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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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What tangible item did Tim O'Brien carry in The Things They Carried?

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While The Things They Carried is usually called a novel, the book can also be considered to be a collection of 25 distinct stories. The first of these, with the same title, was originally published as a short story. In that chapter or story, and most of the others, there is a third-person narrator. This omniscient character is privy to the workings of the characters’s minds and observes their actions. However, in some of chapters, there is a first-person narrator who relates his personal story of serving in the U.S. army in Vietnam. This first-person narrator is a persona of the author, but, because this is a work of fiction, the reader should not assume that it is the author.

With those caveats in mind, we may accept that in the title story and others, the third-person narrator is another member of the company and as such is a man. One point that the narrator raises is the intimate relationship between the tangible and intangible, so that they may become impossible to separate.

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own weight and gravity.

In terms of those tangibles, he also knows what all the infantrymen carry. The items include water, food, clothing, weapons, ammunition, and even the country through its clinging dust.

They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces.

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I think you have become slightly confused in your analysis of this short story. Tim O'Brien, although he does appear as a character in the other short stories that make up the volume of short stories that bears the name of this story, does not actually appear in "The Things They Carried" as a character. Rather, the narrator is third person and does not appear in the action of the story himself. Thus, as the story opens, it is the external narrator that gives us a list of the various items, both tangible and intangible, that the soldiers "hump" with them as they carry out their orders in Vietnam, but as Tim O'Brien himself is not a character that appears in this story, no items are attributed as belonging to him in the same way that the other characters each are, to a certain extent, defined by the items that they carry.

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