O’Brien’s mastery of the short story can be seen best in The Things They Carried. He uses this short-story collection/novel as an occasion to reprise and extend some of his deepest themes and to comment on the purpose and art of fiction. Writing with considerable humor and sympathy, O’Brien offers his stories as a kind of history of the war. “The Things They Carried,” the frequently anthologized title story to the collection, is, like many of O’Brien’s works, a literary hybrid that defies easy classification; but above all, it is a moving narrative about the physical, emotional, and psychological burdens a soldier must bear.
The Things They Carried relies heavily on fragmentation to convey the sense of dislocation and chaos of the war. The Things They Carried is a story about the group of soldiers who shared time in Vietnam with the narrator. This story introduces the various characters who will be mentioned in the stories that follow. The narrator uses a description of the items the various men carried as a way of introducing them to the reader:
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha. . . . Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations. . . . Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap. . . . Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers . . . and six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RTO [radio telephone operator], carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament. (3 – 4)
Part story (it has characters, a setting, and something of a plot), part military training manual, and part hardware list, the story investigates the “weight” of the different “tangibles” and “intangibles” the soldiers “hump,” or carry. At times, depending upon the mission, the soldiers carry a host of tangible objects. They carry a variety of weapons, from M-16s all the way down to a slingshot, “a weapon of last resort” (8), and pounds and pounds of standard gear: flak jackets, dog tags, can openers, toothbrushes, and countless other items. As O’Brien details these objects and gives their weight—“they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds” (4)—the story reads like lists or excerpts from a survival guide. But among the inventories of concrete things, O’Brien often includes in half a sentence a thing that has no physical mass but that nonetheless weighs heavily on the grunts: “Some carried CS or tear gas grenades. Some carried white phosphorus grenades. They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried” (9). The true weight of the things they carry is the purpose for which they were designed: to kill other people.
The description of the items each man carried gives the reader some initial impression of the character’s personality, but the items also represent the private anxieties of each soldier. If the tangibles burden the soldiers, the intangibles press down upon them even more: “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight” (20). Ted Lavender, a soldier who is shot in the head after urinating, carried the standard gear, plus tranquilizers and marijuana to help ease “the unweighed fear” of being maimed or killed. As the narrator remarks, “They all carried ghosts” (10); not only do they remember their comrades who have died, but they carry fear of the elusive Viet Cong who lurk somewhere in the jungle, out of sight, ghostlike. Amid all the violence and death, “they carried their own lives” (15).
The structure of this first story sets up the structure of the entire novel. The descriptions of the things each man carried are interrupted by the insertion of short narrative fragments describing events from various times in the characters’ tour. Each of the stories in this book is fragmented in some way by references to previous stories or references to the deaths or actions of the various characters or by the narrator’s intrusive discussion of the writing process.
For example, the story of Jimmy Cross (who, the reader is told in “The Things They Carried,” carries letters from Martha) is continued in “Love,” the second story, which is set stateside, after the war. Stories four and five, “Enemies” and “Friends,” are companion pieces. Each tells the story of the conflict and ensuing friendship between Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk. Norman Bowker also crops up in a pair of stories: “Speaking of Courage,” the fifteenth story, and “Notes,” the sixteenth story. Henry Dobbins figures prominently in three stories: “Stockings,” the tenth story; “Church,” the eleventh story; and “Style,” the fourteenth story. “Stockings” describes Henry’s superstitious nature; he wears a pair of his girlfriend’s stockings throughout his tour, even though his girlfriend broke off the relationship well before his tour ended.
Although the collection as a whole was widely hailed, several stories in The Things They Carried garnered particular attention. The title story lists the myriad items that soldiers carry into battle, ranging from the common (cigarettes, machine guns, canned peaches) to the personal (love letters, comic books). The latter items are totems of sorts, keepsakes from their lives back in America. The story is really about the emotions that the soldiers carry with them: grief, terror, love, longing, and regret.
The intertwining of these stories can best be deconstructed by taking apart one story and tracing the fragmentation of the narrative. The best example of this is “Spin,” a loosely connected set of disjointed fragments of memories. “Spin” is really a set of three distinct narrative strands that repeat themselves. The story begins with a string of bad memories, followed by a string of good memories, broken by an editorial intrusion. This pattern is then repeated. “Spin” offers a mixture of fragments representing various representative activities and events of the characters’ time in Vietnam. It begins with a brief, paragraph-long memory – the narrator’s recollection of a crippled Vietnamese boy begging for a chocolate bar.
It moves next to the narrator’s memory of Mitchell Sanders mailing an envelope of body lice to his draft board, then to a mention of Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins’s habit of playing checkers “every evening before dark” (36 ). This narrative string of memories is broken by a series of intrusions by the narrator, who says, “I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, and the war has been over for a long while. Much of it is hard to remember” (34). He then mentions the deaths of Kiowa and Curt Lemon before moving on to happier memories of the war. These happier memories include mention of Ted Lavender on a good day ( ‘How’s the war today?’ somebody would say, and Ted Lavender would give a soft, spacey smile and say, ‘Mellow, man’ ) and the memory of the time an elderly Vietnamese man led the group safely through a minefield. The story then moves to a description of the boredom of combat before the narrator breaks in again with an editorial comment: “I feel guilty sometimes. Forty-three years old and I’m still writing war stories. . . . That’s the real obsession. All those stories” (38).
As in many of his works, O’Brien examines what keeps soldiers fighting even when—as was often the case in Vietnam—they did not understand the reasons for the war: “They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all. … Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to” (20–21). According to O’Brien, the weight of family and country, obligation and honor, and the fear of being labeled a coward press down upon the men. It is a weight so heavy they risk their own lives and destroy others to ease the strain. By blending long lists with characters and moments of action, O’Brien creates a powerful story that makes present for us the terrible burdens we ask soldiers to carry on our behalf.
O’Brien Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.