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

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Updated: May 28th, 2021


Vietnam War was among the most dramatic, polarizing, and controversial events of the second half of the 20th century for the United States. Many people believed that the war was the representation of America’s greatness and power as a country; on the contrary, many others considered it to be the violation of human rights, pointless waste of national resources (both economic and human ones), and the greatest tragedy of the current generation. These polarizing opinions and debates are still present in the contemporary scholarly literature, political discourses, and ordinary conversations.

However, it is essential to precisely state the fact that the most crucial aspect of any war is the personal tragedy of an individual, the collision of a person’s dreams and hopes with the reality of a military conflict. One of the better means of expressing this aspect is fictional literature. The purpose of this paper is to critically analyze the short story by Tim O’Brien, which is entitled The Things They Carried, to explore its uniqueness, to discuss techniques and arguments which are employed by the author, and to define the importance of the chosen literary piece to retrieve a profound conclusion.

The Uniqueness of the Chosen Literary Work

Brief Characteristic of the Author

First of all, it is important to briefly touch upon the personality of the author to offer a more in-depth context for the further analysis of the literary piece. Tim O’Brien was born on October 1, 1946, in Austin, Minnesota and was drafted for military service in Vietnam in 1968 (Stowell 3). After returning from the army, he studied in Harvard and worked as a reporter for different periodicals (Stowell 3). However, he is most recognized for his literary works, which he began to publish since 1973. It is possible to say that the author significantly contributed to the development of the comprehension of the Vietnam War in the American literature. The literary piece under consideration, The Things They Carried, was published in 1990, and in this story, O’Brien continued to explore the settings of the war and numerous issues which are related to it. The following sections will explore various aspects of the literary work.

Core Literary Features of the Story

Furthermore, it is possible to observe the unique characteristics of the short story under discussion in general before dwelling upon the particular aspects more thoroughly and profoundly. In other words, this section serves as an outline for the further developing of this paper.

The following questions will guide the development of the paper: (1) what techniques does the author uses, and (2) what arguments are central to his literary work. These are two principal areas of inquiry for conducting the analysis. First of all, the aspect of technique should be observed to retrieve the most significant features to dwell upon. It is possible to notice one of the critical literary devices that author uses is the word “carry” as a metaphor. This word is present in the title of the story, and it is used throughout the narration in various meanings. Also, the other characteristics of the literary work, such as the composition of the text, use of vivid vocabulary, and narrative approach, will be analyzed as well.

Secondly, after building an analytical basis for the technical aspect of the O’Brien’s writing, it would be possible to investigate his arguments. In other words, the principal ideas, which were implied by the author, will be analyzed in the context of broader notions, such as psychological trauma, affection, duty, leadership, etc. The efficiency of these arguments and ideas along with the uniqueness of the author’s representation of them also will be discussed. In overall effect, the results of studying O’Brien’s techniques and arguments will provide an opportunity to conclude how these characteristics help to define The Things They Carried as the literature of importance.

Techniques Used by the Author

The Central Metaphor of the Story

As it was already mentioned, it appears that O’Brien has put immense emphasis on the word “carry.” Its use throughout the story represents one of the central author’s ideas, which he wanted to translate through the literary piece under discussion, but this aspect will be discussed later. In this section, the word “carry” be analyzed solely as a literary device.

It is evident that “carry” is a metaphor, but it is interesting to explore how is this metaphor built. The use of this word is repetitive; it is prevalent throughout the story. It is argued that polysemy is used as a principle means of constructing the complex metaphor. Firstly, at the beginning of the literary piece, “carry” is used in its common sense of bearing some weight since the author describe various equipment which is carried by the soldiers (O’Brien 482-483). However, as the story progresses, O’Brien starts to interchange the use of the word in its conventional sense with its application to non-material things (for example, the narrator tells that “they carried themselves with dignity”), and that is how the metaphor is constructed (492). Also, there is a very peculiar transitional point between the direct and metaphorical use of the word “carry”, when O’Brien writes about the material things which were carried by the characters (for example, Jimmy Cross’ good-luck pebble from Martha), but he describes the emotional attachment to these things which every soldier had. Therefore, it is possible to notice that the author shows excellence in constructing an elaborate metaphor which serves as the basis for narration.

Storytelling Technique

Further, the storytelling aspect of the literary work should be analyzed since it also represents the author’s unique approach to describing the war. This section is vastly based on the research by Sadie Williams, in which he studies several literary works by O’Brien, including The Things They Carried. The author’s major assumption is that O’Brien’s storytelling technique can be efficiently compared to Freud’s theory of dreams (Williams 4). Synthesizing Freud’s views on the dream-formation process, Williams states that recalling information from the past in order to share an experience with other individual (which is the definition of storytelling, as a matter of fact) is the process which is similar to the formation of a dream to a significantly vast extent (3).

Further, the author argues that O’Brien’s writings are vastly based on his personal experiences (which was also mentioned in the previous section). Therefore, when he writes a literary piece, he recalls his memories and manipulates them, much like a dream is constructed from the real-life situations, experienced by an individual. It is evident that The Things They Carried does not follow a conventional linear structure of the literary work development. Instead, according to Williams, O’Brien utilizes dreamlike, “non-cohesive and seemingly confusing fashion” to create a story of his war experience, and this story only lacks cohesion on the surface level (4). The following section will discuss the ideas which are principal to the understanding of O’Brien’s work.

Arguments and Ideas Developed in the Story

Furthermore, it is essential to determine and discuss the most important ideas and arguments which are presented in The Things They Carried. In the first section of this paper, several possible areas of inquiry were identified, and it is possible to restate them before dwelling upon each one in particular: (1) an immense psychological burden resulted in mental trauma, (2) the disruption of affection, and (3) the notion of a real leader. These three topics create an interrelated and profound description of the war’s influence on the life of any involved individual. The following subsections will discuss each of the mentioned aspects in particular.

War Experience as a Psychological Trauma

One of the previous subsections was dedicated to the analysis of the use of metaphor in the literary piece by O’Brien. In this context, it is possible to start with the statement that the concept of a burden is implied by the author by the constant use of the word “carry.” Also, another detail should be mentioned: the author always precisely states the weight of the parts of equipment carried by the soldiers. Therefore, given that “carry” serves as a metaphor in the short story, it is possible to conclude that author also implies that the war put an immense psychological burden on an individual. In the course of time, that individual could not bear this burden any longer, and he or she breaks down, obtaining a mental trauma which might severely affect his or her life even after the war. It could be suggested that the final meaning of the literary work’s title is that the soldiers carry these burdens and traumas out of war into the peaceful life, where they can not adapt. It was the explanation of the central metaphor of O’Brien’s story, and the following subsections will discuss more particular arguments and ideas.

Correlation and Contradiction between Female Affection and War

The second notional component of the story in importance is Jimmy Cross’ affection for a girl named Martha. This aspect is also consistent throughout the story, and it also represents a highly significant argument, implied by the author. Moreover, in the Lieutenant Cross’ perception, his love for Martha is the reason why the soldier under his command was killed. The author creates highly vivid imagery to engage his readers emotionally.

It is spectacular how O’Brien interlaces love with death in one of the final episodes of the story under consideration. At the very moment when he supposed to be in active control of his military squad, he was thinking about Martha. Thus, after the soldier is killed, Jimmy Cross feels a deep emotional pain for losing his friend and colleague (O’Brien 494). However, he also loses his affection for Martha, claiming that there is no more place for such feelings in his life. He also concludes that “his obligation was not to be loved but to lead.” This statement translates the discussion to next topic of leadership.

However, it is also of high interest to touch upon the study by Joseph Patrick Weil, which explores female representations in the contemporary literature, dedicated to the depiction of war. He approaches this question from the standpoint of feminist theory, which is fascinating perspective, especially for the literary work such as The Things They Carried. The author argues that women representations are used as “tools of modern catharsis” (Weil 3). He asserts that the females characters in the prose of O’Brien are translated through unconsciously masculine language, which has a particular rhetorical impact on the narration. The core conclusion by Weil is that O’Brien uses “women as stylistic and rhetorical tools,” which sometimes results in flat characterizations (65).

The Concept of Leadership

Finally, it is possible to dwell upon the third core idea which is expressed in The Things They Carried. It is not given as much space in the story as two previous arguments; however, it is still a highly relevant aspect of the literary piece that should be discussed. First of all, it should be noted that the topic under discussion is inserted into the narration as a part of a conflict between Jimmy Cross’ passionate love for a girl and his military duty, determined by his Lieutenant rank. After one of his soldiers dies, Cross feels his responsibility for this death. He willingly decides that there is no more place for affection and love in his life (O’Brien 495). It could be assumed that this decision is the representation of actual leadership in the opinion of Tim O’Brien. This concept could be described as the superiority of duty, which is the necessity to carry out the responsibility for other people, over the personal feeling and affections of a person. However, it is also evident that this decision is significantly hard for nearly every person because, in the example of Jimmy Cross, it is apparent that had to reject a vital part of his life.


Since the literary piece under consideration was analyzed, it is possible to come to several conclusion. Weil calls O’Brien’s work “a cultural touchstone for the tradition of the American war novel, and a canonical piece whose language is as accessible to its national readership” (20). Therefore, it is evident that the piece under discussion could be defined as the literature of importance. The issues of psychological trauma, affection, and leadership along with the employed techniques were also discussed, and it is evident from the discussion that O’Brien created his work masterly.

Works Cited

O’Brien, Tim. “The Things They Carried.” Reading Literature and Writing Argument, edited by James, Missy, et al., 6th ed., Pearson, pp. 482-495.

Stowell, Jim. History Theater, Web.

Weil, Joseph Patrick. Female representations in contemporary postmodern war novels of Spain and the United States: Women as tools of modern catharsis in the works of Javier Cercas and Tim O’Brien. Dissertation, University of South Carolina, 2015.

Williams, Sadie. An Analysis of Tim O’Brien’s Storytelling Techniques in Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried and In the Lake of the Woods Using Sigmund Freud’s Dream Theory from On Dreams. Dissertation, Ohio Dominican University, 2016.

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