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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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The Things They Carried Characters

The main characters in The Things They Carried include Tim O’Brien, Jimmy Cross, and Kiowa.

  • Tim O’Brien is the narrator of much of the text, whose understanding of life and death is altered by his experiences in Vietnam.
  • Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is the leader of O’Brien’s unit. Deeply affected by the first death in his unit, he realizes he must become a stricter leader to protect his men.
  • Kiowa, a Native American soldier, is a Christian and relies on his moral compass. His death greatly affects O’Brien.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Tim O'Brien

The author is the protagonist of the text, though he is largely separate from much of the action in the story. He is a pensive intellectual who finds himself on the ground as a soldier in Vietnam. He learns a lot about death and life through his experiences there, which ultimately go on to shape his authorial style and identity.

Jimmy Cross

Jimmy Cross is the affable lieutenant who leads O'Brien's unit. Cross is examined in depth in the first chapter of the book, which reveals that his foolish romanticism and lax enforcement of the rules indirectly led to the death of Ted Lavender. Because this was the first death of someone in the unit, it jars Cross into understanding that he needs to grow up. Cross becomes the benevolent, strict leader his men need in order to survive, abandoning his desire to be loved in favor of seeking respect.

Kiowa

Kiowa is a Native American Christian who has a general distaste for white men. He becomes the voice of reason in the group. From the beginning, Kiowa's religious beliefs help him cope with the injustices of war, and he often follows his moral compass when making decisions. His death affects O'Brien the most out of all the other soldiers.

Ted Lavender

Ted Lavender is the nervous soldier who is killed while coming back from urinating. Lavender's overwhelming fear and anxiety made it difficult for him to cope with the demands of war, and as a result he took tranquilizers in massive doses. Lavender is significant mostly because his death is the first one in the unit, thereby making it a turning point.

Curt Lemon

Curt Lemon is a young man who is killed by a land mine while he and Rat Kiley are playing a game. Lemon was best friends with Rat Kiley, and O'Brien recalls in vivid detail how he had to peel pieces of Lemon out of the tree after the explosion. Lemon's gruesome death represents the cruelty and unfairness of war.

Rat Kiley

Rat Kiley is the most animated storyteller among the men in the unit, often relating colorful (if not strictly true) stories to the men, including the legend of the girlfriend-turned-vigilante-assassin Mary Anne Bell. Kiley is deeply affected by Lemon's death, losing control and torturing a baby water buffalo to death via a series of gunshots. Kiley's once lively disposition changes after Lemon's death.

Linda

Linda is the young girl from O'Brien's youth who died at an early age due to illness. O'Brien vividly recalls the pure love he felt for Linda, even though they were only nine years old. Linda's death was O'Brien's first experience with mortality, and he frequently returns to these memories when interrogating the nature of death and his relationship to it. Linda, despite her condition, was a stalwart realist who remained in good spirits even after she realized her illness was terminal. Linda becomes the representation of O'Brien's innocence.

Norman Bowker

While not heavily featured in many other chapters, Norman comes to represent the problems of returning to civilian life in "Speaking of Courage." After leaving Vietnam, Norman just wants someone with whom he can discuss the war, but he can’t seem to find anyone who understands. This drama is played out during a lonely Fourth of July holiday when Norman realizes that his search for such a person is futile.

Henry Dobbins

Henry Dobbins is the brutish machine gunner for the Alpha Company who is, at his core, a simple and kind man. His exterior does not match his interior. His role in the text is to serve as the embodiment of Vietnam's contradictions.

Martha

Martha is the college student with whom Jimmy Cross is so infatuated that he can't concentrate on the war. Martha always tells Cross to take care of himself, and she writes him frequent letters, which he reads every night. However, Cross comes to realize that Martha does not feel the same way about him that he does about her, and he understands that his fixation uses mental energy that would be better spent on ensuring the survival of his men. Martha becomes a symbol for the people that soldiers leave behind, who have an inability to comprehend just what their loved ones are going through.

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