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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Student Question

How do guilt and shame contrast in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried?

Expert Answers

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Guilt and shame torment the soldiers in The Things They Carried, both conjured by the senseless violence of war. For this comparison, you might choose to focus on the first chapter ("The Things They Carried") and chapter 17 ("In the Field"). The first story sets the tone for the rest of the book and introduces the guilt and shame that the men in the platoon constantly feel. Shame and guilt are very similar emotions, but shame is a socially driven feeling that leads a person to believe that they are wholly bad or wrong, while guilt stems from an internal feeling of having done something wrong. We can see that the men experience significant shame because, O'Brien writes, they "killed and died, because they were embarrassed not to." Even more than the fear of being violently killed, the soldiers are driven by "their greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing." This blush would be prompted by a soldier feeling that he failed to live up to the expectations of hypermasculinity and senseless violence established by the military culture.

Chapter 1 also explores Jimmy Cross's guilt over failing to prevent Lavender's death. The guilt over this "was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war." When you're writing about these themes of guilt and shame, you could choose to highlight how O'Brien describes these feelings being expressed in the characters' bodies. Shame is described as a "blush"; guilt is something heavy that sits in the stomach.

In chapter 17, "In the Field," these themes are further explored by the men's processing of Kiowa's death. Many of the soldiers blame themselves for contributing to his death, but the reality is that Kiowa's killing, like those of all the other soldiers, is primarily attributable to the violence and evil (as O'Brien would argue) of war. This brings up another aspect of guilt you may choose to explore in your analysis—is the guilt that the men feel displaced? Does the true blame for these horrors actually lie elsewhere? And what does it mean that the men continue to participate in the system of war even while feeling these misgivings? In terms of comparing and contrasting, you can highlight how the men's experience of guilt and shame shifts throughout the book, or how O'Brien depicts the differences between shame and guilt and how each emotion affects the men's actions differently.

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