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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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In the story "The Things They Carried," what items change in meaning due to the war? How do they change?

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As the men experience the horrors of war, the things they carry change, and so does the way they relate to the things. For example, Jimmy Cross carries the letters from Martha to feel close to her. But Ted Lavender dies when Jimmy is daydreaming of Martha, and afterward, Jimmy feels guilty. He burns the letters because they remind him that Martha is in a different world and that he must face his harsh reality.

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In "The Things They Carried," Tim O'Brien discusses many items that the men carried in the Vietnam War. Some of the things are physical, like photographs, candy, and grenades, and some of them are mental, like dreams and fears.

As the brutal war changes the men, the meaning of the things they carry also begins to change. Most of the men are shocked at how horrible the war is and how quickly people die for no reason. They go from being naïve young boys to hardened men who distance themselves from their lives back home and the objects that remind them of it.

For example, recall how Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries the photo of Martha, the girl he loves back home. He also carries letters she writes to him. These objects remind him of what he felt like being with her, and he spends a lot of time daydreaming about her. Sometimes his daydreams of her distract him from what is going on around him. This happens when Ted Lavender dies, and afterward, Jimmy becomes frustrated and angry. He begins to understand that Martha belongs to a different world. He works hard to "shut down the daydreams" because he realizes,

This was not Mount Sebastian, it was another world, where there were no pretty poems or midterm exams, a place where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity. Kiowa was right. Boom-down, and you were dead, never partly dead.

Now that Jimmy has really seen how easily people die in this war, he knows that he can no longer be distracted by items that remind him of the past. The things he had that reminded him of Martha went from being a nice connection to his home to a horrible reminder that he lives in a different place now and can no longer have such a simple, pretty life. He might not have to carry around the letters anymore, but he does have to carry the guilt he feels over Lavender's death. He carries it "like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war."

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Tim O'Brien and the men he served with were changed by their experience with war. In the story "The Things They Carried," what items change meaning due to the war, and what are those changes? For example, a poncho is used to keep one dry in the rain. In Vietnam, it is used as shelter, as bedding, and even as a body bag for Lavender. What other items' meanings are changed due to war?

In "The Things They Carried," the objects the soldiers bring from home change meaning as their experiences change. Comfort becomes paramount in the harsh environment of Vietnam, so Kiowa uses the New Testament he brought with him as a pillow. The book changes from a source of spiritual guidance to an object used to enhance Kiowa's physical comfort and help him to sleep.

Lieutenant Cross has brought letters with him, which he wishes were love letters but in fact only express the friendship and concern of Martha, the girl he loves. At the beginning of the story, these letters are reminders of her and of his life at home, but their meaning changes abruptly after the death of Lavender. At this point, Cross sees the letters as symbols of his dereliction of duty, his fatal failure to look after his men. He therefore feels compelled to burn the letters, even though he admits to himself that this is a stupid, sentimental gesture.

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