Reflections on "The Things They Carried"
Part I: Analyzing the story’s craftsmanship
Tim O’Brien wrote a story that is known as "The Things They Carried." It is a carefully crafted, detailed account of
a Lieutenant and his men, the time period being right in the middle of the Vietnam war. In most war stories the
author spends most of his or her time describing actions and events to the reader, trying to really put the reader
"right there" in the middle of everything that is happening. However, O’Brien drifts away from that trend here,
hardly describing any events of import to us at all. Rather, he focuses on the thoughts of the soldiers, the inner
feelings, small personal nuances and quirks that really describe the men. Being out in the wilderness, far from home
or anything they recognize, these men must deal with the mental and physical stresses of war. Here is where O’Brien
implements his literary art form.
One thing a reader may notice when reading the story is the fact that the story is written in third person, limited
omniscient. The narrator is not actually in the story, merely telling us of the events, and yet we still get to see inside
Lt. Cross’s mind to more accurately picture his feelings. The narrator also, although letting us see the innermost,
personal thoughts of Cross, always refers to the Lieutenant as either "he,", "him," or "Lt. Cross," never speaking of
him by only his first name, which seems rather formal. Also, it is odd that O’Brien should choose the third person to
write in when creating a story such as this one. Usually when an author wants the reader to feel what the main
character is feeling, they will write the story in the first person point of view, to give the events and thoughts a more
personal touch. However, the way O’Brien phrases his sentences, it is really very simple for the reader to get that
accurate feeling for the main character, even!
though it is not the main character speaking. For example, on the next to last page of the story, there is a large piece
that speaks about Lt. Cross’s feelings. "On the morning after Ted Lavender died, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross
crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha’s letters. Then he burned the two photographs. There was a
steady rain falling. . . He realized it was only a gesture. Stupid, he thought. Sentimental, too, but mostly just stupid.
Lavender was dead. You couldn’t burn the blame." (Hansen, 436) This section is very vivid in the portrayal of Lt.
Cross. The reader can easily see the man, crouching in the bottom of a muddy hole, burning photographs while
thinking of a terrible blame he felt was his: it is a sad scene to picture.
Another thing O’Brien does in his story is, as I mentioned above, to concentrate more on thoughts and seemingly
minor details rather than on events. In the story, O’Brien skips the burning of a village in just a simple remark that
makes it almost feel like an afterthought. ("Afterward they burned Than Khe." Hansen, 427) But, he spends almost
half of the story explaining what exactly the men carried with them, going into full detail of why they carried these
things, how much they weighed, etc. This is for a very good reason, though. O’Brien uses this weight factor as a
symbolism and parallel to the "weight" of the emotional baggage and mental conflicts the men must also carry with
them as they trek through this strange foreign land. At the bottom of the eleventh page O’Brien mentions this
directly: "They all carried 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." (Hansen, 434-435) He then goes on for another half of a page describing other
emotional baggage they carried. This shows some of the real horror of war; not who wins or who dies, but also what
effect it has on all parties involved, including the soldiers out there usually fighting battles that they would rather not