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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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How does the repetition of "the things they carried" advance or impede the story in The Things They Carried?

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The title story in Tim O’Brien’s collection of short fiction The Things They Carried establishes an immediate familiarity with the main characters. We do not yet know these men, but it feels like we do. They are introduced with a greater level of intimate detail than is typical when meeting someone under ordinary circumstances. What is often called the “brotherhood” of war refers to the way shared trauma can forge quick, deep bonds within a group. O’Brien has used this phenomenon as a plot device: readers are made to feel the weight of these men’s lives right away. The “things” they carry reveal the conflict between personal identity and the burdens of war.

“They all carried ghosts,” O’Brien writes, referring to this soldiers. When they are too overburdened to carry their full loads, they first try taking off the weight of war, walking without helmets or flak jackets. They leave behind rations and Claymore mines. In villages, they shoot dogs and chickens before calling in artillery to burn it all down. They hold on to their tokens of identity—their love letters and pantyhose, canned peaches and good-luck charms—until they can no longer reconcile their new reality with who they had been before Vietnam.

The plot advances as the men begin to see that the things they carried would need to be balanced between the necessities of war and their own humanity. We learn more about how successful each character is in subsequent interrelated stories.

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The "things" carried in The Things They Carried impede the carriers both physically and emotionally.

The narrator takes pains to list every item carried by the company exhaustively. Not only does he mention the wide variety of items, many of which are impractical or redundant (canned peaches and pound cake are mentioned in the first paragraph), he records the estimated weight of these items as well. The first chapter very effectively conveys the physical weight of these objects: over the course of 26 pages, the mountain of objects and their collective weight grows to a magnitude that defies belief.

In addition to survival gear, the narrator also catalogs items the troopers voluntarily carry that have an, arguably, more burdensome "weight." Love letters (from a hopeless crush), heirlooms, drugs, and comfort objects are all "humped" over the terrain, clutched through the night, and obsessed over.

All of these objects hinder the characters' progress in measurable ways. The physical weight of these items slow and tire the soldiers through their inevitable daily march. Their specialized equipment (radios, medical gear) represent their responsibility to the rest of the company, a role many of them probably resent because of the draft.

Additionally, the emotional weight creates an air of paranoia, superstition, and personal hindrance throughout the group.

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