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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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The significance of the title "The Things They Carried" and its relation to the characters' physical and emotional burdens

Summary:

The title "The Things They Carried" signifies both the physical and emotional burdens the soldiers in Tim O'Brien's story bear. Physically, they carry essential items for survival, while emotionally, they bear the weight of fear, hope, and traumatic memories. This repetitive phrase underscores the complex, heavy toll of their war experiences, blending tangible and intangible burdens to highlight the soldiers' profound struggles.

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What is the significance of the repeated phrase "the things they carried"?

The Things They Carried” is a short story by Tim O’Brien that appears in his novel of the same name. The story follows an army platoon engaged in active combat in Vietnam. Throughout the story, the author continuously repeats different variations of the phrase “the things they carried.”

The point of this persistent repetition is to illustrate the heaviness of these soldiers’ war experiences. This heaviness is partly due to the physical load they are carrying as they walk through the wilderness for days at a time. By listing the supplies that the different members of the platoon are carrying, O’Brien creates a realistic feeling of being weighed down by the load:

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 12 and 18 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism.

In addition to the physical burden that the soldiers are forced to carry, O’Brien’s repetition of the phrase “things they carried” also communicates the theme of emotional burdens. The author writes:

They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

The setting and context of the story are important for understanding these emotional burdens. In the Vietnam War, soldiers were forced to witness and take part in some horrible acts. Many of “the things they carried” were a result of their wartime experiences. Other emotional “things they carried” include feelings of love and hope for returning home. This can be seen in O’Brien’s description of the love letters that First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries.

Overall, the soldiers carried a wide range of physical and emotional “things.” The repetition of the phrase “things they carried” illustrates the complexity of soldiers’ experiences in the Vietnam War.

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What is the significance of the repeated phrase "the things they carried"?

The phrase "the things they carried," which is also the title of the first short story in the book and the collection as a whole, is a way for Tim O'Brien to emphasize that the American soldiers he depicts in the Vietnam War and after carry substantial burdens in numerous ways.

"The things they carry" literally refers to physical objects carried by the soldiers. These items are most obviously the equipment they need for war, like weapons and ammunition, as well as other necessities, like food and water. Material items also hold metaphorical or abstract meanings to the men. For example, some soldiers superstitiously carry items to help keep them safe, like a rabbit's foot or a Bible, which provide comfort and distraction. They carry items from home to remind themselves of their families and to keep them feeling human in an inhumane set of circumstances. Lt. Jimmy Cross, for example, carries letters from Martha, a woman he loves at home. They did not have much of a relationship before the war, but he holds on to her letters to keep the hope alive that he may return to a normal life when he goes home. Unfortunately, he also blames these letters and his obsession with Martha for the death of one of his men, Ted Lavender, because Jimmy feels he has been distracted from his duties to his men. So he burns the letters and rededicates himself to his unit, but the story leaves us wondering whether that sacrifice comes at the expense of Cross's humanity.

The men also "carry" emotions, like fear, that are natural for any soldier during war. However, extra stress is added by the men's perceived need to hide their "weaknesses," like their anxiety about dying in battle or their concern that they will appear to lack courage or bravery in the company of their fellow soldiers. They carry a desperate desire to go home unharmed and alive—to return to a life that is not marred by constant danger. They carry the atrocities they have witnessed and committed as part of the war effort. These psychological burdens seem to weigh more heavily on the men than the physical weight of the items they carry to fight and survive in war. Thus, O'Brien is able to comment on the psychological toll war takes on those who experience it first hand. 

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What is the significance of the repeated phrase "the things they carried"?

O'Brien uses repetition of the words "the things they carried" in part to visit and revisit episodes such as Ted Lavender's death. Rather than present Lavender's death in a straightforward, chronological narrative, O'Brien scatters details about his death throughout the story "The Things They Carried."

For example, the first time Lavender is mentioned, O'Brien writes about him: "Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April." O'Brien later writes that Lavender carried dope, 20 pounds of ammunition, and a poncho that is used to wrap him up and carry him after he is shot. He is then carried aboard a chopper. Even after this point in the story, O'Brien continues to add details about what Lavender carried, such as a starlight scope. The other soldiers continue to talk about what Lavender carried, including his supply of tranquilizers, even after Lavender's death. The repetition of what Lavender carried, sprinkled throughout the narrative, means that the story of his death is told in a fragmented way. This is the way that the other men in Vietnam might have experienced his death. It was so sudden and so jolting that it can only be recalled in short bursts of memory. By using repetition and the scattering of short details, O'Brien tells of Lavender's death the way the other soldiers might have experienced it.

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What is the significance of the repeated phrase "the things they carried"?

O'Brien uses the repetition of these words to create an unmistakable realization that the men are always carrying “things,” whether it is a physical weight or an emotional weight. The repetitiveness of the words lets the reader, in a sense, feel how the soldiers feel. The soldiers are unable to forget the weight of the “things they carry,” and by repeating the words, the reader is not able to forget the weight either. The sense of annoyance that the reader may feel by the constant repeating of the words is a technique used by O’Brien to connect the reader to the characters. The soldiers may also feel frustrated that they do not get a reprieve from the constant burden of their weights.

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What does the title "The Things They Carried" signify?

In Tim O'Brien's story, the "things" are both concrete and abstract. All the men in the platoon serving in Vietnam carry numerous physical objects as well as bear various emotional burdens.

Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.

O'Brien shows how the objects and emotions intersect differently for the specific men. In some cases, the required equipment and supplies are literally heavy, such as the machine gun that Henry Dobbins is assigned to carry because he is a big, powerful man. In other cases, the emotional baggage is heavier. A key example is that of Lieutenant Jim Cross, who carries things that are physically light: photographs and a pebble. However, his emotional burden is very heavy. He deeply feels the responsibility he has toward the men he commands, and he then suffers tremendous guilt when Ted Lavender is killed.

O'Brien shows that the physical and emotional aspects of "carrying" do not always neatly correspond. The diverse soldiers find ways to maintain an emotional connection to important people and other aspects of their US lives. Part of carrying things is learning to let go of the emotional attachments that hinder a soldier's ability to function in the wartime situations. Jim Cross comes to believe that the physical items that remind him of the girl he loves back home represent his inability to focus on his job in Vietnam. Cross burns the photos of Martha after Lavender dies. His shame and self-hatred, connected with his guilt over Lavender’s death, are

something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war.

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What does the title "The Things They Carried" signify?

The title has several meanings. The literal meaning refers to all the objects, both necessary and unnecessary, that the American troops in Vietnam carry around with them. Some of these objects are practical, such as binoculars and dog tags, while others are objects that bring to comfort themselves and confer luck as charms, such as letters from a girl back home or a girlfriend's pantyhose around their neck.

What they carry also has symbolic meaning. Toting around their objects symbolizes their attempt to bring home to Vietnam with them. For example, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross brings letters from a girl named Martha back home, and he also carries around a pebble she sends him. It is as if the soldiers are trying to bring these elements of home into Vietnam to ensure that these objects will give them some of the safety of home. 

What the soldiers carry also indicates how much baggage, physical and emotional, they carry with them. Much of what they carry are weapons of war, including a "28-pound mine detector" and "one-pound blocks of pentrite high explosives, four blocks to a man, 68 pounds in all." These objects are weighty and symbolize the soldiers' apprehension and inability to fend off the enemy except with brute force that may or may not be effective. By carrying these American weapons of war, the soldiers also carry the burdens of the conflict in Vietnam, in which the soldiers attempt to destroy the enemy without really even knowing where the enemy is. 

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What does the title "The Things They Carried" signify?

The first part of the answer is the easiest: O'Brien's title, in part, refers to all the items carried by the soldiers in the stories.  For example, they all carry items necessary to do their jobs, such as their rifles, knives, can openers, water purification tablets (and Kool-Aid to kill the taste of the purification tablets).  As individual soldiers are introduced into the stories, we see that some carry bibles (Kiowa, for example), and Ted Lavender even carries tranquilizers to help him deal with fear.  The medic, Rat Kiley, along with all of his medical equipment, carries M&Ms to give to soldiers who are fatally wounded and may find some hope in the "medication"--in Vietnam, many medics really did carry M&Ms for those situations.

The second set of things they carried is much more complicated.  Many of the soldiers carry talismans to keep them safe: Lt. Cross carries a pebble he received from Martha, which he sometimes puts in his mouth; the machine gunner wears his girlfriend's stocking around his neck.  Carrying such talismans is a typical way a soldier tries to enhance his survival and control his fear--he's hoping that the pebble or the stocking will somehow protect him.

Among other things they carried, O'Brien tells they "shared the weight of memory. . . . Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak," that is, as a unit they've become like one person, and as a single entity, they carry all the memories of what each individual soldier has done or has suffered.  When one soldier is wounded or killed, they are all diminshed, and they carry this knowledge with them always.  They even carry the fear of being afraid and not doing their jobs, which is arguably the most pervasive fear among combat troops.

The things they carried, according to O'Brien, were not only physical things like weapons, talismans, medical gear, and water but also, and more important, such things as fear, love of each other, love of life, and a drive to keep in other alive.

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What is the figurative meaning of the items carried in The Things They Carried?

Also in the story "The Things They Carried," O'Brien lists many of the things the men carry that are SOP ("standard operating procedure"), but he also lists the extras the men carry that fit their characters and hint at the commentary O'Brien gives.

  1. "Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers . . . [and] 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity." Lavender represents the men who were really just boys, called to a war they did not sign up for but for which they were drafted.
  2. "Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother's distrust of the white man, his grandfather's old hunting hatchet. Necessity dictated." Though he is not Vietnamese, Kiowa represents the mistrust of the Vietnamese against the Americans.
  3. "As a medic, Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books and all the things a medic must carry, including M&M's for especially bad wounds" So many lost their lives in Vietnam, and all the medics could do for them was feed them chocolate, to leave a sweet taste in their mouths.
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What is the figurative meaning of the items carried in The Things They Carried?

In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien gives his men and women symbols to carry:

In "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," Mary Anne Bell, a seventeen year-old "blonde"..."kid"..."barely out of high school" arrives in Vietnam wearing "white culottes and a sexy pink sweater." By the story's end, she becomes a phantom Green Beret assassin wearing a necklace of human tongues, symbolic of her inability to communicate with Mark Fosse after being indoctrinated into guerrilla warfare.

In "The Things They Carried," Jimmy Cross carries letters from Martha that are symbols of home and feminine comfort.  He blames himself for Lavender's death because of them, so they are also haunting reminders of death and guilt.

In "Speaking of Courage," Norman Bowker drives around his hometown lake, symbolic of the shit field where Kiowa died.  Around the lake are symbolic connections to the lost war, his lost childhood, and his inability to communicate with his former friends and family, and his inability to live up to his father's medal count.

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What's the significance of the title "The Things They Carried" in relation to the characters' burdens?

In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien uses the cataloguing of things to show the dualities between the physical and the emotional, the concrete and the abstract, peacetime and wartime, and the lightness and heaviness of things.

In general, the men carry according to their size, rank, and role.  In terms of organization, the description of items moves from light to heavy things.  O'Brien includes the physical weight of things to juxtapose those abstract things that cannot be weighed, namely fear.

All the men carry fear: the waiting is the worst.

All the men carry ghosts.  Ted Lavender is introduced as a ghost, and Cross carries his dead body literally (after he is shot) and figuratively (guilt).

All the men carry love.  Cross carries Martha's picture and letters.  He says he burns them.  Later, he says he kept them.  Does it matter?  Like his love for her, which may or may not be real, the things these men carry burden them down by sheer volume, even if they don't really exist.

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What's the significance of the title "The Things They Carried" in relation to the characters' burdens?

Besides the basic tools of warfare each soldier carried, they also carried mementos of home - photos, letters, scraps of cloth or handkerchiefs - anything that symbolized to them what they were either fighting for or fighting to return to.  Playing cards for boredom, symbols of protest about the insanity of war or their mission there.

And each soldier carried, as in every war, the stresses and strains of combat, the PTSD associated with prolonged exposure to danger and death, the memories of fellow soldiers who were killed or wounded, and every other burden typically associated with war.

What O'Brien does so well is to combine all of these things, physical and emotional, into a single theme that flows throughout the entire set of stories.  It allows the reader to understand and think about all of these concepts and ideas related to those burdens, even though they likely have never been in combat and never will be.

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