“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien is a short story, incorporated into he novel of the same name that contains narratives, united into a singe writing due to the presence of the same characters in all short narratives. In addition, all components of the novel are based upon the same topic: Vietnam War and both physical and psychological survival of the soldiers, who participated in the conflict. “The Things They Carried” is an introductory story, in which the author uses settings to provide a basic exposition of the severe war realities and the characters’ fates, interlaced with the major topic. The paper is designed to discuss the meaning of settings, physical objects and imagery and the way they determine of influence the plot development.
As Steven Kaplan (1995) writes, “The theme of the story is that the soldiers carry more than just physical items. A lot of the story was devoted to listing off all the different types of items and weapons each soldier carried. The various objects’ weights’ were described in detail. However, they were not the only things weighing down the soldiers” (Kapolan, 1995, p. 129). Importantly, the story begins with the description of letters from the girl the protagonist is in love with: on the one hand, this detail can be regarded as insignificant and romantic beginning, whereas it is also possible to presume that the author implies the primary meaning of emotions and feelings, which might appear a heavier burden (comparing to the warrior’s luggage) or fill a person with unusual lightness and minimize the physical weight of the items the characters carry. The author provides a description of letters, which objectively weight very little, but have an important place in Cross’s mind, with regard to their sender – the beautiful young lady, whose safe future deserves bloody struggle in Vietnam in general as well as Cross’s personal courage in particular.
The description of the items carried by the character, instead of its details, does not create the impression of immutability – on the contrary, listing the items, the author points to certain dynamics, or movement, – first of all, the soldiers are moving towards Than Khe, a Vietnamese village; in addition, there is a distortion of temporal frames in the writing: for instance, it describes Ted Lavender as alive, but mentions several times that he will be killed on the battlefield. This means, the story’s dynamics is to great extent determined by the dissolution of linear time with following revelation of the events, which will take place later in the narrative.
In addition, the items, carried by the characters, to certain degree reflect the aspects of their ‘military’ lifestyle: “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water” (O’Brien, at web-archive.org, 2001). This short passage suggests that in the situation of continuous adversity the individuals focus primarily on the satisfaction of heir basic needs – for food, water or cigarettes to which they are addicted; necessity is a key term explaining the purpose of the luggage, and, speaking more metaphorically, – necessity has conditioned their engagement into the military conflict, as war is a generalized political necessity as well as subjective moral obligation, placed upon males, declared as physically capable of participating the armed conflict. In addition, the inclusion of the depictions into the story might also point to the initial biological necessity the soldiers encounter – the desire to survive, so that all mentioned items serve this purpose and contribute to the increase of their physical stamina and mental resistibility, supported by the provision of cigarettes, sweets or other types of food that might be regarded as a remembrance from the ‘peaceful reality’.
Furthermore, the peculiarities of each soldier’s luggage to great extent disguise their personality traits: for instance, Lieutenant Cross is currently obsessed with Martha and therefore has her letters in his backpack; Henry Dobbins is a large and strong person who needs extra-nutrition; Ted Lavender suffers from anxiety and therefore takes tranquilizers; Kiowa probably uses to ensure a maximum of self-protection and thus carries a hunting hatchet. The degree of detail the author presents in relation to each particular character is expanded through the story, but the items they have with themselves, and, more importantly, their attitudes towards their baggage give a basic idea about their inner worlds and psychological lives.
In addition, there is an interrelation between the depictions of the items, carried by the soldiers, the imagery and their current mission. This logical chain is quite simple: the soldiers carry arms and war machines in order to use them in certain settings, described as imagery and to complete the mission: “ They would sit down or kneel, not facing the hole, listening to the ground beneath them, imagining cobwebs and ghosts, whatever was down there – the tunnel walls squeezing in-how the flashlight seemed impossibly heavy in the hand and how it was tunnel vision in the very strictest sense, compression in all ways, even time […]”(O’Brien, at web-archive.org, 2001). As on can conclude from this short passage, imagery as an aspect of settings plays an important role in the clarification of the military activities the soldiers are expected to perform. Tunnel as an environment breeds new fears or forces the soldiers to recollect their psychological problems: loneliness, emotional deprivation and obsession. The dark hole serves as symbol of doom or unhappy fate – due to the fact that the characters’ path in this war is extremely narrow – either to perish or survive, similarly to the cave. From another viewpoint, the tunnel might symbolize Lavender’s sudden death, which, as the narrative suggests, results in the psychological isolation and detachment among the characters, as all of them seek to distract and begin to think on the philosophical questions like: “Henry Dobbins asked what the moral was” (O’Brien, at web-archive.org, 2001)
In the settings, pointing to the uncertainty of survival, the soldiers naturally need positive and empowering memories, or items, which remind them of the most joyful moments of life. In this sense, most characters have pictures in their rucksacks: “In his wallet, Lieutenant Cross carried two photographs of Martha. The first was a Kodachrome snapshot signed “Love”, though he knew better. She stood against a brick wall. Her eyes were gray and neutral, her lips slightly open as she stared straight-on at the camera” (O’Brien, at web-archive.org, 2001). These photographs and his memories embody Cross’s obsession, which he later destroys, burning the material items, which provide the illusionary connection with the reality, where young people like him study at universities, go in for sports and can even establish a romantic relationship. Nevertheless, the protagonist finally realizes that the access to this nonviolent world is blocked and that Martha’s support is his imagination.
To sum up, the short story “The Things They Carried” utilizes three major aspects of settings to reinforce the characters’ emotions and explain their actions: 1) the items they carry that symbolize necessity and the need for survival; 2) imagery and the metaphorical link between the environment and the soldiers’ mood; 3) material remembrances from motherland, or the reality, where there are no armed conflicts, embodied in letters and photographs.
O’Brien, T. The Things They Carried. Available online at: http://web.archive.org/web/20011222025122/www.nku.edu/~peers/thethingstheycarried.htm, 2001.
Kaplan, S. Understanding Tim O’Brien. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.