The Thing They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Critique Essay of the Book "The Thing They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Dec 20, 2019 at Free Literature Essay Samples

The Thing They Carried

Tim O'Brien is not telling us short stories about the Vietnam War. The title of the book The Things They Carried, which the writer depicts, is as "sort of a half novel, half group of stories," exaggerates the emotional burden of the foot soldiers in the Vietnam War. The Things They Carried is a book about the soldiers and their emotions, and experience which they have taken from the war. The author gives very graphic descriptions of different events that have happened during the wartime, moreover, they are real. The work of Tim O'Brien is an autobiography of war and the writer's memoir. His fiction about the experiences in Vietnam lies not in definitive accounts or realistic depictions.

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As O'Brien states, “absolute occurrence is irrelevant” because “a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth” (O’Brien, 1994, p. 89). The author regards such binaristic notions as “happening-truth” and “story-truth” to examine the relationship between the imagined and the concrete, “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth" (O’Brien, 1994, p. 77). Tim O'Brien has written a unique novel using different points of view, "blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction", and repetition for effect in The Things They Carried.

The author of The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien emphasizes the idea that the burdens of mental distress prevail the physical agony during the war period, "They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing- these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight" (O’Brien, 1994, p. 258). O’Brien states that the soldiers’ physical torture such as longing, fear, uncertainty, and responsibility cannot be compared with their experience that they should suffer to stay alive, these burdens gave them only the hope of returning home.

This book opens with the short story, The Things They Carried, as for me, it is one of the most powerful stories in the book. Soldiers carried machine guns, deadly weapons, and grenade launchers into war. They carried them every day. In such a way O'Brien makes these soldiers real to us because he wants to show that these soldiers are we. However, the story shows the reader that soldiers have carried memories, love, and grief into war. Jimmy Cross was dreaming of a girl called Martha. Henry Dobbins carried some extra rations. They also carried the "secret of cowardice" (O’Brien, 1994, p. 211). A large mental burden of the “players” was fear. This fear existed because of many reasons. The soldiers were always haunted by the fear that they could die. The death of Ted Lavender showed its impact on the warriors. Kiowa emphasizes that the threat of death had a great influence on the men when he depicts Lavender’s death: "Boom down, he said. Like cement" (O’Brien, 1994, p. 250). The author describes Lavender’s death as something heavy and massive, and his death is repeated many times throughout the novel. The author has used repetition to emphasize the sense of fear in men.

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This scene was going through their heads because they waited for their fate. The soldiers also carried "the soldier’s greatest fear, which [is] the fear of blushing" (O’Brien, 1994, p. 258). They were ordinary people, however, in the name of war the soldiers should do terrible and disgusting things. The warriors were equipped with modern weapons. Most of what the soldiers carried were largely determined by necessity, such as can openers, pocketknives, helmets and flak jackets (O’Brien, 1994, p. 281). The combined weight of these items was between fifteen to twenty pounds (O’Brien, 1994, p. 281). Some additional items they carried were determined by rank and field specialty and included many heavy items like radios, weapons, and ammunition (O’Brien, 1994, p. 283). They carried some items because of superstitions (O’Brien, 1994, p. 287). One soldier carried a rabbit’s foot while another carried a thumb that had been cut from the dead VC body (O’Brien, 1994, p. 287). They also carried items for emotional comforts such as a Bible or a pair of a girlfriend’s pantyhose (O’Brien, 1994, p. 287). It was very hard for the soldiers to carry such a tremendous load and under extremely unfavorable conditions. The weather conditions were very severe with very humid and hot days and cold nights in Vietnam. Everything could swim in rain and could be covered with mud during the monsoon season. War does not wait for the auspicious weather. The landscape is hilly or palled in rice fields in Vietnam. Most soldiers were traveling on foot and they had to go either up and down the hill or through the muddy rice paddies.

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These soldiers carried their loads like mules (O’Brien, 1994, p. 288). “They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking … toiling up the hills and down into the paddies … just humping, one step and then the next [...]” (O’Brien, 1994, p. 288). In order to relieve the strain, they have often thrown away the food and “blow their Claymores and grenades” (O’Brien, 1994, p. 288). These men have carried only the physical weight of equipment.

The writer uses all these short images, for example, the boys who were carrying, because he wants to create different pictures for the reader. The reader is slowly acquainting with these boys by reading about all the things they have carried. The soldiers carried the emotional burden. At the beginning of the story, a reader could find Lieutenant Cross, who was reading the letters from Martha. These letters were not only amicable writings of a girl, but they also depicted home to Lt. Cross. He found himself obsessed with thoughts of home and Martha because he ignored his main duties. At one moment, when he thought about one of his men who was searching a cave in a tunnel “without willing it, he was thinking about Martha … [and] could not bring himself to worry about matters of security” (O’Brien, 1994, p. 286).

Longing is another emotional baggage besides fear that the men had to “hump”. Many young men left their families and wives to struggle for a questionable cause in the Vietnam War. Martha served as a representation of the family in this novel. Lieutenant Cross was in charge of the soldiers and wanted to spend all the time with Martha. The main heroine occupied much of Cross’s time and he thought about her every time when "he would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin" (O’Brien, 1994, p. 248). This repetition of Martha’s virginity has a symbolic sense of the novel. Virginity usually means purity and a lack of experience. O’Brien describes Martha as a girl who is pure in body and heart, and she serves as a measuring rod in the comparison with the corrupted minds of the soldiers. Jimmy Cross has carried Martha’s photos and letters in order to give the reader an opportunity to understand his love and sorrow for her. The artifacts that they have carried are likely to speak for themselves. These photos would bring back memories of the times he spent with her (O’Brien, 1994, p. 282). “He [remembers] kissing her good night at the dorm door” (O’Brien, 1994, p. 282). Then he was thinking that he was away in Vietnam War and he would never come back home to her, “he [thinks] of new things he should’ve done” (O’Brien, 1994, p. 282). There were many symbols of home in the novel, for example, the photos reminded him of better times before the war. “After Ted Lavender's death Lt. Cross burned Martha’s letters and both of the photographs” (O’Brien, 1994, p. 292). O'Brien makes the readers follow Lieutenant Jimmy Cross because he also carried the lives of all these soldiers in his hands. He tries to focus our attention on the characters of the novel.


Tim O’Brien depicts responsibility, in addition to longing, which is one more emotional load that pressures on the minds of the men. Cross is described as the best example of a soldier loaded by responsibility. Cross is a leader of all the “players” and he is responsible for them. Cross dreamt of Martha and his preoccupation with her led to the death of Lavender, and he has suffered the pain of guilt. At the end of the story, the main hero burnt Martha’s photographs and letters. That was his attempt to "burn the blame," but Cross learns that this is impossible (O’Brien, 1994, p. 259). He wanted to forget Martha and to control his men better. Cross was carrying such a responsibility, as his name had a symbolic weight. The author of the novel provides this allusion to the Bible which represents the largest baggage that has ever been carried. Cross’s name gives him analogous responsibilities that Christ had. The lieutenant, as Christ did, should carry the burdens of the soldiers on his own shoulders. He was responsible for the men’s lives. His responsibility was one of the heaviest of the emotional burden that the lieutenant should carry.

The writer tries to help the reader to understand the characters better; I can hardly believe the sentiment is anti-war in this story. However, the "players" or soldiers are shown as human beings who have feelings and emotional baggage like all people. The heroes are forced to do these horrible things in the name of war. “Some carried themselves with a sort of wistful resignation, others with pride or stiff soldierly discipline or good humor or macho zeal” (O’Brien, 1994, p. 291).

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They used hard words like greased, offered, lit up, and zapped while zipping to ease the pain of death, much like we would call pig flesh pork in order to make it easier to swallow (O’Brien, 1994, p. 291). Using such language disguises the reality of the situation. These men were not only afraid of dying, but they were also even more afraid of showing their fear of dying (O’Brien, 1994, p. 291). They were soldiers and men. They had to be tough and macho (O’Brien, 1994, p. 291). If one shows his fear, then it would have been seen as a weakness. They held their fear inside and would dream of the freedom flight back home (O’Brien, 1994, p. 292).

The sense of physical and emotional burdens was sustained throughout the whole story; however, there emerged a feeling of hope. I felt a feeling of weightlessness, while I was reading the depiction of the jumbo jet. It was described as “being more than a plane, it [is] a real bird, a big sleek silver bird with feathers and talons" (O’Brien, 1994, p. 259). The men long to plane above the earth and they were away from the sufferings of death and war. The jet is shown like a refuge from the emotional and the physical load that the “players” have carried into war. The men "dreamed of freedom birds" and long for freedom and weightlessness that a bird feels (O’Brien, 1994, p. 259). People have done everything for their survival and they used this jet in which "the weights [fall] off" and "there is nothing to bear" (O’Brien, 1994, p. 259). When the men saw the way to escape, they could make them free from the weight of war and could live with abandon. Unfortunately, many soldiers will live the whole of their lives with flashbacks and recollections of the war, because they were traumatized by emotional and physical weight.

From my point of view, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and his “players” had the opportunity to avoid going to Vietnam and to flee to Canada, as did many other young men. However, their cowardice could not cover their pride. They cared more about what the other people would think about them than about their safety. These young soldiers, who acted so courageous in combat, were sneaks to give up an idea to go to Vietnam. As a result, they were created to endure, not only the heavy equipment under the unfavorable conditions but also the enormous amount of emotions from the constant fear. Therefore, the warriors wanted to save their reputations by doing all these disgusting things (Calloway, 1995).

In Love, Jimmy went to visit Tim O’Brien, he was in his home in Massachusetts, and it was after the war. Cross loved Martha; however, she did not love him back. He was burdened by Lavender’s death; he is described as a great leader in this short story. Spin has covered a recollection of the things done by the soldiers during the war, such as playing the games of chess. O’Brien has compared the war to a Ping-Pong ball; he said that anyone could spin a ball in many different directions. The author captures the replaying of the gruesome war scenes over and over in his mind. The writer depicts the decision to go or not to go to war after getting his draft card in On the Rainy River. He graduated the college and planned to go to Harvard. He was parted between the instinct to run away from war, and the instinct to go there and to fight. It was very hard for O’Brien to tell this story because he did not want to show that he was a coward and that he took the wrong decision.

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O’Brien showed a funny story about two members of the company, Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen, who made a fistfight get because of a missing penknife in Enemies. Jensen won the fight and then he broke Strunk’s nose. Jensen was a real friend; he took a pistol and broke his own nose. In Friends, Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen made a pact. Lee Strunk stepped on a mortar and lost his leg in October. He thought that Jensen would kill him. The soldiers found out that Strunk had died, and Jensen felt a big burden. There are several recurring memories in the book, Tim O'Brien reminds the reader about a repeated image or a sort of coda, one of this repetition images is the death of his fellow soldier and friend, Kiowa. The basis for many of the novel's vignettes became the scene of Kiowa's death in a battlefield: Field Trip, Speaking of Courage, In the Field and Notes. O'Brien emphasizes fragments of memory and creates an indictment against the squander of the war. In Speaking of Courage, the writer presents a story about a Vietnam comrade, Norman Bowker. O'Brien describes difficulties in Bowker's adaptation to civilian life because he returned from Vietnam and he could not slip back into the routine of real life. In Notes, O'Brien depicts the story of how Bowker suggested to him (O'Brien) to write a story about a veteran with the adjusting problems and the large feelings of survivor guilt. The author states that he should not put the Vietnam memories behind him, because he constantly writes about them (Chen, 2008).


To sum up, I expected The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien to be gruesome and outrageous and heartbreaking. However, it is a literary masterpiece and I carried with me great emotional sadness and will keep the stories of these soldiers in my heart for a long time. In my opinion, O'Brien manages to keep the characters of soldiers struggling in Vietnam very realistically and incredibly well. This fiction makes us aware of the realities of the war and the sacrifices that were made by a lot of American soldiers in terrible conditions.

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