Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
A major theme that this story explores is the initiation of young men in wartime, when youths must become men. Pranksters must become killers, dreamers must become realists—or someone dies. The world of the intellect (Lieutenant Cross is a college graduate, Martha’s letters express her admiration for Geoffrey Chaucer and Virginia Woolf) is of little relevance here; neither is romance or idealism. Courage becomes a concept without meaning. Getting through the experience alive is the important thing, as Kiowa knows too well. Fear paralyzes them all, yet somehow they manage to continue their march, to put themselves at risk, to carry out their orders. The trick is to survive.
The weight of their burdens is real. What these men have to nourish and protect them is only what they bear on their backs. Scarcely past boyhood, a medic packs his comic books and M&M candies for the relief of particularly bad wounds. A gentle soldier carries a rubbery brown thumb cut from a Viet Cong corpse. A third, a big, stolid man, packs with him the delicacy of canned peaches and his girlfriend’s pantyhose. The men also carry infection, disease, and the land itself in the particles of dust and mud. They carry fear. They carry the weight of memory; they carry ghosts. They carry the burden of being alive; they carry “all they could bear, and then some.”
Each man likewise carries within himself a longing for escape from the senseless and terrible reality of...
(The entire section is 328 words.)
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One of the major thematic concerns in "The Things They Carried" is that of illusion versus reality. On the grandest level, there is the illusion of the courageous wartime soldier. While the soldiers in "The Things They Carried" are not meant to be viewed as cowards, they are meant to be seen for what they are: men who are afraid of death and dying and are also afraid of being seen as cowardly:
they carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide . . . they carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.
The very war itself is in some ways facilitated by America's need to maintain a myth—to appear never to be cowardly, while engaging in a pointless war to maintain such an image.
Yet another illusion is the safety and comfort fostered by the objects the soldiers carry or "hump." Superficially, the men all carry items that provide different answers to the various fears each soldier harbors. Thus, Lavender carries tranquilizers because he is afraid of death, and Jimmy Cross carries the pebble, symbolic of his love for Martha. Collectively, the men carry heavy equipment, such as the twenty-eight-pound mine detector. Yet the comfort these items bring...
(The entire section is 625 words.)
War and Love
Readers might expect the story to articulate the tension between war and peace, but O'Brien's point in this story and in his other writings is that the real connection is between war and love. Lt. Cross believes, for example, that because he loves Martha, he does not fulfill his duty toward his men. He literally thinks that because he chose love over war, Ted Lavender is dead. O'Brien believes, however, that love comes with the territory of war. In an article for the New York Times Magazine in 1994 he explains: ‘‘Intimacy with death carries with it a corresponding new intimacy with life. Jokes are funnier, green is greener. You love the musty morning air. You love the miracle of your own enduring capacity for love.’’
According to O'Brien, however, love is also what drove him to Vietnam. In the same article he confesses: ‘‘I have done bad things for love, bad things to stay loved.’’ Describing his reaction to being drafted he writes: ''I thought about Canada. I thought about jail. But in the end I could not bear the prospect of rejection: by my family, my country, my friends, my hometown. I would risk conscience and rectitude before risking the loss of love.''
The Individual and the Collective
One of the central themes of all war narratives, and particularly Vietnam war literature, is the dynamic between the individual soldier and the unit, or collective, of which he or she is a...
(The entire section is 817 words.)