The Things They Carried


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Book Review
In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien tells the tale of not about war, but rather about war’s effect on one’s mentality. Ultimately, this novel is built on a foundation of the items that the soldiers of the Vietnam War carried. Whether it was the way Jimmy Cross uses the pebble to escape from his duties as a soldier or when Norman Bowker realizes that courage comes form within, not from receiving a Silver Star; O’Brien uses baggage as a symbol throughout the book to teach that war does in fact change people. These possessions were not just materialistic, they made up the soldiers’ attributes, made up the soldiers’ persona and made up the soldier.
In the beginning of the story we are introduced to Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. Cross is in love with a girl named Martha, and carries letters and pictures she has sent him. He also carries a good-luck pebble he received from Martha, and daydreams about her during their long marches. One day the Lieutenant and his men are marching through Than Kale, Cross’ daydreaming is distracting him as usual, when Ted Lavender is shot in the head and killed. The men “carried” Lavender to a helicopter. The emotional baggage they all carried were the things they wanted to lay down the most. Jimmy Cross carried the responsibility for his men and blamed himself for the death of Ted Lavender.
O’Brien is the most complex character in the novel, particularly so because there are three different stages of development. O’Brien the writer/narrator, “O’Brien” the soldier, and Timmy O’Brien the young boy all possess different thoughts and emotional understandings, each of which are in tension with the others. Part of O’Brien’s goal as writer/narrator is to emphasize these tensions. For example, each of these characters grapples differently with the concept of death. Timmy learned at a young age to accept death; soldier “O’Brien” attempts to retrieve that lesson to deal with death in war; O’Brien the writer connects these two approaches, emphasizing the importance of memory to his ultimate understanding of death. This type of connection and understanding of death and loss comes out of the conflict he feels as he attempts to reconcile these different phases of his life. The conflict between the three different “O’Brien’s” manifests itself as pain and guilt, two qualities that paradoxically motivate him.

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Throughout the entire book, there are several instances on how normal men completely change their persona if placed in an environment, such as war. Mary Anne, the sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, experiences perhaps the most radical form of change in the novel. Marry Anne, the innocent, curious, typical-American girl notorious for her pink sweater, comes over to Vietnam to visit her boyfriend Mark Fossie and is delivered to the medical outpost by way of a supply chopper. When she first arrived in Vietnam, she was just a sweet innocent young lady. She wore cute little clothes, and enjoyed playing in the water and the sand. Initially Mark Fossie and Mary Anne are inseparable, spending days and nights by each other’s side. However, surrounded by masculinity, Mary Anne quickly changes. It is this contrast of masculinity and femininity which illustrates how war can change anyone. Mary Anne begins to change from her outgoing, innocent self to a more withdrawn individual.
In Tim O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried, numerous themes are illustrated by the author. Through the portrayal of a number of characters, Tim O’Brien suggests that to adapt to Vietnam is not always more difficult than to revert back to the lives they once knew. The most important of these themes is fear of shame as motivation. This can clearly be seen when Tim O’Brien receives his draft notice. Despite a desire to follow his convictions and flee to Canada, he feels he would be embarrassed to refuse to fulfill his patriotic duty and so concedes to fight in Vietnam.
“It’s a hard thing to explain to somebody who hasn’t felt it, but the presence of death and danger has a way of bringing you fully awake. It makes things vivid. When you’re afraid, really afraid, you see things you never saw before, you pay attention to the world. You make close friends. You become part of a tribe and you share the same blood – you give it together, you take it together.” (O’Brien, 220)
An underlying of this book is the value of friendship. The bond that these men formed with each other in the heat of battle is incomprehensible to those who have not experienced warfare for themselves. It helped them to survive, exclude anyone who was outside their group, and help the men of Alpha Company to cope with the war after they returned to the United States. Without the bonds of friendship, none of the men of Alpha Company would have survived mentally or physically the strains and trauma of the Vietnam War.
The Things They Carried takes place during the late 1960s and 1980s. The end of the play is set in Massachusetts, while the rest of the book focuses on Vietnam. The setting is a significant part of the story because it is during the Vietnam War and is central to the story. This aspect of the novel is what makes it significant to American history. In The Things They Carried, it brought to the attention of readers what the soldiers carried with them to shield off illness, stay warm, protect their comrades, to kill the enemy’s soldiers and to remember their loved ones at home. For example Kiowa always took along his New Testament and a pair of moccasins for silence. Cross would look at the letters that Martha wrote to him, every night before he went to bed. He even went as far as to lick the envelope, because he knew that at one point she did the same. It gives the outsiders a chance to peek into their world.
I truly appreciated our soldiers in a whole different light after reading this book. So I have to say overall on a scale of 1 to 10, The Things They Carried is perfect 10. Not only does this book bring historical events into play but it is also able to keep my attention. The story is from O’Brien’s memories and experiences in the war so no one can say that the stories are false, because those are his accounts of it and his own experience incorporated within it. This is one of the best books I have ever read, being about a war or not, there is such a simplicity to it but yet it is so deep.
I felt this book was much easier to read than some of the others on our fall semester reading list. From the first sentence of the chapter, O’Brien begins to impress, however subtly, the importance of the novel’s form, a blend of war autobiography and writer’s memoir. Readers should note that a writer’s memoir is a form of autobiography. Yet the story is not fragmentary and disconnected, abruptly moving between memories. The overall form of the chapter is narrative, though the stream-of-consciousness interjection of raw emotions interrupts the story’s fluidity. Also the lack of challenging vocabulary helped make the book easier to read. Thus, the rating for readability is an 8 and for vocabulary difficulty a 3.
O'Brien showed us the many reasons why and how the soldiers possessed these things individually and collectively how they were associated directly and indirectly. The strong historical content in "The Things They Carried" helped emphasize the focus of the story and establish a clearer understanding of details in the narrative and moods of the war itself. On that note, the educational value of The Things They Carried, on a scale of 1 to 10 would be 7. As far as enjoy ability goes, I would definitely say a 10. To completely honest, I did not get bored with this book for a single instant and I kept wanting to turn the pages. The book kept me laughing at the strange actions of certain soldiers and crying the next moment for the lost of true love.


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