In Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’, we are told a story about what the soldiers in the Vietnam War carried with them and in particular what First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried with him. The way the story is told gives a glimpse of each soldier’s personality based on the items that they carried with them. First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries letters from a girl named Martha with whom he is infatuated. Although she did not send them as love letters, Lieutenant Cross carries them as if they were. Lieutenant Cross’s motives for carrying these letters and the burdens that they represent are made apparent through O’Brien’s unique narrative point of view. The narration is mostly in third person with the use of peripheral narration as the story progresses. In this essay, I will explore how this unique narration allows O’Brien to explore both the physical and emotional burden of the things the soldiers carried.
Before reading ‘The Things They Carried’, we are introduced to the author. We know that O’Brien was an educated scholar, earning a degree in political science, graduating summa cum laude. After earning his degree, he was drafted into the army during the Vietnam War. He was an activist in the war, however, he feared losing the relationship with his family and joined the Fifth Battalion, Forty-sixth Infantry. Having background information of the author tells you a lot about what the story might be centered around. According with the definitions from Literary Devices, ‘ Point of view is a reflection of the opinion an individual from real life or fiction has’ (Literary Devices Editors). In ‘The Things They Carried’, the narrator could very well be Tim O’Brien sharing his personal experiences in the war through a third personal peripheral narration, this is what makes the story unique.
In ‘The Things They Carried’, the things that the soldiers carry are both literal and figurative devices. While they all carry heavy physical loads, they also all carry heavy emotional loads, such as grief, terror, love, etc. Each man’s physical burden emphasizes his emotional burden. For example, ‘As a First Lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried […] a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men’ (O’Brien 1279). This was Lieutenant Cross’s physical burden and carried a very heavy load because he manned a platoon. As a platoon leader, he must not show fear but rather heroism and the way that the things he carries with him are described definitely depicts him as a hero. This is an integral part of understanding Lieutenant Cross because not only does he have to worry about his own life, but also of the lives of other men and getting each and every one of them back home to their loved ones.
Most all of the characters carry a physical burden in the sense of weight and the use of those gadgets. ‘As a big man, therefore a machine gunner, Henry Dobbins carried the M-60, which weighed twenty-three pounds unloaded, but which was almost always loaded. In addition, Dobbins carried between ten and fifteen pounds of ammunition draped in belts across his chest and shoulders’ (O’Brien 1279). The third person narration of the observing narrator provides us with enough detail in this description for us to assume that Henry Dobbins is most likely the physically strongest man in the platoon. On top of his basic uniform, Dobbins carries an additional fifty or more pounds in gear. From this description of what Henry carries with him, it is obvious that his physical load is heavier in terms of weight than the other men.
Furthermore, in addition to Lieutenant Cross’s physical burden, ‘[He] carried letters from a girl named Martha’ (O’Brien 1277), he also carried the emotional burden of what he was hoping were love letters from a girl named Martha he is infatuated with and this was his motivation for another day. This is integral to the development of this character because the love that he has for Martha eventually distracts him in action and the consequence is the loss of a man in his platoon. ‘Lieutenant Cross felt the pain. He blamed himself’ (O’Brien 1280). Lieutenant Cross was so infatuated with Martha that it became a burden; he loved Martha more than he loved his men.
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s combination of physical and emotional burdens show the fear, guilt and regret that demonstrate soldiers at war as seen in Cross’s realization after the death of Lavender, ‘His mind wandered. He had difficulty keeping his attention on the war’ (O’Brien 1281). Basically what we are told is that Lieutenant Cross is so lost in his memories of Martha that he was not focused and as a result, because of his lack of attention, Lavender is now dead. The love he has for Martha is an emotional burden because instead of him leading the men, he is distracted with daydreaming of them being together..
Other soldiers carried a sentimental burden along with them as well. ‘Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriend’s panty-hose wrapped around his neck as a lucky charm and comfort. They all carried ghosts’ (O’Brien 1282). Henry also, although described as a big man, as well as others, carried at least one piece that holds a great sentimental value as comfort and motivation to return home safe and sound to their loved ones. At first glance, we are introduced to Henry as being a mighty man whom we are normally afraid of, however, as we learn about him, he is actually a very sensitive and kind loving man at heart.
Throughout the story, O’Brien switches back and forth between narrative voices, making the question about what’s real and what isn’t even more confusing. You start reading ‘The Things They Carried’ and you think it’s a story told in the third person, describing the things that each soldier carried with them in war. Then suddenly, it switches narration; O’Brien is talking to one of the characters from ‘The Things They Carried,’ and it becomes clear that he was there the whole time during that first story, anonymously.
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