Soldiers go through a lot of physical, psychological and emotional discomfort while they are on a mission. As depicted in the story "The things they carried," the author presents us with the various characters and the experiences they undergo while in the field during the mission. Despite the brutality of soldiers, they are also human beings. Like any other person, they have feelings, and they also get affected the same way a normal person doing something else can be affected. In this paper, I will analyze the short story "the things they carried" by Tim O'Brien. This analysis will try to focus on the themes, setting, plot, styles, characters, point of view and finally my position on the paper.
Based on the plot, the story is set in Vietnam, probably during the Vietnam War. The author begins the story with a description of a sixteen men team who are out on a mission led by Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, who happens to be in love with a young lady named Martha. The author progresses by explaining the things that the soldiers have carried with them to their expedition. O'Brien has presented both tangible and intangible things that the sixteen-man group of men has carried. For example, among the tangible things that they have carried include, "lighters, matches, candy, pocket knives, heat tabs and wristwatches" (O'Brien, 2009:1). These were among the common things they all carried with them. However, there are specific things that various characters carried; for example, Lieutenant Jimmy carried his pistol, binoculars, maps and the photos of Martha, the girl he claimed to be madly in love with. "Other characters like Mitchel Sanders carried PRC-25 radio and Henry Dobbins carried M-60 and 10 to 15 rounds of ammunition on his chest" (O'Brien, 2009: 2-3). Intangible things they carried were emotions. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried with him the picture of Martha to keep the feelings he had for her in his mind.
The setting of the story takes place in and around a small village in Vietnam called Than Khe (Kaplan, 1993). The narrator presents to us the setting of the story as in the mid-April around Than Khe towards the south of Chu Lai (O'Brien, 2009: 5). The narrator describes the isolation the soldiers are through the description of the setting. The narrator explains the foxholes where the soldiers sleep at night. This, however, depicts the kind of isolation and alienation from oneself the characters experience. The village is significant in the story because most of the things take place there (Kaplan, 1993). For example, Ted Lavender dies there and as a way of ending their frustration out of Lavender's death, the soldiers decide to burn down the village. They decide to direct their anger and frustrations towards the innocent people of Than Khe village whereas the narrator explains "they short chickens and dogs after which they burned down everything" (O'Brien, 2009:7). Although the soldiers were depressed and frustrated out of their fellow's death, I do not think it was appropriate to take the rage to the innocent people who they should be protecting. The soldiers went to fight in the battlefield to end the conflict in places like Vietnam, but as O'Brien depicts in the story, the soldiers had left their responsibility and decided to cause trouble to the community that coexisted peacefully.
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is the protagonist in the story as the whole story revolves around him. Jimmy is the leader of the sixteen-man group and instead of taking his responsibility as a leader seriously he decided to submerge his thoughts in a romantic fantasy about Martha, her college mate. O'Brien depicts the constant distractions of Jimmy that contributes to his ineffectiveness as a leader. O'Brien presents how Jimmy is distracted by the feelings of Martha that cannot allow him to concentrate. As a result, his best friend Ted Lavender gets killed, and this triggers his thoughts that he has been doing the opposite of the expected as a leader. the antagonist in the story can be examined in two ways; first, historically based Jimmy and his team are in conflict with the North Vietnamese Army although, the author has not been able to talk about them in the story it is obvious (Wesley, 2002: 14). Secondly, the antagonism in the story is also depicted on Jimmy's feelings about Martha. The feelings keep on distracting him from what he is supposed to do. The rest of the soldiers like Ted Lavender, Mitchel Sanders, Norman Bowker and the rest of the team can be depicted as a single character, a team. Although, they also had their individual differences that distracted their attention in the field but Jimmy's predicament is much heavier than the rest's.
Some of the themes that O'Brien has depicted in the story include a conflict that exists between the soldiers led by Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and the Vietnamese Soldiers (Kaplan, 1993). Another conflict exists between Jimmy's team and the villages of Than Khe. The people of Than Khe have not done anything to deserve their houses and properties burned. Therefore, I think O'Brien has tried to depict the irresponsibility of the soldiers through their reckless actions with the claim of frustration out of their fellow's death. O'Brien has also depicted the theme of guilt that has been revealed through the experience of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. All along he has been carried away with the fake thoughts and fantasies about emotional feelings for Martha. However, he realizes that the thoughts have wasted him and led him to be irresponsible. As a result of his best friend's death, Jimmy develops the guilt and blames himself that if not his fantasies about life with Martha, Lavender would have not died. Although, the other team members also express their concern about the death of their colleague, Jimmy's grief is considered to have triggered the rest of the team members' emotions. As a result, they storm the village and burn down everything and destroy every property they meet. As a soldier, I expected to see them protecting the villager's properties. They went there to fight the rebels to peaceful coexistence in Vietnam, but how things turn out in Than Khe shows that the soldiers had neglected their primary objective of going to the war and began to join the enemy. Additionally, as a leader, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross should be in the forefront of keeping the villagers safe and not how it turns out that he leads the rest of his team in destroying the village, Than Khe (Wesley, 2002).
The author has used various stylistic features to depict the various themes in the story. For example, symbolism has been widely explored throughout the story. The personal things that the soldiers have carried symbolize their individual personality. For instance, Mitchel Sanders is said to have carried condoms shows how he likes to sleep around. Kiowa, on the other hand, is said to have carried his New Testament Bible that shows his religious personality. The narrator also explains how Jimmy keeps the letters that Martha sent her and this symbolizes his obsession with Martha that we can see its effects towards the end of the story when Ted Lavender dies. Secondly, O'Brien has also used figurative language in various instances in the story. O'Brien has used metaphors and personification of things to develop the plot of the story. For instance, the author has personified the sound of a chopper through the narrator's explanation about the sound produced by the chopper that was used to airlift injured soldiers from the battlefield as, "it would roar and dip its nose and carrying you to off to the world" (O'Brien, 2009: 10). Metaphor "freedom birds, " has also been used in the story to depict the desire by the soldiers to return home (O'Brien, 2009: 10). Imagery is another style that O'Brien has employed in the story. For instance, the narrator's description of Martha's tweeted skirt is imagery that the author has used to develop the plot (O'Brien, 2009: 2).
Tim O'Brien has succeeded in depicting the negligence, irresponsibility, and the conflict issues related with the soldiers led by Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. I was fascinated by the way O'Brien has depicted the antagonism in the story when it comes to Jimmy's feelings towards Martha. The author has succeeded in presenting characters in conflict with their emotions such as Jimmy's fantasy about Martha.
In conclusion, O'Brien has expressed various issues in the military. The author has presented his characters in such an aesthetic manner that helps the audience connect freely with the characters to present the realism in the story. O'Brien has managed to appeal to the readers' emotional and physical feelings through the representation of characters in the story. Additionally, through the literary techniques that O'Brien has employed in the story the readers can connect with the realism of the things happening in the story.
Kaplan, Steven. "The undying uncertainty of the narrator in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 35.1 (1993): 43-52.
O'brien, Tim. The things they carried. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.Wesley, Marilyn. "Truth and Fiction in Tim O'Brien's" If I Die in a Combat Zone" and" The Things They Carried"." College Literature 29.2 (2002): 1-18.
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