Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is a story about a platoon of soldiers caught in the commotion of the Vietnam War. Reading this story was enjoyable, but there were several things about it that concerned me. In a story about war, it is all but natural for the author and his characters to have to deal with death, and Tim O'Brien’s story is no different.
Tim O'Brien has used various styles to write this story, and he has written it in a non-traditional format. Mainly, he has written this story in a limited omniscient, third person style. However, elements of flashback are also included in this story. However, in traditional flashback, usually the story is narrated by the character having the flashback, which is narrated just once, and then the revelations of that character and/or other characters are depicted afterwards. When I first read this story, I found this very confusing. It seems almost as if Tim O'Brien has written the story as a movie, which made me feel as if I would need some visual reference in order to know where I am in the story.
Throughout most of the story, it remains obscure and unclear which war it is set. It is not until later that O'Brien mentions the word “Vietnam.” A reader could easily mistake that the story is set in World War II, since certain Far Eastern countries were also a part of it. The “modern” feel that the story has is the only indication that it is most likely the Vietnam War.
Vulgar words have also been used by O'Brien in the story. I believe it is seriously risky when swear words are used in literature, since this can separate a majority of the audience. Usually, the use of swear words is only understood by a liberal audience, while this can offend a conservative audience that is likely not to finish reading. However, I also believe that O'Brien used these words to make the happenings in the war seem more authentic, rather than for the vulgarity. He does not use them in every dialogue or sentence, but in places where they might be “normally” heard. Altogether, these elements make the story very dynamic.
The central themes of the story also stand out. The fact that Lt. Jimmy Cross deals with the war through his “girlfriend” Martha becomes apparent. Ted Lavender’s death and its effects on the soldiers is another theme. The title of the story has also been emphasized throughout the story. In a way, the story is also quite misleading since it is not really about the “Things” the soldiers carry. The story contains large passages describing the precise of weight the physical things being carried by the soldiers. However, there was always some statement or thing in each passage that did not fit into the category of physical things.
O'Brien also purposely sections off the soldiers into stereotypes. For instance, Ted Lavender carries tranquilizers because he was afraid, while Dave Jensen carries dental floss, a toothbrush, etc. because he practiced field hygiene. It is ironic Ted, who is the soldier who is fearful, ends up dying in the story. Later in the story, the “Things” change from physical to mental things, such as their reputation and the “fear of blushing.” In a way, O'Brien is actually explaining that even soldiers have emotions within them; they just cannot display or discuss these emotions due to the atmosphere of the war.
Finally, O'Brien and his character deal with death in this story in their own different ways. Despite the almost inhumane behavior of the soldiers, the minds behind them are pointed out by O'Brien. As mentioned, the story’s central theme happens to be Lavender’s death, so much so that soldiers keep on recalling it in flashbacks. O'Brien seems to be persistent about telling the different positions on Lavender’s death. Perhaps, Jimmy, the leader of the platoon, is the one who is most affected by Lavender’s death. The other soldiers behave as if nothing has happened. In fact, some of the soldiers even smoke the dope, which is among the “Things” the deceased Lavender was carrying. This is kind of appalling.
However, despite the seemingly emotionless and inhumane behavior of the soldiers, O'Brien also indicates that the soldiers are not entirely emotionless because they were carrying “all the emotional baggage” of their comrades who might die. Nonetheless, it is astonishing how these soldiers manage to hide their true emotions as they watch their comrade die. Even soldiers are human after all.
This is why it is worth appreciating that the true feelings of the soldiers have been pointed out by Tim O’Brien in “The Things They Carried,” even though these feelings are not represented by their actions. All of the above is the reason this story is so interesting to read. Plenty of emotions and personality are brought into view, which makes this story very powerful. It is even more intriguing that this story might be O’Brien’s own personal experience, since he himself was a soldier in the actual Vietnam War.
O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. 1st ed. Boston, Massachusetts: Mariner Books, 2009. Print.