ‘lemon tree’.

Images and figures of speech such as similes and metaphors are also apparent within this story. O’Brien uses a simile to compare similarities in generalizations. Meyer defines a simile as “a common figure of speech that makes an explicit comparison between two things by using words such as like, as, than, appears, and seems” (1635). O’Brien writes, “To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace” (479). O’Brien also uses a metaphor to compare the feel of war to that of fog. Meyer notes that a metaphor is “a figure of speech that makes a comparison between two...

Cited: Meyer, Michael. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006.
O’Brien, Tim. “How to Tell a True War Story.” The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. 7th ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. 473-481.
SparkNotes LLC. “The Things They Carried: Themes, Motifs, and Symbols.” 2008. 8 Nov. 2008.
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