The Symbolism in the Novel the Things they Carried

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In life, it often seems as if opposing forces are interconnected. These dualities are often exemplified by the trauma war forces upon young soldiers. Set during the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien explores the duality of life and the idea that opposing forces create a balance in his novel, The Things They Carried. While war teaches young soldiers life lessons of discipline and strength, the trauma forcefully perverts their innocence, unwantedly manifesting into their everyday lives. A juxtaposition can be seen in the stories of Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon as well as the story of the Vietnamese monks. Throughout the novel The Things They Carried, O’Brien uses juxtaposition and symbolism to emphasize the duality of war and how it ultimately perverts the innocence of its victims.

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Through a duality in tone, imagery of nature and symbols of innocence O’Brien presents how war perverts innocence directly through the stories of Curt Lemon and Rat Kiley. In How to Tell a True War Story, O’Brien tells the story of Curt Lemon’s death as if it were a fairytale: filled with positively connotated descriptions of the setting and providing a carefree description for the gruesome occurrence. O’Brien recalls how he: glanced behind and watched Lemon step from the shade into the bright sunlight. A handsome kid really. Sharp gray eyes, lean and narrow-waisted, and when he died it was almost beautiful (O’Brien 67). The initial diction makes it seem as if Lemon is still “goofing” around with Rat Kiley. The mention of his “lean and narrow-waisted” figure contributes to his characterization since it adds an easily visualized physical description associated with fragility and purity. This visual imagery is representative of his youth and innocence which contributes to O’Brien’s fundamental criticism about the duality of war. The abrupt yet subtle mention of his death seems insignificant as O’Brien continues to mention: the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms (O’Brien 67) without hesitance or a change in tone. The lack of remorse or mourning for Lemon normalizes the death of the young soldiers and the killing of their innocence. Lemon’s innocence is emphasized once again through O’Brien’s mention of the white blossoms. With the most common association of small, white flowers being purity and innocence, these characteristics are immediately connected with the young soldier’s death. Lemon’s death is used by O’Brien to criticize outcomes of war and its killing of helpless young soldiers and citizens. Ultimately, O’Brien uses the idea of Lemon’s gruesome but positively described death as an example for war’s perversion and tainting of innocence.

Through symbolism and irony, Tim O’Brien criticizes the grotesque outcomes of war, especially its perversion and tainting of innocence. Whether it be its millions of deaths, or substantial forest destruction, the Vietnam war infiltrates and negatively affects all aspects of society. O’Brien emphasizes these outcomes in the story Church, where the soldiers arrive at an abandoned temple serving as a make-shift Church. Despite the obvious cultural barrier, the monks are overwhelmingly kind to all the soldiers, especially Dobbins: they cleaned and oiled the machine guns. Though they spoke almost no English, they seemed to have a great respect for the conversation (O’Brien 115). The relationship between the soldiers and monks symbolizes a clashing of opposing worlds: the innocence and peace associated with religion and the inhumane results of war. The washing of machine guns and the washing hand gestures reinforce the irony proposed by O’Brien. The monks wash and purify weapons of mass destruction. Their obliviousness to the gun and the soldier’s killing capabilities emphasize the duality of war proven and criticized by O’Brien. It proves the war’s infiltration into all aspects of the world and its negative effects. The monk’s obliviousness accentuates their innocence in regards to violence and continues to be emphasized by their hand washing gesture. The presentation of a motion symbolic to their religion creates a hypocritical mood through the whole chapter. The soldiers repeat the gesture as a sign of respect, purifying their killing hands. The irony continues when Dobbins declares all you can do is be nice. Treat them decent you know? (O’Brien 117). Dobbins blatantly ignores previous killings and atrocities committed by him and his fellow soldiers claiming ?all you can do is be nice’. The hypocrisy and irony presented in this chapter create an empathetic effect for the helpless victims of war. Whether it be civilians like the monks, or young soldiers forced into battle, the tainting and perverting of innocence is evident. Through the empathetic mood that resonates in this chapter and many others in the book, O’Brien aims to raise awareness and criticize the corruption of youth and innocence that occurs during wars.

Furthermore, O’Brien uses the symbolism of the sun and its association with death to subtly introduce the death of the monks, again emphasizing the unjust perversion of innocence created by war. After the continuous mention of the sun in the story of Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon, its presence is heavily associated with death. When the monks bowed and moved out of the pagoda into the bright morning sunlight (O’Brien 117) after their encounter with the soldiers, it is assumed the monks died in an nondescript manner. Their subtle, nearly hidden death creates a solemn mood upon realization. O’Brien does not explicitly or nonchalantly state the death of the monks as he does with many other but instead, buries it deep within symbolism, almost as if he were ashamed of the occurrence. His diction proves his lack of tolerance and justification for the monk’s death. The subtle explanation of their death is written almost like Curt Lemon’s: in a positive and carefree way which is carried throughout the chapter. The positive diction hides the monk’s perhaps undeserved death. Through the positive diction, O’Brien creates a final happy ending for the kind monks. He neither dwells nor mourns over their deaths, but leaves them hidden within symbolism as a representation of the effects of war. O’Brien uses symbolism and irony to emphasize the corruption of war and its tainting of the innocence of its helpless victims.

Ultimately, throughout his novel The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien uses juxtaposition and symbolism to emphasize the duality of war. Through irony in the story Church and positive, story-like diction in How To Tell a True War Story, O’Brien normalizes and criticizes war’s corruption of youth. He uses the story of the monks to emphasize the unnecessary and malicious tainting of innocence as well as the corruption of youth through symbolism and imagery in Curt Lemon’s story. Whether it be the monks or a young soldier, the war infiltrates and negatively affects every aspect of reality. O’Brien sets out to prove that no matter a person’s physical appearance or religious beliefs, the war uncontrollably dominates all aspects of an individual’s life. Through his novel, The Things They Carried, he sets out to prove the innate corruption of war, and its perversion of innocence. O’Brien proves how war taints innocence present in youth and childhood, inhibiting the children and adolescents born into times of war from experiencing the innate joy and happiness that is characteristic of being young.

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The Symbolism In The Novel The Things They Carried. (2019, Apr 11). Retrieved December 8, 2022 , from

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