Tim O’Brien, author and veteran, covers several multiple in his novel The Things They Carried. The book bases itself on the psychological strain caused by the stress and conflicting interests in the war. O’Brien wants us to see what he’s afraid to look back at. Story truth is his way of facing the confronting the past and admitting his responsibility in it. O’Brien tells his stories from a constant gush of memories. Emotions and morals are among the more evident themes covered in the novel. Pain, embarrassment, love, hate, loneliness, frustration, isolation, bravery, and struggles with morality. All of these, and combinations of these are religiously covered in the book. Though people not involved in a war could never even begin to understand, not even an ounce of what happened; O’Brien uses these themes and emotions to help describe the crude and passionate feelings that the veterans felt throughout the war.
Pain is one of the better know feelings about Vietnam. It still affects many Vietnam War veterans in many forms. Even though the war ended over 25 years ago, O’Brien shows that the trauma associated with the war has had mental and physical effects on the soldiers since the war has passed. Because of this pain, it only makes sense that O’Brien illustrates and reflects on the pains he and others felt during the war. Pain is caused by so many of the emotions used in this book, that it becomes difficult not to realize its’ significance in the book. The guilt caused by killing a man, even though he would have killed you. The mental torment felt when watching your comrade being scraped off of a tree. “They were just goofing. There was a noise, I suppose, which must’ve been the detonator, so I glanced behind me and watched Lemon step from the shade into bright sunlight. His face was suddenly brown and shining. A handsome kid, really. Sharp gray eyes, lean and narrow-waisted, and when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms.” (O’Brien p.70). These are the types of pains that can only be understood by having felt them yourself, the type of pain that lives deep within you forever, whether you want to remember it or not.
Embarrassment was probably one of the more hidden feelings in the war. In the chapter titled On the Rainy River, O’Brien tells of something so deeply embarrassing, that he was too ashamed to tell even his closest friends, and family. He, being an anti-war individual at the time, would rationally have been opposed to fighting for a cause he didn’t believe in. He ran. Running was a popular choice for those who were opposed to, or just scared of, war. “At some point in mid-July I began thinking seriously about Canada. The border lay a few hundred miles north, and eight-hour drive. Both my conscience and my instincts were telling me to make a break for it, just take off and run like hell and never stop.”(O’Brien p.44).
In the book he fled to the border, but stopped to rest before he crossed. His rest was the duration of six days. He was in a continuous battle with his conscience. He thought of his parents, the shame they would be faced with because of their son’s weakness. He could hear his townspeople and peers mocking him. He couldn’t risk the embarrassment. He submitted. “I would go to war-I would kill any maybe did-because I was too embarrassed not too.”(O’Brien p.59.).
The emotion considered by many to be the strongest of all emotions, was the focus, and title of the second chapter. Love tells of a young lieutenant, and the object of his affection, a girl from his hometown, Martha. Among the things in which Lieutenant Cross humped were two photographs, a good luck pebble, and letters from Martha. “Lieutenant Cross kept to himself. He pictured Martha’s smooth young face, thinking he loved her more than anything, more than his men, and now Ted Lavender was dead because he loved her so much and could not stop thinking about her.”(O’Brien p.7). When emotions like love make you think more of home, and less of the war, mistakes are inevitable; they simply affect your ability to work. Lieutenant Cross found this out the hard way. He burned Martha’s pictures and letters. He would have to carry the burden of his mistakes, regret.
A struggle with one’s morality could be expected for any man. It all came down to one question. Am I willing to kill another man? Should I kill and live with the heavy guilt and burden on my conscience, or perish knowing the consequences you’d be faced with would be worse. O’Brien made a choice, he chose to live, and kill, and kill he did. In the chapter The Man I Killed O’Brien reminisces over this experience. “His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole, his eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman’s, his nose was undamaged, there was a slight tear at the lobe of one ear, his clean black hair was swept upward into a cowlick at the rear of the skull, his forehead was lightly freckled, his fingernails were clean, the skin at his left cheek was peeled back in three ragged strips, his right cheek was smooth and hairless, there was a butterfly on his chin, his neck was open to the spinal cord and the blood there was thick and shiny and it was this wound that had killed him.”(O’Brien p.124). Following his experience, he imagined what the man’s life had been like before this. His memories created an existence for whom he killed. Memories are what kept them alive. He is astounded by what he has done, by what he had been forced to do.
This novel, summarized, is about a young soldier who is overwhelmed by emotions and feelings about a war he wants nothing to do with. It conveys nearly every emotion that one can experience. It is because of these themes that people can even begin to understand what those living the war felt. As with most other veterans, O’Brien experienced a loss so great, a burden so heavy, it is almost impossible to carry, but carry they did. They carried the burden of murders, the embarrassment of running, the bodies of their friends, and the memories that would haunt them for a lifetime. For these veterans the war will never end.
Bonn, Maria S., ”Can Stories Save Us? Tim O’Brien and the Efficacy of the Text,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 36, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 2-14.
Harris, Robert R., ”Too Embarrassed Not to Kill: A review of The Things They Carried,” in New York Times Book Review, March 11, 1990, p. 8.