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Fiction in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien Essay

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Updated: Jan 17th, 2022


Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is a collection of short stories about the experiences during the war in Vietnam. The book was first published in 1990. The structure of the book is somewhat disorganized, and there is no chronological order. However, the author manages to provide an excellent description of the tiniest details of the war realities. O’Brien shows the destroying impact of war practices through the use of symbolism. The characters in the book deal with many problems: they cope with the responsibility of killing, overcome the grief of losing friends, and learn to live without intimate relations and without seeing close people for a long time. Most of all, the book symbolizes the defenselessness of a person against the system, the absurdity of the war, and, at the same time, its inevitability. The first story in the collection has the same name as the book.

Introducing the Elements of Fiction Employed by the Author

O’Brien enumerates the possessions carried by each soldier in a way that allows the readers to penetrate their separate stories. Everyone has his reasons for carrying the things he does, and these reasons are dictated by various factors. Apart from symbolism, the author employs the leitmotif pattern throughout the story which puts a stronger emphasis on the ideas described. With the help of symbolic elements and the leitmotif, the author creates a vivid picture of the soldiers’ life.

The symbolism of the Story

In the story, the author portrays the inner nature of each of the characters via the symbolic features of the things carried by them. These things are physical as well as emotional, and the latter are at times much harder to carry than the former. The author depicts the characters’ perception of the world around them through symbolism.

Symbols of Physical Well-Being

The first group of things carried by the men is represented by physical things. These are the everyday weights that symbolize the opportunity to stay alive, to remain fed, warm and comfortable. Some of them carry things helping to cope with their problems, like Ted Lavender, who “carries tranquilizers” because he is frightened (O’Brien, p. 2). Others carry items that give them hope and encouragement, like Lieutenant Cross, who carries “letters from a girl named Martha” whom he is in love with (O’Brien, p. 1).

Emotional Burdens of the People

The second group of things that soldiers carry includes their emotional troubles. This group symbolizes the inside troubles of humankind, the internal problems which hinder people to live a full life. All of the soldiers “carry ghosts” (O’Brien, p. 9), they carry “all the emotional baggage of men who might die” (O’Brien, p. 20). Finally, the author emphasizes, they carry “their own lives” (O’Brien, p. 15). Lieutenant Jimmy Cross considers these things to be the heaviest – he says that “the things men” carry inside are “very sad” (O’Brien, p. 24).

Behavioral Symbols

The third symbolic meaning of soldiers’ carrying is the way of conduct. “For the most part” they carry themselves “with poise, a kind of dignity” (O’Brien, p. 18). Some carry themselves “with a sort of wistful resignation,” others – “with pride or stiff soldierly discipline of good humor or macho zeal” (O’Brien, p. 19). These examples symbolize the people’s determination to struggle for their rights and the equality of the world’s population.

Leitmotif as an Element of Plot Organization

The leitmotif features chosen by the author are aimed to unite many men’s various needs under some general notion. By the end of each pattern, however, O’Brien distinguishes peculiar features about each separate person. In the beginning, they carry things defined “by necessity” (O’Brien, p. 2) and “partly by the function of rank, partly a field specialty” (O’Brien, p. 5). Then, the author describes the items which the soldiers carry as “varied by the mission” (O’Brien, p. 8). The third time the leitmotif is applied, they carry the things “determined to some extent by superstition” (O’Brien, p. 12). Each of the times, the author begins by describing how different the things carried by the men are. However, then he moves to unite them all by some mutual mission, something common for everyone. Thus, the employment of leitmotif in the story helps the author to convey the idea that no matter how different people’s ranks or responsibilities of beliefs are, they still have something in common.


O’Brien’s story has an outstanding impression on the readers both on the side of soldiers and of those who have never gone to war. Although the author emphasizes that his book is fictional rather than documentary, the variety of symbolic elements drive the audience to perceive the pain and losses of the people who had to fight. The last time the word “carry” is mentioned in the story, it is connected neither with physical weight nor with psychological burdens. It is the suggestion to “Carry on” (O’Brien, p. 25). Lieutenant Cross decides that he will be more supportive of his men; he will forget his worries and will be a good leader for his fellow soldiers. The author’s perfect descriptive skills and his use of symbolism make it very easy for the readers to see the real picture of the war. O’Brien makes the audience sympathize with the soldiers’ everyday hardships, both mental and physical. The author leaves a question for the readers to answer: what things do they carry and why?

Work Cited

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Print.

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1. IvyPanda. "Fiction in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien." January 17, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/fiction-in-the-things-they-carried-by-tim-obrien/.


IvyPanda. "Fiction in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien." January 17, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/fiction-in-the-things-they-carried-by-tim-obrien/.


IvyPanda. 2022. "Fiction in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien." January 17, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/fiction-in-the-things-they-carried-by-tim-obrien/.


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