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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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The Things They Carried Themes

The main themes in The Things They Carried are fiction’s mutability and the emotional weight of war.

  • Fiction’s mutability: The stories in The Things They Carried are somewhere between factual truth and emotional truth. Whether fictionalized or not, events are rendered to best present the real experience of the Vietnam War.
  • The emotional weight of war: The book’s characters do not only carry objects: they also carry emotional connections that both help them survive and weigh them down.


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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

Fiction's Mutability

One of the central themes in The Things They Carried is the nature of storytelling itself. Many of the stories in the collection have metafictional qualities, and the narrator often draws attention to the blend of fact and fancy which goes into telling a story. Even a story based on fact is not entirely the hard, unvarnished truth, as O'Brien points out over and over.

Stories are also changed depending on the desires of the author. In "Love," which largely takes place years after the war, Tim meets First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross again and tells him he is writing about his experiences in Vietnam. Jimmy tells him to make him out to be a better person than he actually was and not to bring up anything that might show him in an unflattering or vulnerable light:

[Jimmy] got into his car and rolled down the window. "Make me out to be a good guy, okay? Brave and handsome, all that stuff. Best platoon leader ever." He hesitated for a second. "And do me a favor. Don't mention anything about—."
"No," I said. "I won't."

"How to Tell a True War Story" is one of the most metafictional stories in the book. The narrator says outright that "true war stories" are never about imparting morals or instructing the reader. He also says "it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen," since subjectivity plays such a big part of memory. So, even though none of the stories are exact reproductions of reality, they are authentic reproductions of the subjective experience of being in the Vietnam War.

The Emotional Weight of War

The titular "things they carried" not only refers to physical objects but to inner conflicts and memories which trouble the young soldiers. As the first story in the collection states, "They all carried ghosts." This baggage often either keeps the young men going in their trying circumstances or hinders them. Sometimes, the baggage has both effects at once.

The best example of double-edged baggage is Jimmy Cross's unrequited love for a girl back home named Martha. This love is symbolically represented by the letters from her he keeps on his person. He projects romantic ideals onto Martha, imagining fictional trips and trysts between them and wondering if she is still a virgin, when in reality, Martha is not interested in him and has no plans to change their relationship. However, the hope that things might change between them provides Jimmy with a false hope and a reason to get through the day.

When Ted Lavender is killed while Jimmy is distracted by thinking about Martha, Jimmy finally accepts that Martha will never love him. He takes on the additional burden of guilt, which the narrator describes as being like "a stone in his stomach."

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 328

A major theme that this story explores is the initiation of young men in wartime, when youths must become men. Pranksters must become killers, dreamers must become realists—or someone dies. The world of the intellect (Lieutenant Cross is a college graduate, Martha’s letters express her admiration for Geoffrey Chaucer and Virginia Woolf) is of little relevance here; neither is romance or idealism. Courage becomes a concept without meaning. Getting through the experience alive is the important thing, as Kiowa knows too well. Fear paralyzes them all, yet somehow they manage to continue their march, to put themselves at risk, to carry out their orders. The trick is to survive.

The weight of their burdens is real. What these men have to nourish and protect them is only what they bear on their...

(This entire section contains 328 words.)

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backs. Scarcely past boyhood, a medic packs his comic books and M&M candies for the relief of particularly bad wounds. A gentle soldier carries a rubbery brown thumb cut from a Viet Cong corpse. A third, a big, stolid man, packs with him the delicacy of canned peaches and his girlfriend’s pantyhose. The men also carry infection, disease, and the land itself in the particles of dust and mud. They carry fear. They carry the weight of memory; they carry ghosts. They carry the burden of being alive; they carry “all they could bear, and then some.”

Each man likewise carries within himself a longing for escape from the senseless and terrible reality of war. Some make their escape through sleep, as Kiowa does. Others manage to survive through daydreams, like Lieutenant Cross, or through drugs, like Ted Lavender. Every man waits for the blessed moment when a plane, or “freedom bird,” will lift him above the ruined earth, the sordidness and death, his own shameful acts, into the lightness of air and the promise of home. The phrase “Sin loi! . . . I’m gone!” echoes in their real and imagined nightmares.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

One of the major thematic concerns in "The Things They Carried" is that of illusion versus reality. On the grandest level, there is the illusion of the courageous wartime soldier. While the soldiers in "The Things They Carried" are not meant to be viewed as cowards, they are meant to be seen for what they are: men who are afraid of death and dying and are also afraid of being seen as cowardly:

they carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide . . . they carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.

The very war itself is in some ways facilitated by America's need to maintain a myth—to appear never to be cowardly, while engaging in a pointless war to maintain such an image.

Yet another illusion is the safety and comfort fostered by the objects the soldiers carry or "hump." Superficially, the men all carry items that provide different answers to the various fears each soldier harbors. Thus, Lavender carries tranquilizers because he is afraid of death, and Jimmy Cross carries the pebble, symbolic of his love for Martha. Collectively, the men carry heavy equipment, such as the twenty-eight-pound mine detector. Yet the comfort these items bring is illusory, for none of them can confer any real aid in the time of need. Lavender's tranquilizers, which are supposed to comfort him should he be shot, are useless against his sudden and senseless death, in which he likely felt nothing at all. Meanwhile, Jimmy Cross carries a love for Martha, a college student in New Hampshire, as a salve for the wounds of war. Yet even this love proves illusory in all aspects. He knows, for example, that although Martha signs her letter "love," "'Love' was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant." In fact, Martha is so removed from the war that she cannot even speak of it: she tells Jimmy Cross to "take care of himself" in her letters to him. Even the pebble she sends him is ironic in its meaning to each person. For Lieutenant Cross, the pebble is heavy despite its slight physical weight because it is symbolic of Cross' unrequited love for Martha and his desire to leave Vietnam. Yet for Martha, who has few concerns and no way of sensing the burdens that Cross carries, the pebble "seemed weightless".

Finally, not even the illusion of Martha's love can take Jimmy Cross away from the reality of the war in which he is mired. Jimmy tries to use images of Martha to push back the images of war, yet he finds in fact that his musings and inattention may have caused Ted Lavender's death. This thought ultimately forces Jimmy Cross to focus even more on the war which he initially seeks to avoid.

Even as a company as a whole, the soldiers maintain the belief—somewhat consciously misplaced—that what they carry will provide them with the safety that they seek, both physically and emotionally. Thus, they hump the huge mine detector around with them, even though "with its headphones and big sensing plate, the equipment was a stress on the lower back and shoulders, awkward to handle, often useless because of the shrapnel in the earth, but they carried it anyway, partly for safety, partly for the illusion of safety." Thus, even the tangible weight is illusory in that it masks the much heavier emotional weight with which the soldiers must cope.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 817

War and Love Readers might expect the story to articulate the tension between war and peace, but O'Brien's point in this story and in his other writings is that the real connection is between war and love. Lt. Cross believes, for example, that because he loves Martha, he does not fulfill his duty toward his men. He literally thinks that because he chose love over war, Ted Lavender is dead. O'Brien believes, however, that love comes with the territory of war. In an article for the New York Times Magazine in 1994 he explains: ‘‘Intimacy with death carries with it a corresponding new intimacy with life. Jokes are funnier, green is greener. You love the musty morning air. You love the miracle of your own enduring capacity for love.’’

According to O'Brien, however, love is also what drove him to Vietnam. In the same article he confesses: ‘‘I have done bad things for love, bad things to stay loved.’’ Describing his reaction to being drafted he writes: ''I thought about Canada. I thought about jail. But in the end I could not bear the prospect of rejection: by my family, my country, my friends, my hometown. I would risk conscience and rectitude before risking the loss of love.''

The Individual and the Collective One of the central themes of all war narratives, and particularly Vietnam war literature, is the dynamic between the individual soldier and the unit, or collective, of which he or she is a part. The object of military training is to meld individuals into a functioning group, a platoon, by instilling in them both fierce loyalty to and dependence upon the others. Properly trained soldiers know that their lives depend on the actions of others, and at the same time they are also willing to risk their own lives for the sake of the rest. In ''The Things They Carried’’ the members of Lt. Cross's platoon act collectively in several ways. They share the burdens of carrying necessary equipment and draw lots to see whose turn it is to search the tunnels.

Collective action during wartime has a dark side, however. The official language of war uses collective nouns like troops, in order to disguise the involvement of individual bodies. For example, news that Alpha Company suffered ''one casualty'' is more palatable than news that Ted Lavender is dead, shot in the head on the way back from peeing. O'Brien's narrative explicitly engages this theme by contrasting the plurality of the platoon with the singularity of the men. In other words, they are all legs and grunts and they all must carry heavy burdens as well as each other, but in the privacy of their thoughts and the inner sections of their backpacks and pockets they are singular men with hometowns and girlfriends and fathers and mothers.

Storytelling: Fact or Fiction Like most of the literature of the Vietnam war, ''The Things They Carried'' is shaped by the personal combat experience of the author. O'Brien is adamant, however, that the fiction not be mistaken for factual accounts of events. In an interview with Michael Coffey of Publishers Weekly soon after the book was published, O'Brien claims: ‘‘My own experience has virtually nothing to do with the content of the book.’’ Indeed the title page of the book announces it as ''a work of fiction.'' The book is dedicated, however, ''to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa." O'Brien himself was an infantryman in Alpha Company and was stationed in the Quang Ngai province in 1969-70. When asked about this device in an interview with Martin Narparsteck in Contemporary Literature, O'Brien explains: "What I'm saying is that even with that nonfiction-sounding element in the story, everything in the story is fiction, beginning to end. To classify different elements of the story as fact or fiction seems to me artificial. Literature should be looked at not for its literal truth but for its emotional qualities. What matters in literature, I think, are the pretty simple things--whether it moves me or not. Whether it feels true. The actual literal truth should be superfluous."

Clearly O'Brien wants readers to wrestle with the distinctions between fact and ficiton. What matters to him, as he explained at a conference of literature of the Vietnam War, is the "power of stories, whether they're true, or embellished, and exaggerated, or utterly made up. A good story has a power ... that transcends the question of factuality or actuality." In the beginning of the last story of The Things They Carried, O'Brien reveals the reason why he tells these tales: "Sometimes stories can save us." Offering a fuller explanation in an interview with Publishers Weekly, O'Brien says, ‘‘If there is a theme to the whole book it has to do with the fact that stories can save our lives.’’


Chapter Summaries