Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: Symbolism

The Things They Brought by Tim O'Brien is a hybrid text of the personal experiences and the extreme imagination of the author. It has to do with the Vietnam War and the effects on the mind, body, and soul not simply of men however as a nation as a whole. O'Brien writing depends on using symbols to aggressively depict what the war resembled and the after effects. O'Brien utilizes importance in the kind of material, structure, and characters to produce a vibrant piece of unforgettable and heart wrenching text.

The title of this story "The important things They Carried" is a sign 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 uses his belief that authors frequently must employ "lies" and "half facts" to convey the genuine reality to their audience.

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The content of the story has plenty of literary distortion. This literary distortion is a symbol of the Vietnam War, and the problems which dealt with Americans during this time while consciously leaving out much of the political concerns which breathed life into Vietnam crisis (Wesley). It is only through the distortion of the occasions that the real experience can be communicated.

A key part in O'Brien being able to depict the events and emotion of the Vietnam War is his deliberate blurring of fact and fiction.

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"The Important Things They Brought" is subtitled as "a work of fiction" and offers the following disclaimer "all the events, names, and characters are imaginary." The deliberate blurring of reality with fiction is utilized by O'Brien to represent the fragmented and unbelievable 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.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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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

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: Symbolism essay
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