In the novel The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien tells the story of a group of soldiers in the Vietnam war who, as a band of brothers, went through so much together. This story details the struggles and internal battles that these men had to deal with during their time in Vietnam and even after the war was done. Many of these men were drafted into the war and not many of them wanted to be there. These were kids who were not ready for war as they were just beginning their time as adults. When they were put into a situation such as the Vietnam war, one could only expect for them to come out different than they were before. These men not only had to carry weight of their supplies, but also the emotional weight that they had to carry with the turmoil they experienced as soldiers. Through this thought, O’Brien throughout the novel uses many different strategies to display what these men were carrying and how it affected them deeply through their time in the war and their time after the war.
In the first Chapter of this novel, “The Things They Carried”, O’Brien right away begins to describe the things they carried. Throughout the whole chapter he addresses what these soldiers carry and how it affects them. However, he speaks most about the things that are the physical and tangible items. But as the book and chapter go on, the focus begins to mainly start to change and he looks closer at the intangible things that these soldiers are holding on to. Whether the emotion is fear, sadness, guilt, responsibility, these soldiers are experiencing it. The first out example of this in the book is through what Jimmy Cross carried. A photograph of a girl he loved named Martha (1). This photo is his reminder of his life back home and also his hopes of being back with the girl that he loved. Martha and the letters, photos, and pebble she sent are on his mind all of the time. He was always thinking about anything that had to do with her. He was carrying the dream that she loved and thought about him just as much as he did her. However, this constant thought and emotional weight that he carried with the constant thought of Martha distracted him much of the time. At one time when he was thinking about Martha, one of his men, Ted Lavender, was shot and killed.
After this event, Cross felt very guilty for the death of Lavender. “He tried not to cry. With his enriching tool, which weighed 5 pounds, he began digging a hole in the earth. He felt shame. He hated himself. He loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war” (16). O’Brien in this sentence is drawing a parallel between the physical items such as the photos and the pebble or stone, and the emotional weight that it caused Jimmy Cross to carry for the rest of the war and even his life. Another example of O’Brien drawing a parallel with the physical and intangible things comes again with Jimmy Cross. As the Lieutenant, he has the most responsibility and he has to carry the maps of Vietnam with him (5). The responsibility to carry the maps bears physical weight, at the same time he is also carrying the emotional weight of the responsibility he has to look after his men. All of the emotional weight is overwhelming for how young these men are. Jimmy Cross is a 24 year old and is carrying all this responsibility he doesn’t even want, shown bluntly after Kiowa was killed, “Jimmy Cross did not want the responsibility of leading these men” (160). When O’Brien draws these connections between the physical things that were carried and how it relates to the emotions they carry, it allows for the reader to really experience and understand the burden these men have to bear.
The idea of these things that these soldiers are carrying changes throughout the book. After the first chapter talks about the physical things, O’Brien intends for the reader to look more into the emotions that these men carry through their experiences. There are a few examples that stand out as they show exactly what war can do to a person mentally. The first example is through the story of Norman Bowker. Bowker is a soldier who in his time in Vietnam went through a lot. However, the event that stuck with him the most was when Kiowa died and Bowker tried to save him but couldn’t. This experience and the rest of his time in the war changed Bowker as person. When he got back from the war he couldn’t help but carry feeling of sadness, guilt, and shame. All these feelings along with the thought that he had no purpose left to serve after being in the war led to an inability for him to connect to his life as it was before. With all these feeling that he carried back from Vietnam, he feels lost in his thought and lives without a purpose.
This is shown when he drives around the lake in circles over and over again (131). It seems that he can not forget about his experiences during the war but also is not able to talk about it leading to Bowker being trapped in his thoughts. In the end, he can not deal with all these feelings he has carried back from his time in Vietnam and meets an unfortunate demise when he commits suicide (149). War affects people in many different ways. Another person it changed was the character O’Brien. He is another character in this story that went through a lot. He had to kill a man while in Vietnam and when he did, he was consumed by guilt and regret. When talking about this experience in the book, he does not ever use a first person point of view as he is trying to distance himself from the experience. O’Brien looks at the man whose life he just took for a long period of time. In this time he thinks about this soldier’s story, of how he got to this point and what his plans were for the rest of his life (118-124). It is easy to see that killing this man affected O’Brien greatly and after the war this leaves an impact on him. The war in general never left his mind and events caused it. O’Brien carries the guilt from taking away this man’s life and especially taking his future from him leaving an imprint emotionally on his mind.
Tim O’Brien develops the idea of these soldiers carrying emotional baggage through their journey constantly throughout the whole book in every story told. He accomplishes this by using many literary devices. This is first introduced in the chapter “The Things They Carried”. He talks about these physical things that these men are carrying and uses repetition to not only make the reader notice the theme but to begin his idea of what the soldiers are carrying allowing him to utilize it throughout the rest of the book (1-25). O’Brien also uses point of view to emphasize what the soldiers are carrying. In the chapter “Speaking of Courage”, the third person point of view that looks into Norman Bowker’s thoughts allows the reader to see exactly what he has carried home from the war. With how O’Brien writes knowing Bowker’s thoughts allows a deeper understanding of the helplessness and feeling of being lost that he experiences. In this way, O’Brien is able to convey what Bowker is carrying emotionally most effectively. In the chapter “Field Trip”, O’Brien goes back to Vietnam to show his daughter a place that took up a large part of his life. When he uses first person point of view, he is able to relay his thoughts and emotions after returning to a place where he faced so much adversity and dealt with many hardships. When O’Brien returns to the spot of Kiowa’s death to pay his respects, he thinks about his greatly about his time of service and the part of his life spent in Vietnam. With how this is written in this point of view, the reader is able to see how greatly he carries the thought of his time in Vietnam and the memory of the men he served with every day. By being in his mind through this chapter, the audience can really grasp how deeply the war has affected him.
In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes about the Vietnam war and the stories of the soldiers who were a part of it. However, O’Brien takes the narrative deeper using the theme of each soldier carrying something. The war affects every soldier whether it is physically or mentally, it leaves none untouched. O’Brien provides the reader with many examples throughout the story of how it can leave a mark on their mind, leaving the emotions of guilt, sadness, regret, or fear. He uses many different tactics to support this theme making it stick with the reader. The soldiers have to carry many supplies for themselves in battle that all have physical weight, but O’Brien is able to convey that sometimes the intangible things carry even more weight.
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