The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien Plot and Analysis

The Things They Carried is a book with a very high degree of emotional background. The soldiers featured in the stories have had to carry a lot of different sentiments like guilt, disgust, confusion, but most importantly is the one that gets them through the negative ones, and that is love. Love, not in its conventional form of having a partner to care for and love by your side, but rather love as a way of reminiscing and fantasizing about a better world in order to escape the brutalities of war to a more loving, innocent place.

In The Things They carried women are respresented in a symbolic form symbolizing an escape from the war and innocence in the form of lucky charms, daydreams and fantasies. Even though there is an evident lack of female characters in the book, with there only being three, non recurring female characters in the whole book, the role of women is still really significant to properly convey the ideas surrounding the horrors of the war.

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First lieutenant Jimmie Cross carries around love letters and pictures of his love, Martha. He fantasizes about her, about kissing her and touching her leg. He does this because he can not stand being in the war without an escape. The woman is not physically there, nor does she actually show any interest in him whatsoever upon meeting him after the war, yet she still manages to help Jimmie cross get through painful moments in the war. The fantasies end up going so far that they distracted Jimmie during a missions which results in the death of a good friend of Jimmie.

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After this he burns the pictures and tries to release the fantasy. What this means is that the war was so heavy on the lieutenant that he has to go to such an extreme with these fantasies that he ends up being part of the cause of the death of one of his friends. We can see O’Brien doing this throughout the rest of the books as well. Even the title being The Things They Carried a large focus in the book is about how these soldiers were carrying such a high emotional burden, and also how they dealt with it. A way of dealing it was by using the thought of the women back home. Obviously, the bad outweighed the good in Cross’ situation leading to the death of his close friend.

An example that does not end so tragically is the situation of Henry Dobbins and his girlfriend from back home. Henry wears his girlfriends pantyhose around his neck as a lucky charm that protects him. Again, the woman is not physically present yet has a strong influence on the mind of Henry Dobbins. Even after the girlfriend breaks up with him, Dobbins continues to wear the pantyhose because it has transcended the personal link between him and his girlfriend, to a higher significance, now symbolizing what his girlfriend used to. The pantyhose now symbolizes the ability to love, the innocence and betterness of a world back home. It now symbolizes the same as what women symbolize in The Things They Carried in general. It is interesting to note that according to the stories, the lucky charm worked. Dobbins never got hurt in battle. This is another example of O’Brien trying to tell the reader that the effect of the women from home is extremely significant. Because even though the truth of the stories, according to O’Brien himself needs to be taken with a grain of salt, the message still stands. Dobbins never having been hurt is unlikely, but the message that the thought of his woman and the thought of love got him through the war, is a very powerful one.

One of the three female characters that actually makes an appearance in the book is Tim O’Brien’s fictional daughter Kathleen. In the book Tim pretends to want to tell her war stories but admits to being reluctant to actually do so, for he does not want to corrupt her with the horrors of the Vietnam war. By doing this, O’Brien creates the idea that women are a form of innocence, which should be protected. Their influence on the war is a good one, but not the other way around. O’Brien does this to really focus on the horrors of the war and to let the reader know that it was not a pleasant time for the soldiers at all. By creating this image in the reader’s head, the positive impact that the other women had on the soldiers becomes all the more meaningful.

Overall it is clear that in The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien saw, and wanted us to see the bright effect that women had on the soldiers of the Vietnam war. Also it is evident that he felt very strongly about the negative influence that the war had on the mental health of the soldiers and on the innocence of anyone living blissfully ignorant about the horrors that were transpiring in Vietnam. Even to this day women are seen as a symbol of innocence which is something that apparently has helped men get through tough situations such as the Vietnam war. Women, but most importantly the love that is associated with them, is what makes a person strong, it is a unifying factor that has been around for a long time and is still in my opinion very underrated. This is something that Tim O’Brien réalized too and I think that that is why he decides to represent women the way that he did in The Things They Carried.

Updated: Feb 25, 2024
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The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien Plot and Analysis. (2024, Feb 25). Retrieved from

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