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The Things They Carried

Tim o'brien.

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Full Book Summary

The protagonist, who is named Tim O’Brien , begins by describing an event that occurred in the middle of his Vietnam experience. “The Things They Carried” catalogs the variety of things his fellow soldiers in the Alpha Company brought on their missions. Several of these things are intangible, including guilt and fear, while others are specific physical objects, including matches, morphine, M- 16 rifles, and M&M’s candy.

Throughout the collection, the same characters reappear in various stories. The first member of the Alpha Company to die is Ted Lavender, a “grunt,” or low-ranking soldier, who deals with his anxiety about the war by taking tranquilizers and smoking marijuana. Lavender is shot in the head on his way back from going to the bathroom, and his superior, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross , blames himself for the tragedy. When Lavender is shot, Cross is distracting himself with thoughts of Martha, a college crush. It is revealed in “Love” that Cross’s feelings for Martha, whom he dated once before leaving for Vietnam, were never reciprocated, and that even twenty years after the war, his guilt over Lavender’s death remains.

In “On the Rainy River,” the narrator, O’Brien, explains the series of events that led him to Vietnam in the first place. He receives his draft notice in June of 1968, and his feelings of confusion drive him north to the Canadian border, which he contemplates crossing so that he will not be forced to fight in a war in which he doesn’t believe. Sitting in a rowboat with the proprietor of the Tip Top Lodge, where he stays, O’Brien decides that his guilt about avoiding the war and fear of disappointing his family are more important than his political convictions. He soon leaves, going first back home to Worthington, Minnesota and later to Vietnam.

In addition to Ted Lavender, a few other members of the Alpha Company are killed during their mission overseas, including Curt Lemon, who is killed when he steps on a rigged mortar round. Though O’Brien is not close to Lemon, in “The Dentist,” he tells a story of how Lemon, who faints before a routine checkup with an army-issued dentist, tries to save face by insisting that a perfectly good tooth be pulled. Lee Strunk, another member of the company, dies from injuries he sustains by stepping on a landmine. In “Friends,” O’Brien remembers that before Strunk was fatally hurt, Strunk and Dave Jensen had made a pact that if either man were irreparably harmed, the other man would see that he was quickly killed. However, when Strunk is actually hurt, he begs Jensen to spare him, and Jensen complies. Instead of being upset by the news of his friend’s swift death en route to treatment, Jensen is relieved.

The death that receives the most attention in The Things They Carried is that of Kiowa , a much-loved member of the Alpha Company and one of O’Brien’s closest friends. In “Speaking of Courage,” the story of Kiowa’s death is relayed in retrospect through the memory of Norman Bowker , years after the war. As Bowker drives around a lake in his Iowa hometown, he thinks that he failed to save Kiowa, who was killed when a mortar round hit and caused him to sink headfirst into a marshy field. O’Brien realizes that he has dealt with his guilt over Kiowa’s death differently than Norman Bowker in “Notes.” Just before the end of the war, O’Brien receives a long letter from Bowker that says he hasn’t found a way to make life meaningful after the war. O’Brien resolves to tell Bowker’s story, and the story of Kiowa’s death, in order to negotiate his own feelings of guilt and hollowness.

Like “Love” and “Notes,” several of O’Brien’s stories are told from a perspective twenty years after the Vietnam War, when he is a forty-three-year-old writer living in Massachusetts. Exposure to the guilt of old friends like Jimmy Cross and Norman Bowker prompts him to write stories in order to understand what they were going through. But two stories, “The Man I Killed” and “Ambush,” are written so that O’Brien can confront his own guilt over killing a man with a grenade outside the village of My Khe. In “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien imagines the life of his victim, from his childhood to the way things would have turned out for him had O’Brien not spotted him on a path and thrown a grenade at his feet. In “Ambush,” O’Brien imagines how he might relay the story of the man he killed to his nine-year-old daughter, Kathleen. In this second story, O’Brien provides more details of the actual killing—including the sound of the grenade and his own feelings—and explains that even well after the fact, he hasn’t finished sorting out the experience.

In the last story, “The Lives of the Dead,” O’Brien gives another twist to his contention that stories have the power to save people. In the stories of Curt Lemon and Kiowa, O’Brien explains that his imagination allowed him to grapple successfully with his guilt and confusion over the death of his fourth-grade first love, Linda.

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The Things They Carried

Tim o’brien, everything you need for every book you read..

The Things They Carried is a collection of twenty-two stories chronicling the author, Tim O'Brien's, recollections of his time as a soldier in the Vietnam War. While O'Brien admits in the book to often blurring the line between fact and fiction, the names of the characters in the book are those of real people. Since it is a collection of stories rather than a novel, there is not a traditional narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Yet, the entire collection functions as a self-contained work because it is so loyal to its themes and characters.

"The Things They Carried:" This story introduces the reader to O'Brien's platoon leader, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross . The story travels between Cross' infatuation with a girl named Martha that he's in love with based on a single date in college, the death of the soldier Ted Lavender , and an itemized chronicle of what the men carried at war, from supplies, to tokens of luck, to emotions.

"Love:" Jimmy Cross visits Tim O'Brien long after the war has ended and they swap war stories over a bottle of gin. The topic of Martha comes up, and Cross confesses that he still loves her. He tells the story of how he saw Martha at a college reunion after the war. She had never married. Cross asks O'Brien to write a story about him that makes him appear to be the best platoon leader ever, hoping Martha would read it and find him.

"Spin:" A story of Tim O'Brien's fragmented memories from the war. Mitchell Sanders sends his body lice to his hometown draft board. Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins play checkers every night. O'Brien's daughter, Kathleen , says he should stop writing so many war stories. O'Brien recalls Kiowa teaching Rat Kiley and Dave Jensen a rain dance. Ted Lavender adopted a puppy that Azar blew up. Kiowa told O'Brien he had no choice but to kill the armed man on the path. O'Brien says he must write stories because that's all that's left when memory is gone.

"On the Rainy River:" Before going to Vietnam, Tim O'Brien decides to dodge the draft, and he drives north to Canada but stops near the border at The Tip Top Lodge, owned by an old man named Elroy Berdahl . O'Brien credits Berdahl with being "the hero of his life." O'Brien spends six days at the Lodge, trying to decide whether or not to flee. Berdahl takes him out on a boat so he's only yards away from Canadian soil. O'Brien feels forced to go to war for fear of embarrassing himself and his family, more than he fears death.

"Enemies:" Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk get in a brutal fight over a stolen jackknife where Jensen breaks Strunk's nose. After Strunk returns from a few days in medical care, Jensen becomes paranoid that Strunk will retaliate by killing him. Jensen isolates himself for a week, and eventually loses it and starts shooting his gun in the air until he's out of ammo. Then he breaks his own nose with a pistol and asks Strunk if they're even. Strunk says they are.

"Friends:" Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk become friends after their fight and start doing everything in pairs. They make a pact and sign it that reads one is obligated to kill the other if one is harmed so badly in battle that they would be wheelchair bound. Later that month, Strunk gets most of his right leg blown off in combat. As the soldiers wait for a medic chopper, Strunk comes in and out of consciousness begging for Jensen not to kill him. Jensen promises he won't. Strunk dies in the chopper, and Jensen appears relieved.

"How to Tell a True War Story:" O'Brien writes that war stories have no moral, they are often not true (at least completely), and if a story is true you can tell by the kinds of questions a story gets after it's told. O'Brien tells the story of Rat Kiley's reaction to Curt Lemon's death as an example, as well as Mitchell Sanders' story about a platoon of soldiers that started having auditory hallucinations. When O'Brien tells the story of Lemon's death, usually an older woman will say it's too sad, and O'Brien resolves he has to keep telling the stories and adding to them to make them truer.

"The Dentist:" Curt Lemon , a soldier that Tim O'Brien didn't particularly because of his hyper-macho personae, is eulogized in a quick story. Lemon enjoyed combat and was known for his dangerous antics, but he was terrified of the Army dentist that all of the soldiers had to see. When the dentist touched him, Lemon fainted. When he came to, he spent the rest of the day in a stupor, cursing himself. In the night, Lemon woke the dentist and forced him to pull out a perfectly healthy tooth.

"Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong:" O'Brien tells a story that Rat Kiley told him from when he was stationed in an isolated area. There was so little action there that one soldier, Mark Fossie , snuck his girlfriend Mary Anne Bell in by helicopter. Things don't go as Fossie planned, though, because Bell becomes infatuated with the war, leaves Fossie, and joins the Green Berets in battle.

"Stockings:" Henry Dobbins , a loveable, gentle-giant, had a peculiar ritual of wrapping his girlfriend's stockings around his neck before dangerous missions. At first Dobbins was made fun of, but then the platoon started to believe in the power of the stockings because Dobbins was never hurt in battle, even when he was standing in open fire and stepped on a mine that didn't go off. When Dobbins' girlfriend breaks up with him, he still wears the stockings and says the magic didn't leave.

"Church:" The platoon uses a pagoda where two monks live as an operations base for a week. The two monks like the soldiers, but they particularly love Henry Dobbins . Dobbins tells Kiowa he might become a monk after the war, but confesses he could never be a minister because he can't answer the hard questions about life and death. Kiowa, who always carries the New Testament, doesn't feel that it's right that they're using a church as a base. Dobbins agrees.

" The Man I Killed :" The story goes back and forth between O'Brien's memories of the corpse of the young, armed man he threw a grenade at on a path outside of My Khe and the invented history O'Brien has created of the dead man as a mathematician, scholar, and terrified soldier. Kiowa keeps insisting that O'Brien quit staring at the body and talk to him.

"Ambush:" O'Brien's daughter, Kathleen , asks him if he's ever killed anyone. He lies and says he hasn't, but then addresses the story to an adult Kathleen and promises to give the truth. He recalls the image of the young man outside of My Khe and how the memory haunts him still, but in his memories the young man keeps walking down the path and survives.

"Style:" A young Vietnamese girl dances in the charred remains of her village. Azar keeps asking why she is dancing. From where her house was, the soldiers find the corpses of the girl's family. She continues to dance. Later, when the soldiers have left the village, Azar dances like the girl in a mocking way. Henry Dobbins picks up Azar and holds him over a well, threatening to drop him if he won't stop and "dance right."

"Speaking of Courage:" Follows Norman Bowker at home after he returns from the war to the Unites States on the Fourth of July. Bowker drives repeatedly around a lake in his hometown, reminiscing about the night Kiowa died. He remembers seeing Kiowa's boot and trying to pull but Kiowa was too stuck so Bowker fled. Bowker has convinced himself he would have won the Silver Star if he had pulled Kiowa out, and that Kiowa would still be alive. Bowker feels like he has no one to talk to, and imagines telling his father that he was a coward. He imagines his father consoling him with the many medals he did win. Bowker wades into the lake and watches the fireworks.

"Notes:" A post-script for the story "Speaking of Courage." O'Brien tells the background of how "Speaking of Courage," came to be when Norman Bowker sent him a seventeen page letter, ultimately asking him to write a story about a man like him who feels he died after the war. O'Brien feels guilty and compelled to oblige, and writes a version of "Speaking of Courage" that he publishes, sends to Bowker, but is not truly proud of. Bowker doesn't react well to the story because it was doctored to fit into O'Brien's novel and lacks the truth of what happened to Kiowa in Vietnam. O'Brien hopes the story will speak to his failure to protect Kiowa and to Bowker's courage.

"In the Field:" Chronicles the search to find Kiowa buried under the muck after enemy mortar rounds killed him. The story is split between Lieutenant Jimmy Cross' guilt fueling his conviction to write Kiowa's father a letter, the young soldier ( O'Brien ) who feels he killed Kiowa by turning on his flashlight in the dark to show him a picture of his girlfriend, and the men of the platoon who eventually pull Kiowa out.

"Good Form:" O'Brien toys with the function of Truth in storytelling, and how there are different kinds of truth in a story, particularly a war story. There is story-truth and happening-truth. He claims he wouldn't be lying if he said he killed the young man outside of My Khe but he also wouldn't be lying if he claimed he did not kill him.

"Field Trip:" O'Brien takes his ten-year-old daughter Kathleen with him to Vietnam. With a translator, they visit the field where Kiowa died. The field looks different than O'Brien remembers. He wades out into the water and buries the pair of Kiowa's moccasins where he believes Kiowa's rucksack was found. His daughter Kathleen asks about the old farmer staring at O'Brien and thinks he looks angry, but O'Brien says that's all over.

"The Ghost Soldiers:" O'Brien recalls the two bullets he caught in Vietnam. Rat Kiley immediately treated the first bullet, while the second nearly killed him because the new medic, Bobby Jorgenson , was in shock while the platoon was under fire. O'Brien wants revenge on Jorgenson, but only Azar will help him try to scare the medic. They try to terrify Jorgensen one night by pretending to be the enemy, but Jorgenson doesn't scare and O'Brien is forced to let go of his grudge when they agree they're even.

"Night Life:" A second-hand account of how Rat Kiley shot his own foot to get out of the line of duty. The platoon had heard rumors of an imminent enemy attack, and only operated by walking at night. Everyone was affected, but Rat Kiley started to lose it. After he shot his foot, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross told the chopper that carried him away it had been an accident.

"The Lives of the Dead:" O'Brien compares his Vietnam wartime experiences with the death of his childhood sweetheart, Linda , who died of a brain tumor when she was nine. Hers was the first dead body O'Brien ever saw. He says that stories keep their subjects alive, and in this way Linda can live forever.

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the things they carried summary of the whole book

Tim O'Brien

Summary and Analysis The Things They Carried

An unnamed narrator describes in third person the thoughts and actions of Jimmy Cross, the lieutenant of an Army unit on active combat duty in the Vietnam War. Lt. Cross is preoccupied by thoughts of Martha, a young woman he dated before he joined the Army. He thinks about letters she wrote him; he thinks about whether or not she is a virgin; he thinks about how much he loves her and wants her to love him. Her letters do not indicate that she feels the same way.

The narrator lists things that the soldiers carry with them, both tangible and intangible, such as Lt. Cross's picture of and feelings for Martha. Other members of the unit are introduced through descriptions of the things they carry, such as Henry Dobbins who carries extra food, Ted Lavender who carries tranquilizer pills, and Kiowa who carries a hunting hatchet. O'Brien introduces readers to the novel's primary characters by describing the articles that the soldiers carry. The level of detail O'Brien offers about the characters is expanded upon and illuminated in the chapters that follow, though O'Brien distills the essence of each characters' personality through the symbolic items each carries. Henry Dobbins carries a machine gun and his girlfriend's pantyhose. Dave Jensen carries soap, dental floss, foot powder, and vitamins. Mitchell Sanders carries condoms, brass knuckles, and the unit's radio. Norman Bowker carries a diary. Kiowa carries a volume of the New Testament and moccasins. Rat Kiley carries his medical kit, brandy, comic books, and M&M's candy. The narrator offers additional detail about selected items; for example, the poncho Ted Lavender carries will later be used by his fellow soldiers to carry his dead body.

This device is an example of the author and narrator embedding small details in the text that will be further explained later in the book. It is important to note, too, how the details are selective; they are recalled by a character, the unnamed narrator of the chapter. The details of what each man carries are funneled through the memory of this narrator.

O'Brien details at great length what all the men carry: standard gear, weapons, tear gas, explosives, ammunitions, entrenching tools, starlight scopes, grenades, flak jackets, boots, rations, and the Army newsletter. They also carry their grief, terror, love, and longing, with poise and dignity. O'Brien's extended catalog of items creates a picture in the reader's mind that grows incrementally. O'Brien's technique also allows each character to be introduced with a history and a unique place within the group of men.

Lt. Cross is singled out from the group, and O'Brien offers the most detail about his interior feelings and thoughts. Many of these soldiers "hump," or carry, photographs, and Lieutenant Cross has an action shot of Martha playing volleyball. He also carries memories of their date and regrets that he did not try to satisfy his desire to become intimate with her by tying her up and touching her knee. O'Brien stresses that Lt. Cross carries all these things, but in addition carries the lives of his men.

Even as O'Brien opens The Things They Carried, he sets forth the novel's primary themes of memory and imagination and the opportunity for mental escape that these powers offer. For example, as Lt. Cross moves through the rigorous daily motions of combat duty, his mind dwells on Martha. Importantly, as he thinks about Martha, he does not merely recall memories of her; instead he imagines what might be, such as "romantic camping trips" into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. O'Brien describes these longings of Lt. Cross as "pretending." Pretending is a form of storytelling, that is, telling stories to oneself. O'Brien underscores the importance of Lt. Cross's actions by emphasizing the artifacts — Martha's letters and photograph — and characterizes Lt. Cross as the carrier of these possessions as well as of his love for Martha.

O'Brien moves from employing the literary technique of describing the soldiers' physical artifacts to introducing the novel's primary characters. The minute details he provides about objects that individuals carry is telling, and particular attention should be paid to these details because they foreshadow the core narratives that comprise the novel. This technique of cataloging the things the soldiers carry also functions to create fuller composites of the characters, and by extension make the characters seem more real to readers.

This aesthetic of helping readers connect with his characters is O'Brien's primary objective in the novel, to make readers feel the story he presents as much as is physically and emotionally possible, as if it were real. Though the minutiae that O'Brien includes — for example the weight of a weapon, the weight of a radio, the weight of a grenade in ounces — seems superfluous, it is supposed to be accretive in his readers' imaginations so that they can begin to feel the physical weight of the burdens of war, as well as, eventually, the psychological and emotional burdens (so much as it is possible for a non-witness to war to perceive). O'Brien's attention to sensory detail also supports this primary objective of evoking a real response in the reader.

With Lavender's death, O'Brien creates a tension between the "actuality" of Lt. Cross's participation in battle and his interior, imagined fantasies that give him refuge. In burning Martha's letters and accepting blame for Lavender's death, Cross's conflicting trains of thought signal the reader to be cautious when deciding what is truth or fantasy and when assigning meaning to these stories. While he destroyed the physical accoutrements, the mementos of Martha, Lt. Cross continues to carry the memory of her with him. To that memory is also added the burden of grief and guilt. Despite this emotional burden, O'Brien, as he continues in the following chapter, begins to highlight the central question of the novel: Why people carry the things they do?

rucksack A kind of knapsack strapped over the shoulders.

foxhole A hole dug in the ground as a temporary protection for one or two soldiers against enemy gunfire or tanks.

perimeter A boundary strip where defenses are set up.

heat tabs Fuel pellets used for heating C rations.

C rations A canned ration used in the field in World War II.

R & R Rest and recuperation, leave.

Than Khe (also Khe Sahn) A major battle in the Tet Offensive, the siege lasted well over a month in the beginning of 1968. Khe Sahn was thought of as an important strategic location for both the Americans and the North Vietnamese. American forces were forced to withdraw from Khe Sahn.

SOP Abbreviation for standard operating procedure.

RTO Radio telephone operator who carried a lightweight infantry field radio.

grunt A U.S. infantryman.

hump To travel on foot, especially when carrying and transporting necessary supplies for field combat.

platoon A military unit composed of two or more squads or sections, normally under the command of a lieutenant: it is a subdivision of a company, troop, and so on.

medic A medical noncommissioned officer who gives first aid in combat; aidman; corpsman.

M-60 American-made machine gun.

PFC Abbreviation for Private First Class.

Spec 4 Specialist Rank, having no command function; soldier who carries out orders.

M-16 The standard American rifle used in Vietnam after 1966.

flak jacket A vestlike, bulletproof jacket worn by soldiers.

KIA Abbreviation for killed in action, to be killed in the line of duty.

chopper A helicopter.

dustoff Medical evacuation by helicopter.

Claymore antipersonnel mine An antipersonnel mine that scatters shrapnel in a particular, often fan-shaped, area when it explodes.

Starlight scope A night-vision telescope that enables a user to see in the dark.

tunnel complexes The use of tunnels by the Viet Cong as hiding places, caches for food and weapons, headquarter complexes and protection against air strikes and artillery fire was a characteristic of the Vietnam war.

The Stars and Stripes A newsletter-style publication produced for servicemen by the U.S. Army.

Bronze Star A U.S. military decoration awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement or service in combat not involving aerial flight.

Purple Heart A U.S. military decoration awarded to members of the armed forces wounded or killed in action by or against an enemy: established in 1782 and re-established in 1932.

entrenching tool A shovel-like tool, among its other uses, used to dig temporary fortifications such as foxholes.

zapped Killed.

freedom bird Any aircraft which returned servicemen to the U.S.

sin loi From Vietnamese, literally meaning excuse me, though servicemen came to understand the term as meaning too bad or tough luck.

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The Things They Carried Summary

Advertisement - Guide continues below

We meet a bunch of soldiers with a crazy amount of (mental and otherwise) baggage: First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Rat Kiley, Kiowa, Mitchell Sanders, Ted Lavender, Norman Bowker, and others. Almost immediately, Ted Lavender dies. We learn that the soldiers carry lots of things, from guns to fear to expectations.

As we go through the book—which does not flow chronologically, btw —we're told a lot of things. One of the most important is that it's impossible to generalize about war. War sucks, but it doesn't always suck. It corrupts our soldiers, but it also makes them feel totally alive.

Curt Lemon dies (guess everyone who dies has a color-related name?), which leads O'Brien to tell us that truth is flexible in war. The things that happen in war are so crazy that literal truth can't possibly capture them. Only emotional truth, or "story-truth," can, and O'Brien uses it liberally. Tim kills a guy on a trail and feels guilty about it, so he makes up a back-story for the kid in order to make the victim more human.

Rat Kiley tells us the creepiest story in the world, "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," in which a good down-home American girl is seduced by the Vietnam War into becoming a creepy jungle killer. Later, Kiowa drowns in a field that's literally full of poop, and we start to talk about blame. Then, in "Good Form," O'Brien tells us that almost the entire book is made up, including parts that he claimed elsewhere were true.

Wait, what? Just when we thought we were following along…

In the last third of the book, we start to get into stories a lot more. In a vengeful prank against a medic who nearly killed him with his negligence and then took his place in the brotherhood of the platoon, Tim creates a story that nearly drives the medic insane.

Then, in "The Lives of the Dead," O'Brien tells us how he started to tell stories in the first place—to bring a nine-year-old girl named Linda, whom he loved, back to life—and how that method of storytelling still works, both to save the war dead and to save himself.

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The Things They Carried

By tim o'brien, the things they carried summary and analysis of "the things they carried" and "love".

Summary of “ The Things They Carried ”

The first story in the collection introduces the cast of characters that reappear throughout the book. The cast is made up of the soldiers of the Alpha Company, led by First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross . The platoon is deployed to fight in the Vietnam War. The narrator, O’Brien, is one of the soldiers, and he distinguishes one soldier from another in this first story by the items that they carry.

O’Brien lists the things the soldiers carry -- both physical and emotional. All carry basic military goods and personal items: provisions, ammunition, and special ponchos that they may be wrapped in if they die. Army slang for carrying goods is “humping” them. Aside from the basic goods, explains O’Brien, all of the men “hump” slightly different things. One wears his girlfriend’s stockings around his neck, another carries a bible, another carries a slingshot, another comic books, another condoms.

Cross carries letters from a gray-eyed English literature student named Martha . He is in love with her, but he is obsessed with whether or not she is a virgin. He remembers taking her out on a date, trying to put a hand on her knee, and being rebuffed. He wishes he had carried her up to her room, and “kept his hand on her knee all night.” After she sends him a pebble he keeps it in his mouth and imagines it is her tongue. As lieutenant, O’Brien points out, Cross “carries” responsibility for the lives of all of his men. Cross considers this a heavy burden.

The first casualty for the company is Ted Lavender , a soldier who is shot dead outside Than Khe. O’Brien recounts that he hits the ground solidly, fast, weighed down by all the things he was carrying. He was more afraid of the enemy than most soldiers, so he was carrying more ammunition than was required. He had gone to relieve himself while his comrades were blowing up a tunnel. Kiowa , a part native-American soldier in the company becomes obsessed by the death of his comrade. “Boom-down,” is how he describes the sound of the death to anyone who will listen. “Dead weight” puns O’Brien.

Kiowa is horrified by his comrade’s death. But it does serve to make him better enjoy being alive. As he settles down to sleep that night with his Bible as a pillow, he enjoys the smell of the glue and paper and the feeling of his own living body.

Lavender is one of the only soldiers who dies in combat. The soldiers rarely see enemy fire -- mostly they sit around and play checkers. All of the men walk around in a state of constant boredom and constant tension. They are aware that they might die at any moment, which drives them crazy. But O’Brien describes how they try to cover their fear with tough talk about the “pussies” who shoot off their own fingers and toes to be discharged from the army. They all secretly long to do the same, explains the narrator, but are too embarrassed to try.

Meanwhile, the person hit hardest by Lavender’s death is Cross, who essentially blames himself. He feels he may have a hard time focusing on the war because he is so wrapped up in thoughts of Martha, and may have not taken the proper precautions, thereby letting Lavender's death happen. The morning after Lavender is killed, Cross burns the letters he has received from Martha. Then he burns his photographs of her. But still he feels responsible. Setting the photographs on fire strikes him as a futile gesture.

But even as he beats himself up over Lavender’s death, Cross can’t help returning to his obsessive thoughts about Martha. He convinces himself that he no longer loves her or cares whether she is a virgin. He feels both love and hate for her. He resolves to think less about Martha and more about his men, resolves to pull his raggedy crew together and make them abandon the equipment they don’t need so that they will be able to travel lighter, decides he should be less of a friend and more of a leader.

The author uses a familiar and ancient trope in this first short story, which provides the title for the collection. Authors as far back as Homer described soldiers going into battle by naming the things that they carried: goatskins filled with water, spears, locks of hair from their beloved ones. O’Brien updates this literary strategy. His characters carry the modern implements of war. But the feeling evoked is similar: static lists make the characters seem already dead, prematurely mourned. The lists are like wills.

The first story is told in third person, with some insight into the mind of Jimmy Cross. This movement between perspectives is called free indirect discourse, and serves to distance the reader from the soldiers. The reader sees them as if they were in a movie, moving slowly across an unfamiliar landscape, carrying their various burdens. The ancient movement of men going to war is juxtaposed with the rough, modern language of the soldiers themselves. They use slang, swear at each other, and try to diffuse the feeling of danger and helplessness by describing death as being “zapped” or “torn up.”

Often dramatic narratives are driven by conflict -- frequently two characters butting heads. A war narrative needs none of these traditional sources of pressure because the war itself provides the conflict. O’Brien describes the atmosphere as tense at all times. The men know they might die at any moment. When the inevitable happens and a soldier is killed, extra tension stems from the fact that Cross knows he is responsible. Guilt becomes the most pervasive emotion of all.

Summary of “Love”

Years after the war, Jimmy Cross goes to visit the narrator, Tim O’Brien, at O’Brien’s home in Massachusetts. They look at pictures, reminisce, drink coffee, and smoke cigarettes. Cross says he has never forgiven himself for Lavender’s death. He worries about how O’Brien might portray him if he ever writes a story about Cross. His former leader asks O’Brien to describe him as a brave and handsome man if he ever decides to put any of their experiences together into writing.

Cross shows O’Brien the photo of Martha playing volleyball. The image is the exact same one that he burned after Lavender’s death (see “The Things They Carried”). O’Brien is surprised to see it, so Cross explains how he came to have another copy. He had run into Martha after the war. She had never married, had trained as a nurse, and gone on Lutheran missions to the Third World. She was unreceptive when Cross confessed that he had always loved her. When the conversation took a slightly sexual turn, she shut her eyes and rocked back and forth, seeming very disturbed. She gave him another copy of the photo of her playing volleyball and told him “not to burn this one.”

The shift from the first story to “Love” is one of the most jarring in the book for the reader who expects a traditional novel or a collection of short stories. In a novel, it is unlikely that there would be a shift in geography (Vietnam to Massachusetts), time (many years) and narrator (third person omniscient to first person) all at once. In a collection of short stories, on the other hand, two stories would not normally share the same characters, themes and events. “The Things They Carried” jars by doing all of these things.

“Love” serves to tie up the narrative strings of “The Things They Carried,” but also to call into question the whole process of storytelling. The Things They Carried is as much about why one would tell stories at all as it is about war. This preoccupation of fiction with its own role is often called “meta-fiction.” Meta-fiction consciously points to its own status as fiction and anxiously asks what purpose fiction might serve. In “Love,” when Cross asks that he be portrayed as a hero, there is an emotional content in the request: the reader feels Cross’ hurt and sorrow that he has not acted as a hero. But the reader is also forced to wonder: Has O’Brien acceded to his character/friend’s demand? Or is the fiction in some other way warped or untrue?

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The Things They Carried Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for The Things They Carried is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

All of the following words in the first three sentences should be taken at face-value except

First three sentences of.....?

Why does O'Brien relate his experience as a pig declotter

O'Brien's descriptive summary of his time as a pig declotter helps the reader to understand the man. From the description of his experiences in this job, we can infer that his desire to stay out of Vietnam doesn't come from a fear of blood and...

Is Jensen right in assuring Strunk that he will not carry out their agreement and kill Strunk? Why or why not?

Yes, they had an agreement, and both men meant it when they initially promised to end the other's life if something happened that would maim or cripple. It's easy to make those agreements but even easier to break that type of promise when faced...

Study Guide for The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried study guide contains a biography of Tim O'Brien, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

Essays for The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.

Lesson Plan for The Things They Carried

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  1. The Things They Carried: Full Book Summary

    “The Things They Carried” catalogs the variety of things his fellow soldiers in the Alpha Company brought on their missions. Several of these things are

  2. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien Plot Summary

    The story travels between Cross' infatuation with a girl named Martha that he's in love with based on a single date in college, the death of the soldier Ted

  3. The Things They Carried: Summary & Analysis

    An unnamed narrator describes in third person the thoughts and actions of Jimmy Cross, the lieutenant of an Army unit on active combat duty in the Vietnam War.

  4. The Things They Carried Summary, Themes and Analysis

    Tim O'Brien, in his novel The Things They Carried, tells the story of the men of Alpha Company, a squad of soldiers in the Vietnam War. O'Brien

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    Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried explained with summaries in just a few minutes! Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe

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    Called both a novel and a collection of interrelated short stories, Tim O'Brien's The Things They. Carried is a unique and challenging book that emerges

  7. The Things They Carried Summary and Study Guide

    In “The Things They Carried,” a soldier named Ted Lavender takes a shot to the head while the First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross daydreams about his love Martha. In “

  8. The Things They Carried Summary

    The things that happen in war are so crazy that literal truth can't possibly capture them. Only emotional truth, or "story-truth," can, and O'Brien uses it

  9. The Things They Carried

    The Things They Carried (1990) is a collection of linked short stories by American novelist Tim O'Brien, about a platoon of American soldiers fighting on

  10. The Things They Carried Summary and Analysis of ...

    The first story in the collection introduces the cast of characters that reappear throughout the book. The cast is made up of the soldiers of