Examine the central idea in The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.

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karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Based on the question, I'm not sure if you're referring to the story "The Things They Carried" or the entire short story collection by the same name. I will focus mostly on the story and make some general comments about the collection to close.

The central idea of the titular story is that the soldiers in the Vietnam War carry a variety of "things," some literal some more abstract. For example, they carry equipment, rations, weapons, and the physical items they need to fight and to live. Beyond that, they carry items from home that have sentimental value. In a more abstract sense, they carry emotions, namely fear. They carry what they feel is the need to keep their emotions hidden, to act tough, to play the role of the typical soldier. However, their sentimental items and emotional attachments provide them a relief, an escape from their current reality. They can feel human when they feel linked to the world back home, even though they are so separate from it in so many ways.

In "The Things They Carried," the main character is probably Jimmy Cross, the squadron's lieutenant. He carries letters from and photographs of a girl from back home named Martha. She is friendly toward him and sends him notes, but she doesn't love him. They will never have a romantic relationship; yet, Cross finds himself fantasizing about her to escape the daily anxieties of war. When one of his men dies, Cross blames himself, thinking Martha has distracted him from his leadership duties. In this way, something he carries with him can both provide relief and put him and his men in danger.

In the collection as a whole, O'Brien gives us an honest portrayal of what war is like for soldiers in Vietnam. We see what they suffer while in war, but also how they are traumatized and struggle to return back to "normal life." The story "How to Tell a True War Story" suggests that there is no way to accurately convey war experience to someone who hasn't fought in war, while still describing war experiences realistically. The story "Speaking of Courage" illustrates Norman Bowker's struggle to fit back into society after fighting in the war. He drives around the lake in his town over and over again each day, imagining the conversations he would have but can never actually carry out. His repetition of the same actions is a way of his trying to work through his war experience, namely the guilt he feels over Kiowa's death. The collection as a whole is honest and realistic and does not glorify war or soldiers; it simply describes them as human.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tim O'Brien believed that the story of war can be best told from the foot soldier who experienced it each minute, hour, and day. O'Brien's central point in writing stories from this perspective is to reveal the condition of war that faces the soldiers fighting it: "Can the  foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories." The central idea in "The Things They Carried" is to depict these war stories.

In O'Brien's work, the full exploration of war is evident.  There is not an overwhelming politicization of war.  Rather, there is the soldier who experienced it, and these stories that define it.  In the work's dedication, O'Brien believes that his writing is meant to represent "the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa."  Their narratives become the central idea that forms the work.  In being able to talk about "the things they carried," individual objects and experiences that depict the story of the soldier, O'Brien is able to develop an insight into what war was like from the bottom level.  The central issue of the story is to reveal this perspective. While war is dizzying in the array of emotions it features, O'Brien believes that the centrality in its narrative must reside in the foot soldier's experience.  It is in this understanding that the central idea of the story becomes evident.

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The Things They Carried

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