The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is replete with several themes in the story but this paper will tackle the particular “things” that O’Brien’s characters carry, whether literal or figurative. As one reads through the novel, the reader sees the different emotional load that each of the character carries and which become hindrances to the way they behave in battle and even after they go back to their own homes.
In particular, this paper looks into the theme of mental luggage that each man brings into the war, whether they are objects or beliefs, which basically hinder them from functioning effectively in battle.
III. Characters’ Burdens and Anxieties
Starting off with Henry Dobbins, who may be just a minor character who even exhibits a kind and gentle spirit, yet is found to be superstitious as he carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck. This can be funny as one reads it first, but there is this firm belief on his part that this practice will protect him wherever he goes.
The pantyhose, thus, becomes a thing that literally is carried by Dobbins all throughout the novel.
One main character that ends up tragically because of the emotional burdens that he carries is Norman Bowker. He is portrayed as a quiet soldier, keeping things to himself, aggravated when Kiowa dies, prompting him to return to his hometown aloof and restless. He puts up a front, as if nothing is wrong with him, but this is where he succumbs in the end. His only alternative to unburden himself is when he is able to tell his story, even asking Tim to write his story for him the travails of his life at war. Yet, when the story ends up unsuccessful, Bowker finds no meaning in life at all and eventually kills himself.
Another character who carries a burden is Jimmy Cross. This time is starts with a mental burden of thinking about Martha, a girl he loves deeply back in New Jersey. Martha does not return this love at all, yet Cross carries this to war and because of the distraction that this entails, he is not able to save a man who died. Thinking that it was because his mind was preoccupied with the thought of Martha, Cross never forgives himself because of this incident and how irresponsible he is to his men. He tries to come to terms with Ted Lavender’s death and seemed forever burdened with this even if he was no longer fighting in the war. He also literally carries compasses and maps during the war.
- Effect of Emotional Burdens
The author demonstrates how silently carrying one’s burdens like painful memories can hinder one from enjoying life to the fullest. Cross’ character is shown to even suspect that the “Love” signed at the end of Martha’s letters is just a figure of speech. Lavender’s death is imprinted in Cross’ mind and heart and this is aggravated again by the fact that Cross discovers that in reality, Martha never really cared for him at all.
Even Ted Lavender carries his anxieties with him in war as he smokes marijuana and takes tranquilizers. In fact, the men in this war carry their anxieties and fear with them, just repressing them because they are in battle. But the preoccupations of their minds and hearts are sometimes even bigger than the battle at hand. In sum, these soldiers
have a difficult time in telling their experiences and the repression of their experiences are carried long after the war has been fought. The tragedies and horrors of the war are carried back to their own homes, leaving them distraught all the more.
Indeed, the story emphasizes the havoc that war brings after they go into battle. These men “carry” emotional burdens that continue long after they go back to their own homes after the war. The conflicts in their minds continuously eat away on their victims’ minds for the rest of their lives.
- Work Cited
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990