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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Discussion Topic

Connections between the title and story in "The Things They Carried"


The title "The Things They Carried" reflects the physical and emotional burdens borne by soldiers in the Vietnam War. These burdens include weapons, personal items, and emotional weight such as fear, guilt, and memories. The story explores how these tangible and intangible loads affect the soldiers' experiences and relationships, emphasizing the profound impact of war on individuals.

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How does each part of "The Things They Carried" relate to the title?

The answer to this is about as straightforward as The Things They Carried itself, which is to say not at all. On the other hand, there should be no lack of ideas and material to draw from.

When we look at the titular short story "The Things They Carried," the relation is very clear, practical, and above all, physical. Most of the men the author describes carry an item or several with very personal significance, although not all of them are particularly profound. I personally categorize those items according to what time they represent in the lives of the men and whether they are aimed at the past, present, or the future.

For example, mementos from home are mostly aimed at the past. They remind the soldiers of what they'd left behind. These items give them something to fight for, but of course, they also make them homesick. Then there are things like special weapons and drugs and even comic books, which are all rooted in the present. Those items serve the purpose of distraction and protection—the two most important things for the soldiers. Needless to say, it is vital for them to stay alive and not lose their minds. And lastly, there are items looking towards the future, like tokens from the fallen which have to be delivered home to their loved ones.

No item naturally belongs only in one category. A token of a fallen soldier is a future duty but also a present burden and definitely a bitter reminder of the past. Letters from home remind the soldiers about the past, give them information about the present, and provide something to look forward to getting back to.

Those are, as said before, the physical things they carry. The rest of the short stories in the collection take a closer look at memories, fears, duties, and everything else intangible. O'Brien opens that world to us expertly, showing how perplexing and confusing all that emotional baggage can be. Right at the beginning, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross stops carrying his love for Martha and starts carrying more responsibility for his men. In one of the most important stories, "On the Rainy River," the reader sees how someone might choose to carry his fear of ridicule as a shield against their fear of dying. All throughout the book, the author explores how tricky and false memory is—up to the point where a soldier is no longer sure what exactly happened, or didn't happen, to them in the war. It illustrates the tragedy of those who survive. They are left carrying the memories alone, unable or unwilling to share easily, even with fellow veterans.

You may notice in the book that the author never mentions anyone putting anything "down," so to speak. Barely anything is left behind. Perhaps that could be an answer: they carried everything, and those who survived took it all with them.

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How does each part of "The Things They Carried" relate to the title?

O'Brien has collected what is really a group of short stories and put them together in a way that many consider a novel or one book of non-fiction/fiction.  The opening story considers the things that the men he knew carried into combat and what they signified.  Many of the items they carry are particularly important in the stories he tells later about the men whether they are still in combat or at home or from times prior to their going to Vietnam.

But the important relation is that each story involves something that the men carried with them to or from the war.

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Identify five connections between the title and story in "The Things They Carried".

The weight of the “things” in Tim O’Brien’s story is physical, emotional, and psychological. There is generally not a direct correlation between physical and the other kinds of burdens. In many cases, the lighter the physical burden, the weightier is its emotional impact.

One could begin by examining the weight that O’Brien, as the author, carries. Through the character of the narrator, he shows that remembering traumatic events and then figuring out a way to tell them is a burden that a writer needs to find a way to unload.

The individual soldiers in the unit may carry light, tiny things in physical terms, such as a photograph, but the image of a loved one can present a tremendous emotional weight. This is the situation for Jimmy Cross, who treasures the photo of his distant girlfriend.

For others, their physical strength becomes a liability rather than an asset, as they are charged with carrying the heavy gear on which the other soldiers also demand. This applies to both Henry Dobbins and Ted Lavender, but in different ways. Because he is a big man, it falls to Henry to carry the machine gun. When Ted Lavender was shot and killed, the worst thing he carried was weightless, thought the other things had both weight and bulk:

more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighted fear.

Guilt is another type of “thing” that may be, as O’Brien presents it, one of the heaviest weights because of its persistence. This is what relentlessly haunts Cross, who cannot shake the feeling that he caused Ted’s death.

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