The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

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Titel: The Things They Carried – Forfatter: Tim O’Brien 


In his semi-autobiographical work The Things They Carried (1990), Tim O’Brien deals with soldiers’ identity before, during and after the Vietnam War. The short stories include contrasts; 1) America, which symbolizes home, security, the well-known vs. 2) Vietnam, which symbolizes chaos, wilderness, strangeness, instability and fear. The Vietnamese landscape represents the fear of the unknown future for the soldiers. Symbolically, Vietnam is a huge strength that they cannot fight against in several ways; of course, the enemy but also the natural unknown surroundings, e.g. the mountains, the fog and the Monsoon rains which make them not able to see where the enemy is.

Another example is Mary-Ann, a girlfriend that visits the camp, who ends up disappearing in the wilderness symbolizing; 1) how America and Vietnam suddenly mix together (the crossing of one world to another) and 2) the American soldiers’ change after their time in Vietnam, e.g. what they experienced in Vietnam will always be a part of them and it has somehow changed them. Mary-Ann symbolizes the part of them that they lost during the war, i.e. their innocence.

“the whole rain seemed to stare in at them – a watched feeling […] they almost saw her sliding through the shadows […] she had crossed to the other side. She was part of the land.’

The title is also relevant to mention. ‘The Things They Carried’ can be both analyzed as what the soldiers carried physically and mentally during their time in Vietnam. Physically, they carry heavy gear, weapons, cigarettes or personal objects from back home; pictures of girlfriends or American products, which create a safe place and a feeling of security, when Vietnam seems so unknown and unpredictable because of the war, e.g. Henry Dobbins, who carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck; it gives him a feeling of comfort because of his longing for love.

Many of the soldiers are also ‘carrying things’ mentally, e.g. feelings as; grief, love, fear, responsibility and reputation. The deaths of their fellow soldiers are hunting them mentally, e.g.; ‘They all carried ghosts’. They are carrying the weight of fighting for America and a certain responsibility, so therefore they cannot show fear and chose not to fight, even before the war – an example from when Tim do not wish to participate in the war;

“In June of 1968, a month after graduating from Macalester College, I was drafted to fight a war I hated. I was twenty-one years old. […] but even so the American war in Vietnam seemed to me wrong”.

Tim does not understand or agrees to the condition of the war, and he almost runs off to Canada. Although, in the end, he still goes to Vietnam. In this case, it is a question of reputation, embarrassment and a feeling of disloyalty towards the American society, if the young men do not choose to participate in the war:

‘All those eyes on me – the town, the whole universe – and I couldn’trisk the embarrassment […] I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule […] It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all it was”.

Reputation is important and not showing fear to the enemy, because they are able to attack at any minute. To lose face is considered the biggest fear among the soldiers, e.g. ‘blushing’. Morality is nonexistent during the war, e.g. the killing of innocent people and the fact that death happens random, so the soldiers have to move on quickly, because there is a war happening. There is no evil and no good in the world, but only primitive functions that drive the soldiers to move on. After the war, the soldiers feel restless, numb and that there is no meaning in life. At the same time, there is a lack of understanding from the surroundings, e.g. the community and their families do not understand the horrible things the soldiers have been through. The soldiers also experience confusion that they simply cannot deal with because of post-traumatic stress, e.g. ‘The Man I Killed’, where Tim feels guilty of killing a man, even though he did not do it, where he imagines the life of the Vietnamese soldier, if he had not been killed. It still haunts him twenty years later, and even though, he maybe did not do it, he still feels guilty. In general, many soldiers experienced a certain dilemma about their time in war, i.e. an inner self-conflict.

It is a haunting and interesting novel if you want to know a bit more about the Vietnam War experienced from a personal point of view.

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