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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Key themes, elements, and symbols in "The Things They Carried."


Key themes in "The Things They Carried" include the burdens of war, trauma, and the emotional weight soldiers carry. Elements such as detailed descriptions of the soldiers' physical loads symbolize their mental and emotional struggles. Symbols like the items they carry, including letters and tokens, represent their fears, hopes, and memories, highlighting the complex human experience in war.

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What are the main theme and a sub-theme of "The Things They Carried"?

I think you are on the right track, but there are several interrelated themes of this story you might want to consider. For the complete information on themes, go to the links below and read all of what enotes has to say.

The things the soldiers carry in their backpacks reflect their individual lives back home. The heavy equipment they carry reflects the men as a group, depending on each other to try to survive. For example, Lt. Cross carries his stone as a connection to Martha and something outside of the war and Vietnam. When Lavender dies, Cross feels responsible and gets rid of those reminders that tie him to the world of home. The men must also share the burden of Lavender's death as a group and try to deal with it together.

Perhaps another theme you might consider is the one of illusion and reality. The things the men carry as individuals reflect their fears. The comfort those things give isn't real, as none of the things can really help. The equipment the men carry also give them an illusion of safety, but in the end, nothing could prevent Lavender from being shot. The things, both individually and collectively, give the men what they need to survive, emotionally and physically.

Hopefully, this helps. Good luck!

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What are the important elements in "The Things They Carried"?

One of the fascinating things about this story is the way that O'Brien weaves a very different idea about fiction and fact and the way a story can or perhaps should be told.  He contends that a real war story cannot be told, but perhaps it can be felt.  He also presents a variety of contradictory statements about certain ideas or events in the book and rubs away at the idea of certain things being true and others untrue.

The way that he blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction, particularly as they relate to war stories is a powerful idea connecting the telling of these stories to the very idea of being human and conscious and present during the horrific moments of battle and the way Vietnam affected the young men involved.

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What elements in "The Things They Carried" ground the story in its particular era?

In this short story, the context is obviously the Vietnam war in the 1960s. The tale consists of the thoughts of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross as he leads his men and also simultaneously day dreams of a girl back home, Martha, a student who is back in the States. However, as a result of the death of one of his men whilst he was daydreaming about her, Jimmy Cross burns her letters and photo and determines to have "no more fantasies." Note his reasoning for this action:

Henceforth, when he thought about Martha, it would be only to think that she belonged elsewhere. He would shut down the daydreams. This was not Mount Sebastian, it was another world, where there were no pretty poems or midterm exams, a place where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity. Kiowa was right. Boom-down, and you were dead, never partly dead.

The context is so important in this short story because O'Brien shows how the grim realities of the war effectively end the youthful innocence of Jimmy Cross as he forces himself to shut down his emotions and thinks that in war his leadership of his men means that there is no room for daydreams, even though this is shown to be a necessary ingredient to help him survive the onslaught of the realities of war. What grounds this story in its context is therefore repeated reference to the Vietnam war and the very frightening realities of what that meant for the young American soldiers that fought in this battle.

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What does each character carry in The Things They Carried?

In "The Things They Carried," the first story in the collection of the same title, Tim O'Brien talks about the objects literally carried by his fellow soldiers in Vietnam, their metaphorical emotional baggage, and the connection between the two. He begins with Jimmy Cross, who carries letters from a girl he loves along with the knowledge that she views him only as a friend. Later, Cross also carries his guilt over the death of Ted Lavender, one of the men under his command. Ted Lavender himself had carried drugs to calm his nerves.

Henry Dobbins, one of the calmer, more stable soldiers, fond of his creature comforts, carries extra rations, such as canned peaches and pound cake. Dave Jensen, who is obsessed with hygiene in an environment where it is difficult to remain clean, carries a toothbrush, dental floss, soap, foot powder, and extra pairs of socks. He also carries a rabbit's foot for good luck. Kiowa, who is devoutly religious, carries a copy of the New Testament which his father gave him, as well as an extra weapon, a hunting hatchet. Rat Kiley carries comic books; Norman Bowker, a diary; and Mitchell Sanders, condoms.

All the soldiers carry these small personal items in addition to their heavy, standard-issue military kit. This kit includes a steel helmet, jungle boots, standard-issue jacket and trousers, a heavy flak jacket, a large bandage, and a poncho for wet weather. Other common items include pocket knives, chewing gum, cigarettes, rations, and canteens. Each soldier also carries equipment specific to his position, such as Rat Kiley's medical gear and Mitchell Sanders's radio equipment. The story emphasizes that these enormous loads, exacerbated by long treks and challenging weather, are symbolic of the emotional burdens of life during war.

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What is the overall message of The Things They Carried?

Tim O'Brien, who presents a fictionalized version of himself in The Things They Carried, might well resist the idea that the book has one overall message. It is arguable that he resists the idea throughout the text because he continually revises the claims he made in earlier stories, throwing the truth of his assertions into constant doubt. Perhaps the closest O'Brien comes to saying something which appears true throughout the book and which he never disavows is the opening sentence of the final story, "The Lives of the Dead":

But this too is true: stories can save us.

Behind this message is the idea that we need to be saved. O'Brien depicts an atmosphere of violence and terror in which young men are constantly on the brink of death or madness. They do not fight for patriotism or glory. They do not hate they enemy—indeed, they hardly ever see the enemy. And the missions, tasks, and daily drudgery they undertake makes little sense to them. Reflecting on his time in Vietnam, O'Brien makes sense of his military experience and processes his ongoing guilt and grief by telling stories. In his stories, he returns again and again to the corpse of the young Vietnamese man he killed and to the death of his friend Kiowa. It is clear in these cases that the act of storytelling serves a healing function—or at least holds the promise of doing so.

Within the stories, the other soldiers tell stories as well. While they cannot make sense of what happened, they can at least try to articulate it, allowing words to impose a certain level of order on the raw absurdity of their experience. O'Brien is able to perform this feat more completely by linking what happens in Vietnam to events before and after the war, placing in context an experience that initially appears unique. Indeed, O'Brien, as author and narrator, is able to bring an adult's perspective to the experiences of his youth—after all, most of the soldiers in O'Brien's platoon are in their late teens or early twenties during the war.

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In "The Things They Carried," what unifying elements does the story contain?

Tim O’Brien’s opening story in the novel by the same name, “The Things They Carried,” uses repetition to unify the entire story, and consequently, the rest of the novel. The main device he uses is the repetition of several important ideas and themes.

1. O’Brien’s long list of the things men carry with them physically into war repeats throughout the story. By listing the many faceted things men take with them to war, O’Brien is showing just how difficult war is physically. The idea of “humping” M-16’s, ammunition, radios, flak jackets, equipment, and personal items through the 110-degree jungles of Vietnam is exhausting for the soldiers. This physical exhaustion leads to emotional or psychological exhaustion as well.

2. O’Brien also juxtaposes descriptions of the physical effects of war with the psychological effects. Men not only carry material things with them into war, but what O’Brien says are perhaps the “heaviest burdens,” the emotional ones like fear, cowardice, and reputation. Repeating the many burdens of war, O’Brien unifies the chapter to give his reader a thorough and realistic description of what war is really like.

3. O’Brien also repeats the stories of Jimmy Cross and his love for Martha with the death of Ted Lavendar. In these stories, he interjects themes like blame, guilt, and loss. Ted Lavendar’s death is mentioned several times in the beginning of the story until we finally get the whole incident towards the end. This repetition builds suspense and shows how devastating Lavendar’s death is to Jimmy Cross and Tim O’Brien.

The story also opens and ends with Jimmy Cross. At the beginning, he is tucked in his foxhole reading Martha’s letters. At the end of the story, he burns the letters and pledges to be a better officer who is tougher on his men so he can save them.

The intertwined stories of Jimmy Cross’ guilt and Ted Lavendar’s death repeat the underlying physical and emotional effects of war.

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What unifies "The Things They Carried?"

One does not need to read the stories in the order in which they appear in the novel since the book is unified by the common bond shared by the soldiers. O'Brien cleverly writes a novel that makes you question war stories and their affect on the soldiers. Although we see these men in many fragments throughout the novel, they are united by their common feelings or fear, guilt, shame, and desire to survive. O'Brien, at times, speaks directly to the audience, making us a part of this unified group of characters by questioning and feeling the emotions and weight of the baggage they all carry.

War is often depicted as brutal, action-packed, bloody, and a simple win or lose. In the novel, O' Brien has readers look beyond the Hollywood label and see the real essence of war: men ashamed of killing, men trying to be brave and not weak, keeping emotions off the battlefield, the difficulties of death and going back to civilian life, how strongly war changes people. Since each character has their own story to tell, it is not really about the stories told but the emotions we gain from them. So, overall this novel provides a more humble and realistic depiction of a controversial time in American history.

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What unifies "The Things They Carried?"

The stories that O'Brien relates are all held together by the various themes that run through all of them.  One that has been pointed out earlier is that of guilt and shame.  So many of the stories demonstrate actions that are taken because of guilt and shame rather than any desire to be brave or any desire to take positive action.  So much of the literature of war focused in some ways on an idea of glory, btu here O'Brien demonstrates what many historians and psychologists have found which is that men in combat act not out of a desire to be brave but a desire not to be seen as weak, out of shame.  So many actions are also prompted by guilt, at feeling responsible for someone's death, etc., and these themes help to tie together much of what O'Brien has written about.

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What were the literal and figurative things carried by the characters in The Things They Carried?

In the first chapter of The Things They Carried, the narrator describes all the items that men carried with them during the war.  The items are characterized as such:  necessity, rank/speciality, mission, superstition, poise/dignity, and emotional baggage.  The narrator describes the immense weight that all of these things add up to, giving precise weights for the physical items (i.e. Sanders's PRC-25 radio weighed a whopping 26 pounds on its own) and describing the weight of emotion that the men had to deal with (Cross's guilt over the death of Ted Lavender).  Some of the items that the men carried appear surprising, such as Lt. Jimmy Cross's need to carry around letters and a photograph of Martha.  This would not be surprising if she were his wife or girlfriend; however, she is neither and Cross only burdens himself further by carrying around a fictional love for Martha.  But the men must balance the weight of the war with the weight of their own lives--past and present--so in this regard, Cross's feeling and need are understandable.

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