Memory, Imagination and Symbolism in The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien When horrible things happen to people, the horror cannot usually be put into words and is instead depicted into illustrations, satirical works or literary works. One of these said examples of horror which occurs in the history of humanity is war. War with all the physical, emotional, and psychological inflictions that it brings to its participants can only be depicted as indescribable terror.
It brings out both the madness and the melancholy in the man while in the process of truly making him a Man. This process is depicted in the famous account of Tim O’Brien’s experience of the Vietnam War in The Things They Carried. There is one important argument in the analysis of the book which is the utilization of the power of the mind in trying to mask the hurt, horror and heartache of the various experiences with the Vietnam War.
In trying to pinpoint the memory (as O’Brien recalls his days the Vietnam War and writes the book), imagination (as Cross evokes disillusions of Martha’s love for Cross) and symbolism (as Cross carries Martha’s love letters to cope with the hopelessness of the war) of the book, it can be understood that man is most weak in times of personal horrors but these trying times are also the sole chance which can prove how powerful he is by trying to overcome such obstacles.
This essay aims to prove that certain literary illustrations in the book are not just mere descriptions of man in war but actually contain symbolical underpinnings that prove the greatness of Man. In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien narrates the various experiences of the Alpha Company which includes the many horrors they experienced as well as the many coping mechanisms that they employed in order to surpass those horrors.
The first chapter of the book discusses the things that the soldiers carried which encompasses the more romantic illustrations such as the supposed love letters of Martha to the Company’s leader, Jimmy Cross—to the more necessary items like first aid kits and ammunitions. But what makes these things so important to the soldiers is the sole reason that the items were necessary and valuable in terms of survival.
Survival in the sense that they must come out from the war alive through those things and survival in the sense that if they do come out from the war alive, they must still be sane enough to hold on to the things that life can offer them post-war such as the recall of love and hope.
In O’Brien’s narration of the first chapter of the book, it illustrates how different the soldiers are and yet how alike they are in trying to hold onto the important things that can remind them of the life they had before the war: “Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father…” (3).
The things that the men carry can also give a clue on their background and what kind of personalities they have: if Jimmy Cross carries Martha’s letters it can mean that he is a romantic or just plain disillusioned; Norman Bowker may be a writer who wants to chronicle everything for future reference or he may just want some form of organization of the daily chaotic events that he has to go through; Rat Kiley may be that happy-go-lucky guy who humors everyone with his comic attitude or he may just want some form of escape by reading the adventures of fantastical super heroes.
Because O’Brien is the one narrating and the one re-creating the events which are already done and past, it proves that memory is one very important tool in the creation of The Things They Carried. Without the memory, there can be no re-counting of past events and without the past events, there can be no O’Brien’s book. Since the author re-tells his experience (and the experiences of the Alpha Company) during the Vietnam War, then a story is created in the process of the re-telling; and as what Toni Morrison wrote in her essay, Memory, Creation and Writing, “Memory is the form of willed creation” (213).
Morrison probably wrote “willed” since the one who is doing the recall is intentionally and is well-aware that there is an evocation of past experiences being brought to the forefront of the mind, and is relived whether silently (in the person’s own mind) or openly (through the relaying to other people by vocal narration or written recount). The stand that the person is doing a “willed” remembering is important since it would mean that the remembering is valuable to the person in the sense that the memory which has already happened and even forgotten is still enthusiastically (or desperately) remembered.
Morrison further writes that the most vital thing which should be acknowledged is the situation of why the memory was evoked and how it has happened (213). In the case of O’Brien for example, he wants to tell the stories of the men of the Alpha Company as a form of conveying his gratitude to them as well as trying to face the confusion and demons that continued to haunt him even after the war has long ended.
O’Brien thus uses his memory to create The Things They Carried for a purpose. Thus, if Morrison explains that it is important on why the memory should be willingly evoked, then it should mean a great deal that the war which supposedly contains horrific events like gunfights and shootings would still be willingly remembered by one surviving soldier—and as what Morrison asserts, “Memory…no matter how small the piece remembered, demands my full respect, my attention and my trust” (214).
But what Morrison and O’Brien also express is the problem regarding the creation of a story out of memory—this problem is that, in a way that memory is indeed some form of research, but it does not necessarily translate that it is pure truth and fact. In O’Brien’s book, he narrates that in stories especially that of stories about war, there would be confusion over the truth and facts as it would be very difficult to determine “what happened to what seemed to happen” (71). Morrison also shares this dilemma when she recounts a person she once knew in her childhood, a person by the name of Hannah Peace.
She later takes it back by writing, “I say knew but nothing could be less accurate” (213). Thus, even if O’Brien beautifully recounts the experiences of the Alpha Company during the Vietnam War, there is a possibility that things did not occur as what they appeared to be or that such melancholic musings of the characters were not as dramatic in reality or even if such occurrences happened at all. For example, when Lavender died, was Jimmy Cross really that tremendously affected or was O’Brien’s eyes just clouded as he too tried to overcome his grief over the death of his comrade?
This is where the discussion of imagination takes place since for even if memory is research according to Morrison, memory can also be mixed with imagination and is instead turned into a creation of something entirely or partly fictional. Patricia Hampl provides a different view on the role of memory. If Morrison reveres memory as something valuable since it holds, well, the person’s memories, Hampl on her essay, Memory and Imagination, uses it to support her created and pieced together fragmented lies which can be passed as real events that may have happened to her:
On the day I wrote this fragment I happened to take that memory, not some other, from the shelf and paged through it. When I reread what I had written just after I finished it, I realized that I had told a number of lies. (204) Hampl’s “lies” are not exactly lies; instead they are fragmented pieces of her past which she added some vivid details to make it more engaging, lively and colorful. Thus, Hampl’s reverence for memory takes another form as it may be regarded as an edited version that has been brought forth by sheer irrepressible imagination.
Since a person’s imagination is endless, boundless and limitless then memory when teamed up with a person’s imagination may be taken into great heights and can gain greater power. This great power is seen in how the soldiers of Alpha Company use their imagination to surpass the chaos of the Vietnam War. Because of the imagination of the soldiers, war does not seem that too bloody and depressing as what the various things that the men carried would prove. The objects they carried no matter how trivial (from comic books to a can of maple syrup) or taboo (condoms) serve as blanket of protection for the men.
This makes those objects become not just mere things for the men but a symbolism of their desperate clinging to their past and a symbolism for a hope that they would eventually come out from the war alive. Memory then as what the soldiers’ reminiscing would prove, coupled with imagination as what the soldiers’ “additional and edited” details would show are both powerful tools in trying to save the wounded (both in the literal and emotional sense) from the devastating blows brought on by the horrors of the war.
In conclusion, the power of memory and imagination is depicted in how O’Brien narrated the various stories of the Alpha Company. Each story came from O’Brien’s memories and this gave life and voice to soldiers long dead. Because of the O’Brien’s memory, the dead soldiers were given a chance to say their piece about their experiences during the Vietnam War. On the other hand, the various stories also prove the great power of the imagination as the characters try to recall their pasts during dreamily pretend in their disillusions about those memories.
Although their memory is twisted and convoluted, it becomes a coping mechanism for them that becomes their saving grace. In the end, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried proves through the memory and imagination of the soldiers (as connected to the many things they carried) man is not weak because he runs from reality just because he has such trivial things he carries; instead, man is actually strong because he acknowledges his weakness and holds onto tangible things that would make him remember a reality not tainted by war but a reality flaming with hope.
Works Cited Hampl, Patricia. “Memory and Imagination”. The Anatomy of Memory: An Anthology. Ed. James McConkey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 201-11. Print. Morrison, Toni. “Memory, Creation and Writing”. The Anatomy of Memory: An Anthology. Ed. James McConkey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 212-18. Print. O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Mariner Books, 2009. Print.