Discuss the Idea of “Carrying” in O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”

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Tim O’Brien’s short story collection “The things they carried” delves into the theme of soldiers carrying various burdens in their lives. O’Brien, portrayed through his persona Tim O’Brien, challenges conventional beliefs about why men join the war. One example is Jimmy Cross, who exemplifies the unasked-for burden placed on a platoon leader. O’Brien also examines the impact of the Vietnam War on soldiers’ well-being by portraying Norman Bowker, who tragically takes his own life due to his inability to cope with the memories and pressures brought about by the war. These characters showcase different types of “carrying” that O’Brien explores—emotional burden from memories, physical weight during wartime, and mental pressures endured. The emotional burden originates from memories, fear of shame, guilt, and loneliness experienced at war. These burdens persist throughout their lives; starting with the shame faced upon being drafted into the war—a choice some contemplated but few actually made to go to Canada instead.

The reason for their participation in the war is their fear of society’s shame in being labeled as “Pussy” or “Turncoat”, making them go to war because they felt compelled to do so. O’Brien’s purpose is to challenge the belief that men join the war to serve their country, as reflected in his persona, Tim O’Brien. Like many others, he also attempted to escape to Canada, but societal norms limited his choices, and he was considered a “coward” because he still went to war. O’Brien argues that throughout history, men have joined wars out of fear of the shame they would face, whether it be through mockery, disgrace, or patriotic ridicule.

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The emotional confusion and burden faced by men due to social expectations is emphasized by the irony of them feeling shame for attending the war rather than for not attending it. This shame and cowardice they carry with them is magnified in the war, as they recall shameful memories involving their instinct to run, freeze, or hide. The burden of guilt also increases as they witness the death of their fellow soldiers. Even after the war, Lieutenant Cross, who was just a “kid at war,” continues to feel guilty for the death of Ted Lavender and carries that burden.

Carrying the guilt of Lavender’s death, Cross blamed Martha and felt a heavy burden in his stomach. He symbolically tried to get rid of the guilt by burning Martha’s letters, but he didn’t understand that the emotional weight would remain for the soldiers who carried lasting memories with them. Guilt also brought forth anger and loneliness, as soldiers yearned for comfort, love, and companionship like any other person.

During the war, soldiers had different experiences. Some were supported by their families, while others felt lonely. The separation from loved ones caused anger and resentment that stayed with them throughout their lives. Society did not comprehend or empathize with their feelings of guilt, fear, loneliness, and anger. Soldiers dealt with these emotions and memories by writing stories, but some struggled to maintain a stable mental state.

Norman Bowker, unable to express his emotions and relieve himself of the emotional weight, succumbs to loneliness and takes his own life as a means to escape this overwhelming burden. O’Brien uses Norman as a representation of how the emotional burdens carried by the men in war cannot be completely erased, only somewhat alleviated, a task some men were unable to accomplish. While O’Brien illustrates that these burdens are brought about by various experiences, it is evident that they intensify as the war progresses and continue to haunt the men through their memories even after the war concludes.

However, the emotional burden is not the sole weight carried by men during war. As part of their duty, soldiers are required to transport various items over long distances. These items are essential for their survival and include guns, jackets, C rations, and knives with a combined weight of approximately 65 pounds. Additionally, soldiers also carry personal items for comfort and support alongside the necessary survival gear. Thus, the weight they bear encompasses both practical necessities and personal belongings.

The soldiers brought various items with them during the war, such as letters and pictures from their loved ones, pantyhose for Henry Dobbins, and tranquilisers for Ted Lavender. These items were considered to bring good luck and alleviate the stress of war. The things they carried differed based on personal preferences and needs, but they all contributed to the weight they had to bear during combat. This burden haunted them after the war, as they remembered the pain caused by the heavy load. As the platoon’s Lieutenant, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, a loaded .45-caliber pistol weighing 2.9 pounds, and a strobe light.

Furthermore, he also carried personal items consisting of Martha’s letters, pictures, and a good luck pebble. These belongings served as a source of diversion from the responsibilities and pressures of war. However, after the death of Ted Lavender, Cross burns Martha’s pictures and letter, holding her accountable for being the distraction that led to Lavender’s demise. In contrast, other members of the platoon like Norman Bowker carried letters and diaries from their loved ones. Norman, whose father had his own battle to fight, longed for love and support through these letters, which explains why he carried them along with the necessities for war.

The diary provided a means for Norman to relieve his tension during war and process his emotions. However, it is ironic because Norman ultimately takes his own life due to his inability to discuss his war experience. O’Brien aims to demonstrate that men sought solace and support through letters and photographs during the war. He also acknowledges that they found moments of enjoyment amidst the hardships. Examples include carrying chess sets and basketballs to pass the time, as well as Vietnamese-English dictionaries and plastic cards with the Code of Conduct imprinted on them.

Additionally, the men were burdened with various diseases like “malaria and dysentery,” but they also took measures to maintain hygiene with items like “toothbrushes, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap.” Furthermore, the men carried the very soil they tread upon, as dust “covered their boots and fatigues and faces.” Through these examples of what the men carried, O’Brien intends to illustrate that certain burdens were inevitable and have persisted throughout the history of warfare.

He demonstrates that men are incorrectly depicted as brave and invincible, when in truth they need some semblance of comfort from small reminders of better times before the war. These belongings had to be carried by the men throughout Vietnam, and the burden was immense. Additionally, O’Brien discusses the mental anguish that weighed on the men due to the fear of death. It was impossible for the platoon members to escape this mental pressure during war. The pressure primarily stemmed from constant worrying about whether they would make it out alive or not.

Further inquiries into the identities of the adversaries and the motives behind this conflict heightened the weight and strain on the soldiers. It is widely acknowledged that the men bore their own lives, intensifying the enormity of their burden. Considering that the Vietnam war was characterized by stealthiness and primarily involved arduous journeys over vast distances, in contrast to conventional war portrayals, the soldiers were constantly preoccupied with concerns about their own survival. This predicament was particularly challenging for the platoon’s Lieutenant, as he bore the responsibility not only for his own life but also for the lives of his subordinates.

Due to his youth and lack of maturity, this individual experiences a mental burden of responsibility for leading his comrades safely through the challenges of Vietnam. Following Lavender’s death, his guilt resulted in a noticeable change in his demeanor that reflected an increased sense of determination to protect and guide his men. Additionally, the monotonous nature of war contributed to the mental strain caused by the unsettling quietness that often preceded attacks. Whenever the soldiers momentarily let their guard down and relaxed, a sudden outbreak of gunfire would shock them intensely, causing them to react with terrified screams akin to those of a squealing pig.

O’Brien delves into this topic in his narrative of Lavender’s death, depicting how fear and anxiety clouded the soldiers’ thoughts. It was during such moments that they became consumed by worries about trivial matters like the functionality of their flashlights or the reliability of their comrades to aid them in times of trouble. This intangible force of imagination haunted their minds, leaving lasting memories that continued to torment them long after the war had ended. In various aspects, the anticipation they experienced was more distressing than the actual missions they undertook, including the mission involving the tunnel.

The intense pressure experienced by men during the war can lead to mental breakdowns. Norman Bowker exemplifies this breakdown, as portrayed by O’Brien. Bowker’s memories of the war and his inability to discuss his experiences contribute to his depression. He struggles to adapt to the sudden stillness and monotony of post-war life, which further increases his mental burden. Ultimately, Bowker succumbs to the weight of his struggles and takes his own life. O’Brien does acknowledge, however, that some men find ways to cope with this burden.

In “Notes,” O’Brien reveals how writing assists him in avoiding paralysis or worse, demonstrating the significance of storytelling. He challenges the notion that soldiers are always brave and strong by emphasizing the mental strain they commonly endure. Similarly, in “Spin,” O’Brien delves into the psychological pressure stemming from the soldiers’ ignorance about Vietnam War tactics, contributing to a heightened sense of unease.

The author uses a Chess game as an analogy to illustrate the similarities between war and the game, highlighting that both involve winners and losers. However, unlike in Chess, war brings suffering, mental anguish, and the painful loss of loved ones to both sides involved. The psychological effects of war are long-lasting for all soldiers, but only a few manage to discover effective ways to deal with this immense pressure.

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Discuss the Idea of “Carrying” in O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”. (2017, Apr 07). Retrieved from


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