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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien
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Develop a well-organized literary essay answering the question: What is the role of death in the short story "The Things They Carried"?

A literary essay about the role of death in "The Things They Carried" could focus on the arbitrary or random quality of death. An essay on this theme may include discussion of the wartime situation and the guilt of survivors who could not prevent another person’s death. Supporting material for these themes can refer to the shooting of Ted Lavender, Jimmy Cross’s resulting guilt, and O’Brien’s use of “things” as concrete objects and abstract concepts.

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Tim O’Brien’s short story "The Things They Carried" explores the impact of an apparently random death during the Vietnam War. After a soldier is shot and killed, the survivors have diverse reactions to his death. They are all aware that any one of them could have been the victim. The company’s lieutenant, however, cannot escape the feeling that, as an officer, he did not do a good job at protecting his men. O’Brien details specific objects that various men carry with them, such as a heavy gun or a personal photograph. He draws analogies between these objects and the emotions or ideas that they represent.

While O’Brien situates the story during a war, he focuses on a death that did not occur on the battlefield. Rather, the death of one soldier, Ted Lavender, happened while the company to which he belonged was clustered around a tunnel entrance. Lavender, having just returned from urinating in the bushes, was killed instantly when an unseen sniper shot him in the head. Lieutenant Cross, stunned that this could occur right in front of all the men, feels personally responsible. One conceptual thing that Cross carries is guilt. The author relates this to another abstract concept, love, which Cross had been thinking about; this is symbolized by a photograph of his girlfriend back home.

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