Tim O’Brien and the Things They Carried, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is a story about the Vietnam War by the author based on his experience during the War. This story is a significant piece in the collection of personal recollections that people, in particular soldiers, witnessed during and perhaps after the war. When Don Lee wrote “About Tim O’Brien” he mentioned that  The Things They Carried is a “metafiction” (1),  it still carries a lot of truth to it and some of the portions were modified to be more acceptable for the reader to understand as many writers, including Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut have done  in the past. But overall it carries a vast amount of truth and appears very realistic. As New York Times book reviewer Robert Harris wrote in the review ofThe Things They Carried“Only a handful of novels and short stories have managed to clarify, in any lasting way, the meaning of the war in Vietnam for America and for the soldiers who served there.” (2)The book itself does not try to portray complex, historical,  events that  sequentially took place but simple story that covered the everyday witnessed life by an ordinary infantryman. The first chapter of the book, The Things They Carried speaks of materialistic objects that these soldiers carried with them and is used as a metaphor to explain the emotional burden that they had on their soldiers. This is why in the interview with Larry McCaffery, when speaking aboutThe Things They Carried , O’Brien says that when he thought about war and his intention of writing the story (which did not occur until 1990) he did not just focus on timeline-events but also the thorough elements during the Vietnam War. (4) This where I believe that O’Brien was speaking about the “things” that they carried, their weight, and how each of his colleagues perceived the war.  In this essay I shall examine Tim O’Brien’s war experience in “The Things They Carried,” in particular examine the characters in the book and how they affect the overall story, further critique and analyze the story, and eventually seek the influence of Vietnam War in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.”

The characters in “The Things They carried” play a vital role in not only explaining the story but also a good portion of the Vietnam War and how these people perceived it.  Each of the soldiers carry heavy materials with them: be it machine gun, medicine ,The Bible,  or simply girlfriend’s pantyhose, they all carry something as these objects all mean something to them. Lieutenant Cross, for instance, carries his girlfriend’s photographs and letters. He constantly thinks of his lover, Martha and how they once went to movies and later gets into fantasies. Whether or not O’Brien really had somebody in his platoon named Cross, it is still a possible instance. Other character in the story, Ted Lavender, carries marijuana with him.  Marijuana made Lavender stay calm and when he gets shot his friends take his weed and smoke it all and joke about the possibility that Lavender might not have felt the shot since he might have been numb. Lieutenant Cross later blames himself for the tragedy since he was fantasizing about Martha when Lavender got shot. This is perhaps self-explanatory in a sense that O’Brien illustrates the influence of the physical objects they carried and the emotional sensitivity that lingered in their heart. Another character in the story, Henry Dobbins carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose on his neck as a good-luck charm. O’Brien describes him as a genuine man who is kind and respecting. Kiowa, another soldier, carries a Bible with him that his got from his father as a gift.  Rat Kiley, another soldier, carried the medical equipment with him. All these soldiers, had a story behind the things they carried with them which is clearly the meaning of the title of this book. Furthermore, all this these elements are a significant contribution to O’Brien’s literature and makes a clear picture of the atmosphere and how it all affected O’Brien. It is not certain which parts are exactly true and which parts are added or modified; this is a positive element because the author successfully modified the story and gave it a more realistic look.

As explained in the latter paragraph the things that these infantrymen carried was of significant importance to them. O’Brien does not simply go over the list of the soldiers that he was surrounded with giving list of the things that they carried: he gives the story behind it and how they came to these men’s hands.  For instance, he says, “Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap that he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia” (page 2). Another element in the story which is perhaps equally significant is the mentioning of how much weight each another of them carried. O’Brien begins first measuring the love letters of Lieutenant Cross.  O’Brien says, ” She often quoted lines of poetry; she never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself. The letter weighted 4 ounces.” (page 2) After measuring of letters, theauthor  continues to talk about the characters in the story and what objects they carried with them. He also includes the things that these men wore, like the boots that weighted 2.1 pounds (page 3) or the nylon-covered flat jacket, which was about 7 pounds. Furthermore, Henry Dobbins was carrying M-60 that was over 25 pounds and Ted Lavender that was carrying his 6 ounces of marijuana. But prior to giving out all this information, O’Brien says, “The things They carried was largely determined by necessity” (page 2). But it is not the actual physical weight that the author was trying to give simply for informative purposes, as a trivia. All this carried the emotional burden- all of them were emotionally burdened with things that they carried with them. The physical objects that they carried with them exemplifies and reminds them where they are and what they are going through. In addition, when SubarnoChattarji reviewed this scene of the book he said, ” This is the Jamesian ‘solidity of specification’ that helps create the ‘reality’ of Vietnam for readers. The catalogue not only creates a welter of detail but simulates the weight of the things carried by the grunts. These facts are combined with the intangible and the psychological: ‘They all carried ghosts’; ‘They shared the weight of memory’; ‘They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die’ (Carried, 10, 14, 21).” (5) Indeed, in reality they carried “ghosts” and soit can be said that when O’Brien was in the war he had the same burden on his shoulders and now he is trying to depict the author that these soldiers constantly walked with reminders of where they are and how lethal the war is.

Since Tim O’Brien was himself participant of the Vietnam War in the book he touches upon minor elements that only a participant can notice. As he once mentioned in the book, there are some things that cannot be explained as one has to be a participant to see what went on. O’Brien, however, reaches the audience with all these simple elements that shaped his surroundings and the surroundings of fellow infantrymen. He also explains their attitude toward the war and how they perceived it. The attitudes varied as they all understood the Vietnam War differently. For instance, Ted Lavender was quite nervous about death and the war in general, therefore he carried marijuana with him to calm him down. When he got shot and died his friends were smoking his marijuana and joking that he might have been numb when he got shot as he war perhaps high. This explains two different attitudes of how some were fearful of death and how paid little or no attention towards it. Also, another factor of the war is that perhaps upon his return, O’Brien had the confused feelings about life, death, and people. This also influenced his clear illustration of his friends’ attitudes. In contrast, Tina Chen in her review called “Unraveling The Deeper Meaning: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried” argues that O’Brien’s story is not unique and argues that the story is more fictional than realistic. As mentioned in the introduction, this book, and in particular the first chapter has been fictionalized but not to a great extent and the reason behind it is simple- to make it accessible and more attractive for the reader. Therefore, it cannot be argued that the story per se is fictional.

In sum, O’Brien brilliantly elaborates a simple element that, when deconstructed, can mean much more than what it actually was.  Characters were an important aspect in the story and the author describes them with utmost clarity.  In addition, he mentions the weight of the objects that infantrymen carried with them. I believe that this has a deeper meaning than the simple measurement of the weight; O’Brien was perhaps trying to speak in a figurative language showing that these men walked with objects that were constant reminders of war and that those emotions weighted more than those pounds of objects that they carried with them. Lastly, I think all these above mentioned factors played a profound role in shaping O’Brien’s mind  and influenced him greatly in writing this story and since he was also a participant he interestingly depicted the overall atmosphere during the Vietnam War.

Works Cited

Lee, Don, About Tim O’Brien ,Ploughshares, Vol. 21 #4,  Winter 1995/1996, page 198

Harris, Robert, ” Too Embarrassed Not To Kill”, New York Times, March 11, 1991

Chen, Tina, “Unraveling The Deeper Meaning: Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried,” Contemporary Literature XXXIX 1, 1998, pp 77-78

McCaffery, Larry. Interview With Tim O’Brien, Chicago Review, Vol. 33 #2, 1982, p 80

Chattarji, Subarno “Imagining Vietnam: Tim O’Brien and The Things They Carried

One Philadelphia Programme, Feb 2005, page 2

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