Symbolism in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried Essays
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Written by author Tim O’Brien after his own experience in Vietnam, “The Things They Carried” is a short story that introduces the reader to the experiences of soldiers away at war. O’Brien uses potent metaphors with a third person narrator to shape each character. In doing so, the reader is able to sympathize with the internal and external struggles the men endure. These symbolic comparisons often give even the smallest details great literary weight, due to their dual meanings. The symbolism in “The Things They Carried” guides the reader through the complex development of characters by establishing their humanity during the inhumane circumstance of war, articulating what the men need for emotional and spiritual survival, and by revealing…show more content…
By mentioning common and familiar items such as gum, candy, and Kool-Aid, the characters become more than soldiers carrying ammo. It is easier for the reader to relate to the everyday accessible items. Despite being war heroes, as people often assume soldiers are, such symbols allow them appear as unique individuals with evolving personalities.
O’Brien continues his allegorical index of items in the soldier’s inventory, which establishes the emotional and spiritual needs each soldier has for survival. Rat Kiley, the unit’s medic carried comic books and M&M’s which O’Brien describes as things necessary for a medic to carry. The passage that reads “Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books and all the things a medic must carry, including M&M's for especially bad wounds” (O'Brien 339-340), is a perfect example of such symbolism. The reader knows that comic books and chocolate candies have little to no medicinal value, but because they are carried with Kiley’s medical supplies required for survival, they are of import to Kiley’s emotional survival. Having no practical physical application, he uses the items as an emotional distraction or a coping mechanism. Beyond the emotional needs of the men, the reader is met with Kiowa’s spiritual need. Introduced early on in the text, O’Brien writes
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A. Park The Things They Carried The symbols in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” are essential to understanding the soldiers and their lives during the Vietnam War. At the opening of the story, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross would dig into his foxhole and read the letters while imagining romance with Martha; however, at the end of the story after the death of Ted Lavender, he “crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha’s letters” (402). The inner feelings of Cross would be mistakenly ignored without the help of symbols throughout his travel through Vietnam.
O’Brien uses the emotional and physical weight carried by the soldiers as a representation of their personalities and how they prefer to cope with the war. The necessary and luxurious items carried by each solider provides a glimpse of individuality and personalization of how they mentally deal during the Vietnam War. The emotional weight carried by Cross symbolized the trauma he is feeling during the war. O’Brien’s use of symbols, such as the physical superstitious items and emotional burdens carried by the soldiers, exemplify the individual and ethical issues each soldier is coping with at war.
The crucial symbol in the story was Martha’s letters to Lieutenant Cross, illustrating the emotion burden and lack of ability to be the leader he wished to be. The letters stored and carried in his rucksack that he read every evening helped to provide him comfort by directing his mind to another place during the Vietnam War. They served the purpose of his distraction and dreams while fighting the war with the strength they provided him. The narrator states that “They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack” (392).
This hope began to block his vision and duty as an officer in Vietnam. Not only was he carrying the ounces of paper on his back, but the emotional weight of the sacrifice he made in order to serve his country, which caused him to lose one of his men. A secondary symbol in the story was the pictures and pebble that Martha had given Cross which “implied burdens far beyond the intransitive” (393). He had touched these items day by day, wondering who had been beside her while she had retrieved the pebble from the beach, or who placed the shadow in the photo of her.
His mind would race day and night, making it difficult for him to provide adequate attention on the war. Cross “would yell at his men to spread out the column, to keep their eyes open, but then he would slip away into daydreams, just pretending, walking barefoot along the Jersey shore; with Martha, carrying nothing” (396). Cross would hope for nothing more than to be carrying nothing. These physical objects weighed him down terribly after the death of Ted Lavender. He had loved Martha much more than his men, and due to his overpowering love he had lost one of them.
The pebble was not only a symbol of importance to Cross as he dealt with the trauma of war, but as the physical weight he carried due to the death of his man. These physical symbols helped to identify a shift in the story when Cross decides to open up and make a change to the way he is coping with the war after Lavender’s death. This “wouldn’t help Lavender, he knew that, but from this point on he would comport himself as an officer” (403). Another symbol O’Brien used in the story was the superstitious items carried by the soldiers which helped them to cope with the trauma of the war.
Dave Jensen carried a rabbit’s foot for good luck to protect him from the unknown. Carrying around the rabbit foot provided him comfort, which assisted him in coping with the fear of being at war. Norman Bowker had carried with him the thumb from the dead boy that Mitchell Sanders had presented to him as a gift. Bowker was a very tender man; however, this thumb reminded him that he was tough and nothing was going to stop him from making it through this war. The trauma of being at war had desensitized the soldiers, leaving them no respect for others.
After removing the thumb from the boy, Sanders smiles as he “kicked the boy’s head, watched the flies scatter, and said, It’s like with that old TV show—Paladin. Have gun, will travel” (398). The character Paladin in Have gun, will travel is forced to hunt and kill a mysterious gunman, relating this TV show to the reality of war and the loss of moral principles these soldiers continue to try to find in their superstitious items. The war has hardened them from the inside out. The emblem of the thumb represents the emotional and psychological changes that the men undergo up every hill and through the swamps.
These soldiers were afraid of the unknown. The superstitious symbols they carried with them throughout the war allow the reader to feel all of the emotional baggage and terror that these men endure sunrise to sunset. The narrator states that “They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to” (401). Symbolism functions in the story by relating the physical and emotional weight carried by the Vietnam soldiers to the fear, callousness and insensitivity each man is dealing with at war.
O’Brien wrote this story with the intent to personalize the Vietnam War through symbols to express the true feelings of the men while traveling through the swamps and jungle. This leads to a greater understanding of attaching too closely to a physical item when there is a superior problem at stake, a war and men that need to be protected and comforted. Using symbols in this story makes it imaginative and fascinating, as well as providing less information until there is a great understanding at the end of the story.
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The first few pages of the story seem to be a description of a Lieutenant that is possibly obsessed over a woman back home, followed by a detailed description of each item carried by each soldier and by those individually. At the end of the story it is understood that these men were in “another world, where there were no pretty poems or midterm exams, a place where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity. Kiowa was right. Boom-down, and you were dead, never partly dead” (403).
Author: Alfred Gobeil
Symbolism in “The Things They Carried”
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