In his short story “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien uses a narrative technique of slowly revealing more information about a death that strongly affected a major character. In the first few pages of the story, the death is not even confirmed. When the narrator states, “Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity,” the reader does not know whether the victim survived or not. In a similar way, the narrator provides details of the physical objects that the soldiers carry, but slowly adds more and more objects, each time explicitly referring to the weight of some of the objects. He also specifies the combined weight of these objects, when he says, “Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man's habits or rate of metabolism.” The repetition of the weight of items reinforces the idea of how uncomfortable it would be for the soldiers to carry this extra weight, even though they need these items. He ultimately reveals that ironically the emotional baggage they carry weighs more heavily on them that the weight of the physical objects. They carry fear of death and fear of shaming themselves; their fear is a much heavier burden than the supplies and weaponry they carry.
O’Brien also uses symbolism in the story. One example comes from the letters and photographs of Martha that Lieutenant Cross carries with him. Those artifacts symbolize Cross’s desire to escape his present situation. Martha symbolizes the kind of normal person and normal life that Cross cannot possess while he is in a war zone. The narrator describes Martha as a fairly typical college student; he remarks of her, “She was an English major at Mount Sebastian, and she wrote beautifully about her professors and roommates and midterm exams, about her respect for Chaucer and her great affection for Virginia Woolf.” There is nothing extraordinary about her to attract Cross, and it seems to be her very normalcy that appeals to him. Cross obsesses over whether Martha is a virgin or not; the quality of being virginal or not symbolizes an innocence that Cross is not sure she possesses any longer, but even more so, it reflects his doubts about his own innocence as a human now that he is surrounded by danger and death. In some ways, when Ted Lavender dies, his death symbolizes Cross’s loss of innocence. Cross blames himself for the death and projects his self-loathing onto Martha, so that the hatred he is described as having for her is actually hatred for himself. The symbolism in the story is not particularly sophisticated but it works to convey the very primitive conditions the soldiers have to endure and the very primitive emotions they experience.
O’Brien, Tim. “The Things They Carried.” Literature and the Writing Process, Backpack Edition. Eds. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan Day, Robert Funk, and Linda Coleman. New York: Longman, 2011. 113-125. Print.