The Things They Carried (Essay Sample)

Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”


Tim O’Brien’s novel is teeming with various themes conveyed throughout the reading. This essay will tackle the specific “things” O’Brien’s characters possess, both metaphorical and literal. Reading through the novel, I saw the different emotional loads carried by O’Brien’s characters which later became impediments to the manner in which each behaved in battle and also following their return back home. Particularly, this essay inspects the subject of mental luggage brought by each soldier into the war that is, tenets or objects, which impede them from effective functionality in battle.

I. Characters’ Apprehensions and Burdens

Henry Dobbins, who in the reading displays a benevolent and amiable spirit, yet is relatively superstitious as he wraps a pantyhose belonging to his girlfriend round his neck. At first, I found this humorous when I read it; however, there is a firm belief on Dobbin’s part that this custom will safeguard him in his daily doings. The pantyhose, therefore, becomes an item Dobbin wraps around his neck throughout the reading. One protagonist whose end is tragic due to the emotional burden he carries is Norman Bowker. Norman Bowker in the novel is depicted as a quiet individual, often secluding himself, aggravated by Kiowa’s demise, prompting him to revisit to his hometown disquieted and aloof. Norman puts up a front, like all is well with him, but this is where Norman eventually succumbs. Norman’s existing alternative to disburden himself happens when he tells his story, he even asks Tim to pen down his story regarding the drudgeries of war life. Nonetheless, when Norman’s story ends up unsuccessful, Norman sees no meaning in his existence. He then terminates his life.

Jimmy Cross is another character bearing a burden. Here, it begins with a mental load cropping up from thoughts of Martha; a lady Jimmy profoundly loves back in New Jersey. Martha returns no love to Jimmy, yet Jimmy bore this during the war and credited to the diversion this entails, Jimmy is incapable of saving a dying man. Contemplating that it was his preoccupation with thoughts of Martha, Jimmy never forgives himself for the lamentable occurrence and how thoughtless he was regarding the man’s life. Jimmy tried to accept Ted Lavender’s demise and appeared forever burdened by this even after he no more fought in the war. Jimmy also carries around compasses and maps throughout the war.

II. Masculinity in the story

The mentioned Soldiers are victims of various emotions, for example, hatred, stress, love, depression. The soldiers realize how important love and real-life relationships are. Jimmy Cross who fell prey to long-lost love attempted to let his past go and focus solely on his duties in vain. As the soldiers walked through the Vietnamese streets, they carried with themselves the basic survival necessities and souvenirs to remind them of home. All through these matches, the soldiers dispose of some of their supplies as they know they will soon gain much more. To the soldiers, war is similar to a game; there are always losers and winners. It can be played using many different tactics. Here, luck and strategy greatly matter. Nonetheless, it is not entirely bad.

Some soldiers, who leave, soon return because to them peace ‘hurts’ too much. For some, the war is fatiguing. This is chiefly because of the losses they undergo for example (Ted Lavender and Kiowa’s demise). Death is a terrifying occurrence which frequently occurs bringing with it stress and pain. The soldiers fear to kill, the first murder being the hardest to stomach. The soldiers imagine the kinds of lives led by their enemies before getting into such a situation dark, deep marks remain within the lives and spirits of the soldiers as they spend never-ending days battling on the battling fields. The soldiers envision evading the brutal reality and nature of war reason being they are incapable of eradicating fear from their minds and hearts. Most times, petty quarrels take place, some end in physical fights, which also result in renewed friendships, written pacts and trust, and ultimately ending in death and sorrow.

III. Emotional Burdens’ Effect

O’Brien portrays how silently bearing one’s burdens like painful memories do impede one from thoroughly enjoying life. Jimmy Cross’ character is conveyed even to suppose that the “Love” concluding all of Martha’s letters is nothing but figurative speech. Imprinted in Jimmy Cross’ mind and spirit is Ted Lavender’s death. Ted Lavender’s destruction is aggravated once more by the fact that Jimmy Cross realizes that in actuality, Martha never neither loved nor cared at all for him. Ted Lavender also carries his dreads with war at war as he injects tranquilizers and smokes marijuana. In actuality, the individuals fighting this war all carry their dreads and apprehensions with them, just suppressing them since they are in battle. However, their hearts’ and minds’ absorptions are most times superior to the battle at hand. In sum, these soldiers find it difficult to tell their experiences thus the suppression of their experiences are revisited long after the war is fought. The terrors and calamities are carried back to each soldier’s respective home, leaving them frantic all the more.

O’Brien’s story asserts that men are fragile creatures who fall victim to emotions. A soldier’s life may appear to be filled with killing and hardship. But none knows the truth behind the lifeless eyes. As civilians, we wonder what war and the battlefields are like and how soldiers live on without emotion. When really, they share all emotions any human being would. Some display their feelings and confess their fears and love, whereas others hide by exhibiting a merciless attitude. Every experience is hard for them. Every new day presents a bigger challenge. If the cards are not dealt right, a loss occurs, sometimes many losses. This story is an important reminder regarding the horrors and atrocities of war. It informs us how war mutates soldiers’ experiences.


Indeed, the reading stresses the havoc brought by war after soldiers go into battle. These soldiers “carry” emotional burdens that linger long after each returns home upon the war’s conclusion. The conflicts in each soldier’s mind continuously erode their victims’ soul and mind for their entire existence.

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