What is symbolic about the things they carried as individuals in The Things They Carried?

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Tim O'Brien introduces the reader to several soldiers in the opening chapter of The Things They Carried . Throughout this first chapter, O'Brien creates a laundry list of things that are carried by the soldiers; some are required, some are personal, and some are intangible. The purpose of this introductory...

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Tim O'Brien introduces the reader to several soldiers in the opening chapter of The Things They Carried. Throughout this first chapter, O'Brien creates a laundry list of things that are carried by the soldiers; some are required, some are personal, and some are intangible. The purpose of this introductory chapter, and the detailed list that O'Brien provides to the reader, is to create a personal look at the soldiers, allowing the reader to see them from a more human perspective.

O'Brien accomplishes this task in two different ways. For each of the soldiers that he chooses to focus on, he provides details of their personal effects that give deeper insight into what these men find important. Cross's letters demonstrate his pain over unrequited love, Jensen's rabbit's foot and sandbags show his superstition, and Kiowa's hatchet and Bible reveal his deep faith and pride in his heritage.

Beyond the personal list of items that the soldiers carry, O'Brien also highlights the weight of the intangible that each of the soldiers hump along with their required gear. O'Brien states:

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing-these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. The carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.

The details of the fear that they carry serves to constantly remind the reader of who these soldiers truly are: young men, barely into adulthood, being placed in a situation where they must face events and decisions that they will then have to carry with them for the rest of their lives, long after the war has ended.

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The group of soldiers that is presented to us in this brilliant short story carries many things, and the majority of these objects are determined by "necessity." However, at the same time, the story also lists a number of other objects that various individuals chose to carry in addition to the equipment that they had to carry as a platoon of soldiers. Each of these objects says a lot about the person carrying that object:

Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he'd stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April... Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity.

Thus we can see that the extra things that Ted Lavender carried were indicative of his stressed character and personality. Dave Jensen's extra belongings were indicative of his role, and Henry Dobbins of course carried extra food because of his stature. Most interesting however are love letters carried by Jimmy Cross and the way that he obsesses over them, hoping that this friendship will develop into something more. Also, note the two extra belongings that Kiowa carried:

Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother's distrust of the white man, his grandfather's old hunting hatchet.

Kiowa thus hedges his bets by taking a symbol of his faith but also another symbol of his more violent background in the form of his grandfather's hatchet. The extra belongings that the soldiers thus choose to carry are very richly symbolic and cast light on these characters and their attitude to war, life and their situation.

 

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