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This powerful story is set in the Vietnamese war. The story itself is unusual because of O’Brien’s emphasis on the details of "the things they carried" and also because of the many characters who make themselves instantly real. In the story’s brief duration, O’Brien successfully conveys the entire way of life of the men in the unnamed platoon. He does not make claims about the ugliness, dirt, and horror of the war, but arranges the story’s accumulating details to point toward this conclusion.
We learn about the life and thoughts of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross from the omniscient limited narration, which is alternated with detailed materials about what the men of the platoon carry on their patrols. Cross is therefore a centralizing, unifying character. He loves Martha, the girl back home, but he also concludes that thinking about her has diverted his attention away from his duty as a leader of his men. After Lavender is killed Kiowa believes that Cross is grieving over the death, when actually Cross is grieving "mostly" for "Martha, and for himself, because she belonged to another world" (paragraph 43). In addition to the unity provided by Cross, the story is unified by the many references to Lavender’s death (both before and after) and by the many concentrated descriptions of the things that the soldiers must carry.
The many repetitions about the weights, the need to carry things, and Lavender’s death build up a pattern of realism in the story. This sometimes overwhelming detail literally transfers the experience of the men directly to readers, who cannot weigh the things but who nevertheless feel the heaviness of the burdens and also the threat of death that the men face each minute of every day. The soldiers' emotional baggage that they carried with them in their5 minds was far heavier than any physical object; as it is obvious with Cross's pebble that he kept in his mouth.
At first, Mitchell Sanders is not articulate or expansive in expressing the meaning and moral of the severed thumb. The most he can do is to point to the dead man and say, "There it is, man" (paragraph 37). Dobbins says that there is no moral. Later on (paragraph 75), the men consider the moral further.
Paragraph 39 is skillfully detailed and is the central as well as the longest paragraph in the story. The men carry objects of all sorts, psycjhologically, emotionally, and physically, and also infections, tropical parasites, and, literally, the soil of Vietnam itself, and they do so endlessly. Sometimes they die, as Lavender dies. It is fair to say that the paragraph encapsulates the experiences of these men and the threats under which they live.
The items in "Things They Carried" can be categorized by:
- physical (rations) vs. emotional (fear)
- positive non-tangible (memories) vs. negative non-tangible (hatred, regret)
- heavy (M-60, radio) vs. light (pictures, letters)
- standard issue (helmet) vs. personal belongings (comics)
- things from home (letters) vs. things from Vietnam (thumb)
- talismans for protection (the pantyhose) vs. gruesome tokens of war (the thumb)
- masculine (condoms) vs. feminine (pantyhose)
- pagan (hatchet) vs. religious (New Testament)
- external (bug spray) vs. internal (dope)
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