O’Brien, in the short story “The Things They Carried”, captures the predicaments of soldiers during the Vietnam War. Each soldier carries a literal and symbolic object that links the past to the present. The symbols serve to distract the solders from the realities of war in Vietnam and instead allow thinking about other things. For Lt. Jimmy Cross, a letter from Martha helps him temporarily forget the death that looms over him and dream about love. Rat Kiley has devoted his time to reading comedy to provide a sense of security in a world where atrocities are the norm rather than an exception. O’Brien has skillfully blended fiction and the real life experience through the compelling and powerful storytelling techniques to capture the grim realities of a botched military operation.
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The fundamental idea that runs through O’Brien short story is the physical and emotional burdens of war. The author captures his own story together with the stories of other war witnesses during this time. Each soldier has an object associated with the difficulties he endures either morally or physically. The physical loads could be military gears or other things that the platoon obtained from those people left behind.
Emotional burdens include the terror that lurks around especially at night, the grief of losing fellow soldiers, and a deep desire for the loved ones. Dobbins, for instance, carries his lover’s pantyhose. This object is the only reminder of his life back in the USA with the people he loves. It symbolizes a desire to escape from the current reality of terror to love and comfort that his girlfriend could offer.
Lt. Jimmy Cross’ physical burden is a compass and a map to lead his men in the right direction. Being the man at the helm, he has to show strength so that he does not demoralize his subordinates. Even when the feelings of terror rush up at night, he has to fight them off to avoid making his troops psychologically vulnerable. He carries with him a letter from Martha, his obsession and love, but Jimmy is unsure of her love for him. His train of thought as he opens Martha’s letter depicts a man longing for love.
He rummages through the piece of paper for evidence of Martha’s love but cannot find anything concrete to make him believe it is true. He is disappointed that Martha is reciprocating his love with mere friendship. O’Brien presents Jimmy Cross’ uncertainty over Martha’s feelings when he writes that Jimmy “wondered what her truest feelings were, exactly, and what she meant by separate-but-together” (3). This is symbolic of an emotional burden that weighed heavily on Jimmy’s heart.
The theme of emotional marks run deep even after the war. Those who survive atrocities at the war front put up with distressing psychological burdens that take place long after that period. Jimmy Cross has to put up with the strong feelings of guilt because of the death of Ted Lavender, a fellow soldier. Norman Bowker is also experiencing deep emotional confusion after the war. O’Brien uses the lake to depict Norman’s predicament and the fate that awaited him (6).
The lake symbolizes the life of war that soldiers are accustomed to living. After departure from the front, it is usually hard to socialize back to the real world. Norman moves around the lake unable to break from its magnetic pull. The lake is also a portrayal of war and death and Norman is unable to break from it but rather enters it. The magnetic pull of the lake and his decision to get into the water foreshadows his own death.
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The setting of the story exemplifies the theme of emotional and psychological burden in times of war. The author sets his short story in Vietnam with various settings showing hardship, fear of failure, and shame. One such setting is the village of Than Khe. Jimmy led his men to launch a vicious offensive against a defenseless village. In the aftermath, only a wreck of a village stood. This wanton destruction of property and lives correlates with the destruction that the soldiers are undergoing. The image of Jimmy with his “entrenching tool, weighing five pounds” (4) and the emotional distress that ensues following the death of Lavender reflects O’Brien’s dexterity at merging setting and characters to bring out compelling themes.
The author also uses characters to portray the underlying events and feelings in other characters’ lives. Though physically absent from the war, Martha features prominently in the short story. She sends Jimmy mixed signals about her love for him. Being the object of his obsession, sometimes she distract him from his duties of a leader. In one of the settings, Jimmy is running his men in digging out a tunnel.
Lavender and a fellow soldier are inside the tunnel and Jimmy is watching from outside. O’Brien tries to render that Jimmy’s lack of concentration results in collapse of the tunnel and the death of Lavender who was therein. Even in the face of death, Jimmy thinks about Martha. In the story, it is expressed as the moment of madness when “he [Jimmy] tried to concentrate on Lee Strunk and the war, all the dangers, but his love was too much for him, he felt paralyzed, he wanted to sleep inside her lungs and breathe her blood and be smothered” (5).
Another important character that exemplifies the theme of emotional burden is Kiowa. He provides the members of his platoon with an opportunity to vent off emotional distress and achieve healing. O’Brien depicts Kiowa as a religious, amiable and compassionate friend to all (6). His appropriateness as a character therefore is for emotional catharsis.
With the help of this portrayal, the reader gets to understand the emotional burdens of other characters. He provides Jimmy with an avenue to assuage a tormented conscience over the death of Lavender. More than other characters, Kiowa understands Jimmy’s obsession with Martha and is willing to help him concentrate. Even in his death, Kiowa leaves a lasting impression on the lives of other soldiers.
In conclusion, O’Brien employs his story-telling prowess to show the predicaments of soldiers at war. He portrays the war as excessively burdening on the soldiers than people expect. More than the military gears that soldiers carry, they also have to endure emotional burdens, which may come from the lives they left behind or from the terror and grief in the war. This short story is a call on everyone to reflect on the lives of soldiers that put their lives on the line so that other people can enjoy peace.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction, Boston, MA: Wadsworth /Cengage Learning, 1990. Print.