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Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried: Symbolism Essay


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            The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a hybrid text of the personal experiences and the intense imagination of the author.  It is about the Vietnam War and the effects on the mind, body, and soul not just of men but as a nation as a whole.  O’Brien writing depends on the use of symbols to aggressively portray what the war was like and the after effects.  O’Brien uses symbolism in the form of content, structure, and characters to create a dynamic piece of unforgettable and heart wrenching text.

            The title of this story “The Things They Carried” is a symbol of the stealthy travel of the Vietnamese soldiers which carried a rifle and rice during the Vietnam War.  This contrasts strikingly with the tools, weapons, and personal objects that were carried  by American soldiers.  The story is deals with the beginning of the Vietnam War, the process of war, and the re-adjustment of soldiers back into American society.

   O’Brien aggressively applies his belief that authors often must employ “lies” and “half truths” to convey the real truth to their audience.

            The content of the story is full of  of literary distortion.  This literary distortion is a symbol of the the Vietnam War, and the problems which faced Americans during this time while consciously excluding many of the political issues which breathed life into Vietnam crisis (Wesley).    It is only through the distortion of the events that the real experience can be conveyed.

  A key component in O’Brien being able to portray the the events and emotion of the Vietnam War is his intentional blurring of truth and fiction.  “The Thing They Carried” is subtitled as “a work of fiction” and offers the following disclaimer “all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.”  The intentional blurring of reality with fiction is used by O’Brien to symbolize the fragmented and unreal experiences of the Vietnam War.

            O’Brien employs several characters as symbols.  The character Linda is a symbol of the past.  This is a constant reminder of how things used to be.  Linda is a school friend of O’Brien’s.  She died from cancer and O’Brien’s first real girl friend.  It is not merely a mistake that his first love is also his first experience with loss.  It is through her love and death the O’Brien finds comfort in stories and day dreaming which direct the plot throughout this story.  Similarly, Kathleen is also a symbol.

She is the daughter of the narrator and she represents the present and more importantly the future.  O’Brien makes decision based on what is best for her.  She is effected by his stories of the war.  She is his audience just as his readers are.  In “The Man I Killed” O’Brien talks about how the young soldier which he killed.  This dead soldier symbolizes the pain and guilt that is felt over war.  O’Brien recounts the physical appearance of the soldier’s body — torn open, wounded, bleeding, and dead.  Just as the soldier’s wound never healed, the parallel can be made that neither will the world (Jarraway 667).

            O’Brien uses content, structure, and characters to symbolize the mindset of American soldiers as well as the collective American consciousness.   The aesthetic value of O’Brien unorthodox approach is unmistakable but in focusing on the style he ignores the fundamental reasons why the war occurred in the first place.  As well as America’s role in the destruction of nation and it’s people.  The Vietnam War is steeped in great controversy and myth.  It is only through the sharing of real life war stories combined with accurate historical and political reporting that the truth and the true experience of the Vietnam War can be known.


O’Brien, Tim (1998). The Things They Carried. New York, NY: Broadway.

Jarraway, David R. “Excremental Assault” in Tim O’Brien: Trauma and Recovery in Vietnam War             Literature MFS Modern Fiction Studies – Volume 44, Number 3, Fall 1998, pp. 695-711

Wesley, Marilyn. “Truth and Fiction in Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They             Carried.”   Spring 2002: 1-18.

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Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried: Symbolism. (2017, Mar 16). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/tim-obriens-the-things-they-carried-symbolism-essay

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