The Things They Carried

Published 07 Jul 2017

The Things They Carried is a novel describing the War in Vietnam as seen by a soldier who is both the narrator and the protagonist of the 22 stories that make up the book. Although the events are fictional, it is worth noting that the author, Tim O’Brien – who is also the narrator/character – was deployed in Vietnam, so the descriptions of events and people are done using very realistic details, a technique called verisimilitude, which gives the novel a sense of authenticity. Women appear to play a small role in the novel but in fact they are crucial both to the story and the character. Present or not, named or unnamed, the role of women is incredibly important to understanding not only the novel itself, but particularly the characters. Thesis statement: the women in The Things They Carried are idealized by men and this ideal image is seen as a means of surviving the war, but in the end, their ideals are shattered by reality.

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The title of the book is actually the title of the first story of the novel, a compelling description done by 21-year old soldier Tim O’Brien, of the equipment that the average American soldier carried during the Vietnam War. In the end, the list is enlarged to encompass not only military equipment, but also the hopes, dreams, and fears that each young man carried into battle. The weight that the soldiers drug through the mud is thus not only physical, but deeply emotional.

The women in The Things They Carried do not seem to have thoughts, fears, and feelings of their own. They are idealized and their imaged serves as a kind of solace from the atrocities of war; they represent what is outside their world, i.e. the battlefield. In fact, their presence is sometimes invoked, in the sense that with the exception of Mary Anne Bell, the rest of the female characters – Jimmy Cross’s girlfriend Martha, Linda, O’Brien’s first love, Henry Dobbins’s girlfriend etc – are not actually there; they are present through memories, photographs and stories (Bloom: 23). In the end, Jimmy Cross realizes that his love for Martha is not sustaining, but destroying him; he needs to leave his love for her behind which leads him to burning her letters (Posek). In fact, O’Brien later explains his belief that in order to fill the emptiness in one’s life, one must let go of some of the things that he may think he needs; in other words, the excessive burdens that weigh him down must be left, and only then can they become like the soldiers in their dreams who “… gave themselves over to lightness, they were carried, they were purely borne” (O’Brien: 22) (Posek).

Mark Fossie brings his girlfriend from back home, Mary Anne Bell hoping that he could reconstruct their relationship and continue it during the war. She is de-idealized during the war because she loses her femininity and becomes more of a soldier than any of the male combatants. She arrives dressed in “White culottes and a sexy pink sweater” which was a very traditional outfit for a woman (O’Brien: 90) and is presented wearing cut-off blue jeans and a swimsuit top that was black (O’Brien: 95) which made her attractive in the eyes of the male characters. Her shift is drastic; upon her arrival she is not only unprepared for war but also appears quite unwilling to become involved in the actual combat. Nonetheless, she becomes very fond of military paraphernalia and even blackens her face with charcoal and carries around an M-16 (O’Brien: 102). Also, she stops using cosmetics and adopts a masculine look: “No cosmetics, no fingernail filling. She stopped wearing jewelry, cut her hair short and wrapped it in a green bandana”(O’Brien: 98). Moreover, in the end she leaves Mark. Thus the loss of femininity along with her decision to leave mark destroys the ideal that was centered on her.

In the case of Henry Dobbins, who carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose with him as a connection with the outside world, more precisely with his life back home, the love for his unnamed girlfriend is the element which gives him hope and something to look forward to during the war. His idealized memory of her is shattered when, upon returning home, she breaks up with him (Bloom: 27). Nevertheless, his experience with the war and the fact that he survived it determine him to hold on to the pantyhose and think it will still bring him luck. During the war, Jimmy Cross carries pictures of a girl he only went out with once; again, the love for Martha is what keeps him going and gives him something to look forward to, i.e. being with her. And again, upon returning home, Jimmy is faced with the impossibility of winning Martha’s heart.

Linda, the narrator/protagonist’s first love from the fourth grade represents a slightly different kind of idealized feminine image. She represents Timmy’s first experience with love: “It had all the shadings and complexities of mature adult love, and maybe more, because there were not yet words for it, and because it was not yet fixed to comparisons or chronologies or the ways by which adults measure such things. I just loved her.” (O’Brien: 228); symbolically, on their first date they see a war movie; this establishes a deep connection between love and war, one that is recognizable in all the other romances too. Also, the fact that Linda had died establishes an inextricable link between love and death (O’Gorman), one that later develops and results in an implicit conclusion that in fact, the two are the same thing (O’Gorman) when Linda appears in one of Timmy’s dreams and tells him to stop crying and that death does not matter. Perhaps more significantly, Linda, their love, is the first instance when O’Brien the writer – and narrator – wants to write and immortalize a moment in time, a memory, a feeling: “And as a writer now, I want to save Linda’s life. Not her body – her life.” (O’Brien: 236). The difference compared to the other romances is not only the naiveté of their love, but also the fact that ironically, death is what keeps her image idealized in Timmy’s mind: “I loved her then and then she died. And right here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can still see her as if through ice, as if I’m gazing into some other world, a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all.” (O’Brien: 246)

His implicit conclusion at the end of the novel is that war only brings destruction, both in terms of actual war casualties but also in terms of those who survive the war whose lives are ruined and whose potential is never fully realized because of war trauma: “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” (O’Brien: 68). His characters are victims of their own idealizations which never fully materialize simply because life is never ideal. Most importantly perhaps, a big part of the emotional burden that the men are forced to carry with them during combat consists of being forced to abandon one’s individuality: “You’re a shadow. You slip out of your own skin, like molting, shedding your own history and your own future, leaving behind everything you ever were or wanted or believed in.” (O’Brien: 211). Even after the war, the psychological burdens of the former soldiers continue to affect them, and to them romantic rejection and failure are added; some of the soldiers, as O’Brien tells us, have no one to share the pain and grief with, and are unable to come to terms with the experience of the war. Thus one can assume that this collection of war stories is O’Brien’s therapeutic method of dealing with the past and contributing to others’ understanding of it as well.


  • Bloom, Harold. “The Things They Carried: Summary and Analysis.” Bloom’s Guides: The Things They Carried. Infobase: 2005. p. 20-71.
  • O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1990.
  • O’Gorman, Farrell. “The Things They Carried as Composite Novel”. War, Literature & the Arts. An International Journal of the Humanities
  • Posek, Jacquelyn. “The Paradox of Necessity in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”. Fresh Writing 1997.
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