Themes and Symbolism: The Things They Carried

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The Things They Carried is a tale of war veterans and their recollection of the events in the battlefield. The things in the tile is symbolic. The veterans carry with them different burdens; both physical and emotional. The story expresses hopes, fears, thoughts and perceptions of soldiers before and after war. OBrien manages to capture the psychological, physical and emotional burden of war using symbols and themes throughout the story. The Things They Carried is a successful portrayal of the psychological, emotional and physical burden of war on soldiers.

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Physical, Psychological and Emotional Loads

The soldiers going into war all carried burdens. The burdens they carried were both literal and figurative. Not only do they carry heavy physical loads in terms of battle equipment, they also carry physical loads that bear a lot of emotional weight and their memories carry emotional burdens too. The men carry grief, terror, fear, longing and courage at times.

Henry Dobbins carries his girlfriends pantyhose around during the war (OBrien 7). To others, the pantyhose is just a thing that he carries around. However, To Dobbins, it is a symbol of the longing and thoughts of love and comfort that he fears he may not return to but wants to. The pantyhose are a symbol of material things that have immaterial value. Dobbins carries the physical object that has emotional weight. The author manages to depict the ability of material objects to represent the immaterial due to human desires, thoughts and emotions. Dobbins wraps the pantyhose around his neck like a comforter. It is a symbol of desire to love and possibly return to the comfort of his personal life.

The war had a toll on the soldiers. It affected their beliefs and perceptions significantly. Superstition was a major aspect of their lives during the war. They carried things based on superstition. Lieutenant Cross carried his good luck pebble while Dave Jensen had a rabbits foot (OBrien 7). Norman Bowker carried a thumb that had been cut off from an enemy soldier and presented to him as a gift by Mitchell Sanders (OBrien 7). Superstition was a psychological load they carried. It made them carry physical objects that had psychological and emotional weight.

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross begins daydreaming about his girlfriend Martha while Lee Strunk is down the tunnel (OBrien 7). Cross imagines he and his girlfriend buried under the imagined collapsed tunnel but is not bothered by the thought. Rather he is comforted by the thought of reuniting with his girlfriend despite the situation. Thoughts of Martha dominate his mind while gazing at the tunnel. The tunnel acts as a route to channel his emotional and psychological load to get away from the present situation.

The soldiers also carried their lives with them some such as Kiowa and Lee Strunk lost their lives (OBrien 12). The loss of these lives was a psychological and emotional burden on the remaining soldiers. No one knew when or how they would die and death was imminent; a constant burden they carried around. Either they caused death or it was thrust upon them. Ted Lavender was shot in the head on his way from peeing (OBrien 9). Death was a load they carried around constantly.

Composure was also a fundamental aspect of their journey. However, at times they shed off this load and took up panic. For the most part they carried themselves with poise that enabled them make the best of the deplorable conditions they faced. After moments of panic and fear, they would bear shame. There was a shame of cowardice. The narrator at times is ashamed of the cowardice that drove him to first run away from the war, then go back to fight in a war that he did not believe in. after the war, many carried guilt and remorse. Jimmy Cross confides in OBrien that he never forgave following the death of Ted Lavender. Norman Bowker on the other hand is unsettled psychologically and drives around aimlessly in his hometown to let his thoughts wander. Bowker carries with him grief and confusion that lead him to write a long letter expressing his fears to OBrien.

Physical loads

The soldiers carried with them provisions for their use during their stay in the war front. Among the items they carried were Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades and tobacco (OBrien 10). Some of these items were not directly related to war such as chewing tobacco, but were important for them to carry. Items such as chewing tobacco were used for recreation. When they were not fighting, they used these items to relax and meditate. Mitchell Sanders carried starched tiger fatigues that were reserved for special occasions. Henry Dobbins carried a can of insecticide while Lee Strunk carried tanning lotion and Dave Jensen carried empty sandbags that could be used to build barriers for additional protection at night. These items they all carried individually and represented the loads that had to be carried at the personal level. Some loads were useful to the group but were carried individually while others could only be used at a personal level but were still carried anyway. Despite their use to the company, they were all carried as necessities. The author has managed to portray the burdens that have to be carried by soldiers in times of war due to their use to the soldiers. These items add to their psychological and emotional burdens.

The supply helicopters carried for them provisions that included iced beer and soda pop (OBrien 9). In a war zone, these items were luxury especially in the jungle. However, their importance in easing the atmosphere to relieve the soldiers albeit temporarily was vital. The soldiers needed avenues to deal with the trauma, albeit lessen it a little since accumulated stress would be dangerous. The emotional and psychological burdens carried during war if left to accumulate could have led to serious implications.

The soldiers also carried disease with them. The conditions in the jungle were not favorable for the best health practices. Malaria and dysentery were burdens in their campaign. Ringworms, leeches and lice were also burdens they bore. The poor health in general was a psychological and physical burden. It added on to the already stressful situation of war and being away from the people, places and things they loved most. It wore down on them heavily and acted as a stressor.


The Things They Carried is a successful portrayal of the psychological, emotional and physical burden of war on soldiers. The things are literal and symbolic. The soldiers carry with them physical, psychological and emotional loads. Some of the physical loads they carry are fighting equipment, others are provisions while some have emotional and psychological weight. During and after the war, the soldiers carry with them physical, emotional and psychological burdens. The author has successfully portrayed the things that the soldiers carried using a variety of symbols and themes.

Works Cited

O'brien, Tim. The things they carried. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

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