illustration of the backside of a soldier in full military gear

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

Start Free Trial

Editor's Choice

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Tim O’Brien writes about the physical and figurative burdens, or “things,” the soldiers carry. Especially in the story of that title, he establishes the character of the men in the unit by telling the reader about some specific item associated with the man. Some of these things recur and have greater significance later in the book; others are presented as one of many snippets that help establish the character and do not figure significantly into the plot.

Two related examples of burdens are associated with Henry Dobbins. A large physical burden is associated with this large man. His assigned responsibility is to carry the heaviest weapon, the M-16 machine gun. In addition, he carries extra rations, which is not technically his assignment. The other men come to associate him with the additional food, which increases not just his popularity but also his responsibility. While carrying the food is a physical burden, O'Brien conveys, it is also emotional because it makes Henry responsible for nurturing the other men.

Another example of a burden is religion, symbolized by a Bible. Kiowa, who is Native American and a devout Christian, carries the burdens of his heritage and of his faith. Although the other men do not exclude him or show overt racism, he sees his identity as inseparable from his faith. Perhaps because the others are Christian as well, their shared religion creates a safe space for him. Even if they see his behavior as exaggerated, as it is based in the same beliefs, the men accept it. Kiowa’s carrying the Bible stands for the burden of maintaining faith amid the senseless carnage of war.

Fourth, Lieutenant Cross carries the burden of guilt. Even though he knows he was not at fault, Ted was killed by a singular sniper hit. Because Jimmy Cross was on guard duty but was distracted and not really watching, he could not warn Ted that the shooter was nearby. From going over things in his head, Jimmy knows that the sniper could have killed Ted at a different time, even if he was watching. But guilt, the author shows, is one of the heaviest burdens because it does not respond to reason. The lingering burden of guilt, he implies, might never leave Jimmy Cross.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the novel The Things They Carried, the theme of burden is conveyed through O'Brien's use of symbolism.

When an author uses symbolism, he uses an object or an action to represent something more than its literal meaning. In this case, O'Brien uses what each individual soldier carries not only to represent the physical turmoil they are under, but also their mental turmoil. 

For example, the novel opens by saying "First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey." Physically, these letters do not weigh much; however, Jimmy Cross's love for Martha and his obsession with her letters becomes much more of issue, especially following Lavender's death. 

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross was not the only character who carried photographs. In fact, O'Brien referred to the practice of carrying photographs as "humping," another word for lifting or carrying. These photographs could represent the burden of being away from home, and it shows the soldiers' efforts to remain attached to their loved ones in the United States. 

In the same chapter, O'Brien tells readers that soldiers carry things out of necessity—in other words, they will need these items at one point or another. According to O'Brien, "Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April." This shows that the war became such a burden on Lavender that he needed to rely on drugs to cope.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial