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The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – Literature Analysis Essay

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Updated: Apr 23rd, 2020

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a story about the war in Vietnam presented from the point of view of simple soldiers who are regarded as adolescents despite the fact that they are only 19. Reading this story one may understand what war meant for those boys who used to be always at home, to play with their friends, go out dating with girls, who used to live careless lives; now they appeared in dangerous situations which they feel helpless about.

The story is full of symbols which intensify the impression from reading the book. The very title of this piece of writing is symbolic which is going to be considered in detail. As it has been mentioned, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is full of different symbols which help understand the full meaning of the story along with the significance of the title and its impact on the vision of the piece of writing.

First of all, the symbolism of the title should be discussed. The Things They Carried in the Tim O’Brien’s story is the title which depicts the very idea of the plot. The story describes the life of soldiers who are taken from their ordinary lives to the war. The title paves the way to the discussion.

The main idea of the title is fully understood when one reads the story up to the end, when one plunges into the world of solders’ discussions, memories, the things they carried with them and the way those things helped the reader understand the inner world of every soldier. Leaving behind the discussion of the things as objects, it should be stated that along with those objects each soldier experienced a lot of other ‘things” like emotions.

Soldiers’ lives discussed in the story are complicated due to the fact that these soldiers used to be ordinary kids with no responsibility bearing for others. Fear, pain, remorse and similar feelings are part and parcel of each soldier who participates in the war. Therefore, using the word “things” in the title of the story, the author means not only the objects which are present in the pocket of each soldier, what the author really means are the feelings and emotions soldiers have to suffer while at war.

It should be mentioned that the feelings perfectly fit the story telling, however. It seems that the author tries to tell the readers that the things soldiers carry tell much about their personalities, their past and present lives, about their identities, etc. The symbolic meaning of the title helps understand the theme and the purpose of the story which is really important in getting the author’s idea.

Turning to the discussion of the very things the soldiers carry as the symbolic issues, it should be mentioned that each of the soldiers carries both things that are similar for all and their personal objects which are often unseen to others. The similar objects at the war are their guns and the hope to stay alive and come back home to their beloved, parents, friends. Protective gears are also the symbols of their hope.

The author discusses the armory in detail. Depending on the objects and things carried by the soldiers, their positions may be understood, “what they carried was partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty” (Tim O’Brien 5). The lieutenant carried “a compass, maps, code books, binoculars and a.45 caliber pistol” (Tim O’Brien 5). However, after this statement, the author states that he also carries “a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men” (Tim O’Brien 5).

Medic carried “a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tables and surgical tape… and the things the medic must carry” (Tim O’Brien 5). There are many similar descriptions in the book where the author points out the responsibilities of the soldiers via the objects they have to carry with them.

The things people carry are those which will help each of them to survive during the war (“The Things They Carried” 56). It becomes obvious if one looks at the book’s characters, their needs and perception of the surrounding reality from different angles.

The things soldiers carry in their hands and in their minds symbolize the war as the effect and its consequences for each soldier as the result. Performing its duties, each soldier has to follow the tasks he/she is assigned. Each person has its own place and destiny. This is exactly what the author wants to say.

Having one’s own place in this life, people are to perform specific functions and the inability to do them leads to certain consequences. The result of Cross’s inattentiveness is the remorse because of the death of one of his soldiers. Therefore, the author wants to say that everything is in the hands of a person.

Such notions as duty, God, and country are inevitable and invisible items which help soldiers remain people at the war. Some parts in the text dwell upon the cruelty and unseen violence. Trying to imagine the war the reader sees murders which can bring nothing but sorrows and grief. What is more, showing the uselessness of this Vietnam War and its difference with the World War II, the author states, “They moved like mules.

By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march” (Tim O’Brien 14).

The absence of any purpose or idea, the monotony of the actions which seem to be useless are part and parcel of the war life and no one knows when it will end, no one understands what it is all for and about. 19 years old adolescents fighting at war (those who were kinds yesterday) are shocked by the cruelty of the it. The author decides to take19 year old soldiers not by chance, he wants to underline the uselessness of the wars, their devastating nature and absence of any sense.

The death of a young Vietnamese soldier is Jimmy Cross’s failure and mistake because he is guilty of violating his responsibilities. Dreaming about Martha, Cross forgets about war operation which causes Ted Lavender’s death. Jimmy Cross blames himself because during the military operation, instead of participating in the battle, he is reading Martha’s letters remembering his life before the war. Ted’s death is a symbol of the feeling of guilt for the actions and deaths that happen during the war.

At the same time, if to look at the situation from another angle, Cross is not guilty of the war, of all violence and deaths which happen there (Kaplan 48). No one is guilty except for those who start wars but never take part in them. Still, the feeling of guilt follows all the soldiers at the war who happen to be near those who die.

The author makes Cross guilty of the death of that man. Still, the main idea of the symbol is to show that the whole humanity is guilty in wars and deaths. The symbol makes one think about the reasons some people die when they do not want to; others do not care about their lives at all but they remain alive, and others like Cross, are bothered about their personal problems.

The feeling of guilt is very important at the war as it means that a person has not lost the qualities of a human being. Frankly speaking, it is easy to lose traits of a personality when all around are killing; the author shows that it is possible to conserve the guilt and other human qualities despite everything.

Kathleen in her novel aims at depicting the reader who forms personal point of view. O’Brien’s daughter Kathleen listens to the stories of her father, and responds to them expressing her personal opinions. It seems that the author tries to guess the reaction of the reader and this is exactly what Kathleen is there for.

When O’Brien tells a story about a killed Vietnam soldier, he changes the story not to hurt a vulnerable young daughter. In this way the author tries to show that his story may be presented to a large scope of audience, the lecture should just depict the information from another angle to make sure that impressive people get it in different way.

Therefore, it may be considered that the significance of Kathleen as the symbolic representation of the reader is to show that each story may be told to the wide audience, it is just important to make sure that the issue or the fact offered for consideration forms the correct point of view (Smith 16). One more reason for creating the image of Kathleen is the presentation of the gap in communication between the teller and the reader.

No matter how clear the author of the story tries to present the facts and explain the reasons for his actions, the reader will always have different point of view and will not always have an opportunity to understand why the character has acted in this or that way (Calloway 251). Kathleen is able to understand most of the actions committed by O’Brien at the war, still, she cannot get some of them; this issue creates a gap between the daughter and her father in the story; or the reader and the author of the book as a symbolic interpretation.

Linda seems to be an ordinary character presented in the story with the purpose of discussion of the author’s past. However, this girl who died of a brain tumor in the fifth grade, is a symbol of the author’s grief and pain which support a person who experiences death of close to him people. Remembering the dead soldier, we cannot say that these two characters symbolize the same.

Linda is a symbol of human confusion and sadness which surround those who have to survive and overcome the death of a relative. Linda is not just the memory of a girl who used to know the author (Blyn 189). She is the symbol of the feelings all people suffer from when one of their precious people passes away. Linda is immortalized in the story to show that after people die we are unable to forget them and they live in our hearts and memories for ever.

Therefore, one may summarize that the story The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is full of different symbols which may be interpreted in different ways. However, having read the story up to the end, one understands that each character, each event is presented in the novel not randomly, not by chance, everything is done on purpose. The whole story suggests that people we meet, the events which occur to with us happen not accidentally.

The things the soldiers possess in the novel, the feelings they experience at the war, other characters present are aimed at reflecting various symbols which help the author to make sure that each line makes a reader think about their lives, people, values surrounding them. The story is about ordinary people like everyone of us; when reading it each one may see him/herself or his/her friends through the prism of the events in the story. The feelings highlighted in the novel are universal, that is why the readers perceive the story as something personal.

Works Cited

“The Things They Carried.” MHQ: Quarterly Journal of Military History 24.2 (2012): 56. Print.

Blyn, Robin. “O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.” Explicator 61.3 (2003): 189. Print.

Calloway, Catherine. “How To Tell A True War Story’: Metafiction in The Things They Carried.” Critique 36.4 (1995): 249. Print.

Kaplan, Steven. “The Undying Uncertainty Of The Narrator In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.” Critique 35.1 (1993): 43. Print.

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

Smith, Jack. “The things he carries: For Tim O’Brien, the Vietnam war has remained a crucible in his fiction, but the power of imagination and memory, and ‘our elusive interior worlds,’ loom large, too.” Writer 123.7 (2010): 16. Print.

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