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

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Updated: Sep 7th, 2022

Introduction

“The Things They Carried” is a collection of stories by Tim O’Brien. Each short story reveals the experience of a military unit fighting in the Vietnam War and presents a combination of historical events and the author’s fiction. In one of the stories, titled the same as this collection, O’Brien showcases a Lieutenant who struggles to let go of his past. The recollections of love, despite it being unrequited, help Cross escape the brutal reality of being at war, however, eventually, he has to admit that his constant dwelling on the memories of Martha is dangerous.

The Things They Carried

At the beginning of the story, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross cannot let go of his past life, which does not allow him to focus entirely on the combat. According to O’Brien, “Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha” (1). Cross recalls his love for Martha, which was unrequited, but still, he keeps her letters, and a peddle she gave him for good luck. As O’Brien describes it, Jim and Martha only had one date, and when Cross recalls the events while in Vietnam, he regrets not taking a risk. O’Brien describes Cross’ thoughts as ” he should’ve carried her up the stairs to her room” (3).

This element of the story is notable because, under challenging conditions such as war, where people encounter death daily, it is not surprising that Lieutenant thinks about all the things he regrets. It is possible that in the future, he will not have an opportunity to meet Martha again, or even go on a date with someone else. Therefore, the Lieutenant relives this experience in his imagination, unable to escape these thoughts as a way of dealing with the difficulties and emotional burden of the war.

The recollections of past life and the communication with Martha serves as an escape from reality for Lieutenant. Her letters never mention anything about the war, even though she is aware of where Cross is and what dangers he may be encountering. Martha prefers to quote poetry and remind Cross to take care of himself (O’Brien, 1). Perhaps, this is a way of showing that the emotional burden of war is affecting not only those in the combat field but also those staying in the United States.

All characters described in the “The Things They Carried” have something that helps them retain the connection with their past lives. This includes things that are necessities, something that helps them survive, with some differences ” depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism” (O’Brien, 1). However, apart from these things, the soldiers carried some reminders of their families or something that would help them stay calm.

Again, this illustrates the emotional difficulties people face when having to go to war. O’Brien’s characters are depicted as humane, they are nervous and afraid, so they keep little pieces of such as tranquilizers, religious texts, things that belong to their loved ones and other pieces with them (O’Brien, 2). Therefore, Jim is not the only person who experiences difficulties at war and prefers to recall his life while staying at home instead of focusing on the combat.

As Jim’s character develops, he understands that his focus on Martha does not allow him to be present at the moment. This endangers both his squad and himself, as in one instance, a soldier he was supervising is killed. Lavender was a part of the unit and was shot while going to the bathroom, which is a traumatic experience for the entire unit (O’Brien, 2). All men cope with the colleague’s death differently, for example, Kiowa and Bowker discuss life and death in general. Arguably, Cross is the one who gets the most traumatized by this experience because he is a leader, someone who is responsible for the lives of his unit.

He reconsiders his constant need to think about Martha and the relationship they will probably never have. O’Brien describes this change in the following manner – “Lieutenant Jimmy Cross reminded himself that his obligation was not to be loved but to lead” (14). This is a turning point for Jim because he understands that he can no longer try to escape the fact that he is at war and ignore his present by focusing on his past love.

Apart from the physical things that help the Lieutenant and other soldiers cope with the difficult conditions, they also carry their memories. This includes those of their past life and the experiences they already had in Vietnam during the war. Due to the fact that O’Brien uses a combination of fiction and non-fiction, the experience of Jim as a soldier at war is portrayed vividly, providing an understanding of difficulties one may face in these conditions.

Conclusion

Overall, in the short story “The Things They Carried,” O’Brien blends the fiction and non-fiction, by describing the Vietnam War, the actual events and experiences of the soldiers, and combining it with some fiction. Arguably, the experience of being at war is challenging, and the main character of this story uses the memories of his love interest Martha to escape reality. As the plot develops, Jim’s character becomes more aware of the need to let go of his past and focus on the combat.

References

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Vintage Books, 1994.

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