An Evaluation of "The Things They Carried"

“The Things They Carried” is a metafictional war drama written by Tim O’Brien, and it’s a brief story that highlights and offers a singular perspective of some soldiers throughout their experience with the Vietnam War. The author is both the main character and narrator of the story, and he uses his personal experiences during the Vietnam war to write fictional stories. The items that these soldiers carried contribute to their description by the author, rather than by their individual personalities, and that forms the title of this story.

These troops are carrying a range of things, including weapons, ammunition, clothing, pills, comic books, images, and numerous private items. Each one of these items tells the story of a certain soldier during the war, and how it affected them throughout. For example, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross treasures a girl named Martha with pictures and letters. The experiences of these soldiers, in association with the things that they carried, is especially important to consider and to visualize in order to understand the true meaning of this short story.

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Steven Kaplan’s literary criticism “The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried” argues that the U.S. government attempted to manipulate civilians to get them into the Vietnam War, and that they wanted to win the war, but a world of uncertainty overshadowed it. In his view, according to Tim O’Brien, the language of fiction is essential to express a real tale of conflict, and it is nearest to the certainty of conflict to recognize and explore the uncertainties.

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Moreover, this paper also shows how the uncertainty of the “facts” in “The Things They Carried” is relayed using imagination to portray a truer tale, the tale of what was really going on during the Vietnam War. Kaplan offers ample proof and expertly transmits his thoughts. He also argues that “The Things They Carried” is a real tale of conflict that always changes when they are retold, indicating their uncertainty. “O’Brien presents facts and stories that are only temporarily certain and real… retell it one more time in a different form, adding different nuances, and then to tell it again one more time” (Kaplan 4). Kaplan claims that the facts about characters are stated by Tim O’Brien, but then later in the section, they reaffirm it and question whether it is true. “This uncertainty emerges a new set of facts about the same subject that are again called into question-on and on, without end” (Kaplan 3). For example, “She was a virgin” (O’Brien 1), and “Watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin” (O’Brien 2) are two statements that question the factuality of certain characters in the story. I can understand where Kaplan is coming from with his interpretation, however, I’m not sure how all the factors that make up his interpretation fit together, which makes me doubt its solidity as an accepted view of the story.

From my own perspective, after reading “The Things They Carried” a few times, I can interpret that the implied meaning of the story is about how O’Brien skillfully shows realistic scenes depicting and symbolizing psychological, physical and mental burdens conducted by each soldier in his short story. He shows these burdens by debating the weights troops are carrying as well as the physical things that they are carrying, their psychological stress, and the mental stress, which they must undergo as each of them endures the Vietnam War’s harshness and ambiguity. Besides the symbolism, imagination has been a focal theme that stands out among the characters. This specific theme played a part both separately and collectively as a team as the silent killer between Lt. Cross and the platoon. The theme of fantasy developed an in-depth view of how war was viewed through each personality that helped to highlight their ideas from the emotional point of being young people out in battle. Imagination hampered the platoon that clouded their decision-making and judgement. Instead of staying focused, what was needed was lacking in their wandering mind, evaluating the assignment. The story also demonstrates a profound vulnerability within the everyday process of individuals throughout moments of extensive stress, something that the general public and the media had not considered before when talking about what it meant to be burdened with such an important obligation.

Although I grant any avid reader’s concern that I may have not interpreted the story in the correct way and that Kaplan’s interpretation is more accurate, I still maintain my original interpretation in which the story’s meaning and message is to highlight the mental, physical, and psychological stress of the soldiers during the Vietnam War, and the things that the soldiers carried was a tool to further solidify that message, and also, the imaginational aspect of the story. However, when it comes to other interpretations, such as how Kaplan believes that O’Brien attempted to force a certain narrative of the Vietnam War onto the reader, I can respectfully disagree. Although the idea of imagination may be a stretch as to what the story could partially mean, it is more of a credible interpretation than what most other interpretations appear to be. For example, in the story, in O’Brien’s case, the stories of World War II he learned from his father’s generation’s films and tales, O’Brien struggles against his imagination and the wonderful cultural tales that feed him. Ultimately, O’Brien shields himself from a destiny comparable to that of Mary Anne through the manner he uses narratives, just as he did during the summer when working at the meatpacking plant, forcing him to look within himself at the fight between dark and light. That explanation should solidify anyone’s view and should lead to them adopting my interpretation of the story.

Even after going through all these interpretations of the short story, there might even be an even more correct way to understand the meaning that is trying to be conveyed. This story is truly unique as to what it means to convey, and there are not many others like it. Only the author really knows the true message, and maybe there’s going to be a new methodology to be discovered soon, especially with the amount of people writing argumentative essays about this story. Maybe a new interpretation could combine all the previous interpretations that are assumed to be correct, and that could be adopted as the universally accepted version. What if Kaplan’s viewpoint of a forced narrative and another viewpoint that the story was about the mental and psychological effects on a soldier were to be part of one idea on what the story was about, and that a middle ground was decided? That is an extremely plausible possibility, and it will be very interesting to discover and hear what future readers of the story have to say about it, and what they interpreted. Until then, the interpretations that we have already should suffice as the implied true meaning behind the short story, “The Things They Carried”.

Works Cited

  1. Kaplan, Steven. “The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.” Critique, vol. 35, no. 1, Fall 1993, p. 43. EBSCOhost, live.
  2. O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction. First Mariner Books edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009

Cite this page

An Evaluation of "The Things They Carried". (2021, Sep 10). Retrieved from

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