illustration of the backside of a soldier in full military gear

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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How does the symbol of the pebble function in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, and what does it reveal about the characters or themes of the novel?

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In Tim O’Brien’s novel, "The Things They Carried," the titular items that the soldiers carry function as a potent symbol, revealing much about the characters and overall themes of the work.

The physical items that each soldier carries are emblematic of their personalities, backgrounds, and their mental and emotional states. For instance, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries letters from a girl named Martha, a college student back home. These letters are symbolic of his unrequited love for Martha and his longing for a life outside of war. They also represent his guilt and regret after one of his men dies while he is daydreaming about Martha.

On the other hand, Rat Kiley, the medic, carries comic books, M&M's, and brandy, which not only serve as his escape from the war but also symbolize his youth and innocence. These items also highlight the stark contrast between the normalcy of their past lives and the horrifying realities of war.

The soldiers also carry intangible burdens such as fear, guilt, love, and memory, which are as real and heavy as the physical items they carry. These metaphorical burdens are symbolic of the psychological impact of war on the soldiers, a theme that runs throughout the novel.

The "things they carried" thus function as a powerful symbol in the novel, offering insight into the characters' personalities and emotional states, as well as serving as a commentary on the broader themes of war, love, fear, and memory.

Expert Answers

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Yes, the response generated is correct but there are other items the soldiers carried that also symbolize important themes or items. Although the "things they carried were largely determined by necessity," according to the book, there were certain items that were not necessary but which could be transported easily that and were important to the men carrying them. These items varied from one soldier to another. 

For example, Lieutenant Cross carried a pebble that Martha, the girl back home whom he loves, sent him. He carries it "in his mouth, turning it with his tongue, tasting sea salt and moisture." The taste is symbolic, rather than real because the sea salt rubbed off long ago. However, the pebble is a symbol so concrete that it transported him home as "His mind wandered..." and "he would slip away into daydreams, just pretending, walking barefoot along the Jersey shore, with Martha, carrying nothing." This underscores his need to escape the horrors of war and, in his mind, return to the home he left behind and misses.

There were also certain items that were common to most of the men. For instance, "[a]lmost everyone humped photographs." The photographs were of different people or items, but most likely in all cases they were symbols of the lives the men had left behind and of the things they cherished at home. This also symbolizes the need nearly all the men felt to keep some aspects of normalcy with them.

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