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Symbolism in The Things They Carried

Literature is the means of expressing the feelings and emotions that human being perceive during their lives. It is the form of art that allows people depict the most tragic and the most joyful events in their life, the most necessary and dangerous experiences, etc. The significant occurrences in the history of the whole countries and the mankind as such are also reflected in various literary works. This fact makes the literature into the means of the comprehensive overview of reality with the opportunity to look back in the past and analyze mistakes or take a look at the future and plan it. All these aspects are combined by Tim O’Brien in his The Things They Carried.

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The very short story is the depiction of several days from the lives of a detachment of the American soldiers in Vietnam during the war. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, machine gunner Henry Dobbins, Lavender, and others are the young men with their own interests and problems but they are united by the danger of death and by the need to both save their lives and fulfill the tasks set for them in the war (O’brien, 798). Thus, Cross is obsessed with the thoughts of Martha, the girl he loves, and these thoughts prevent him from being an effective leader as Lavender becomes the victim of the Vietnamese troops and other soldiers start doubting the leadership skills of the Lieutenant (O’brien, 798).

Thus, trying to match the demands of the wartime with his personal issues, Cross decides that love and war are incompatible: “Lieutenant Jimmy Cross reminded himself that his obligation was not to be loved but to lead. He would dispense with love; it was not now a factor” (O’brien, 798) So, he chooses to be a better leader than live by memories about Martha. Having burnt her letters, Cross sees that it is better to be loved than to wage war but he has no choice but becoming a pragmatic and emotionless war-machine.

Accordingly, the symbolism of the short story under consideration can easily be traced. The Things They Carried is not all about the material things that soldiers have to carry in their bags to ensure nutrition, water supply, and safety in battlefield. This is rather the story about the emotional and psychological loads that each of Cross’ soldiers has: “They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing” (O’brien, 798). Being former students, these men had to start killing other people and fulfilling the strategic governmental tasks. What they were afraid of is proving to be unable to do this, so they did their best to match the standards, although there was a lot to think about. Cross though of his love, Kiowa – about his family and religion (O’brien, 798). All this shows that war is the destructive instrument used not only to physically kill people, but to kill their hopes, dreams, wishes, and plans.

Drawing from this, this paper should be concluded by stating that literature is the means of the comprehensive overview of reality of which war and love are integral parts. Tim O’Brien emphasizes this fact in his The Things They Carried showing how incompatible the two aforesaid phenomena are but how often they coincide in people’s lives to destroy each other.

Works Cited

O’brien, Tim. 2008. The Things They Carried. In Making Literature Matter, eds. John Schilb and John Clifford, 798. Bedford/St. Martin’s; 4th edition.

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StudyCorgi. "Symbolism in The Things They Carried." November 7, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Symbolism in The Things They Carried." November 7, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Symbolism in The Things They Carried'. 7 November.

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