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Discuss the idea of carrying in O’Brien’s work. What things are carried, and by whom?
The theme of carrying is an important one throughout the text, and the title story provides the most comprehensive examination of this idea. The dense and detailed lists of objects that the men carry may seem tedious or irrelevant at times, but by mentioning that in addition to weapons soldiers brought mundane things like candy, cigarettes, and letters from their loved ones, O’Brien emphasizes their humanity. And in specifying the exact weight of several of the items, including food, weapons, and gear, he gives us a very tangible idea of what it was like to struggle under such weight.
But the soldiers carry more than just physical burdens—in many cases, they are weighed down by emotional baggage. Jimmy Cross thinks that he carried the idea of Martha so heavily, for example, that he caused Ted Lavender’s death. And because Ted Lavender carries so much anxiety—and tranquilizers and marijuana to slow him down and soothe him—he may not be paying attention while walking around, resulting in his being shot.
The metaphor of carrying is important to O’Brien’s work as a whole and extends through the different stories in order to give weight to the idea that the things one carries—whether physical or emotional—enable us to navigate life’s inconsistencies. Many of the characters and items introduced in the first story are carried by O’Brien into the later stories. Kiowa’s Bible and the effect it has on his life is a major topic of conversation in “Church.” Henry Dobbins’s character can be explained by the fact that he carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck, and in “Stockings,” O’Brien recounts what happens after the girlfriend breaks up with Dobbins. These recurring details indicate that personalities remained constant in Vietnam and that the beliefs and hopes of the main characters sustained these personalities throughout their time in the war.
Discuss the use of third-person narration in the work. Since most of the work is personal and written from a first-person perspective, what purpose does third-person narration serve? Why is the collection’s title phrased in the third-person plural?
In telling stories, O’Brien is able to gain some distance from the harrowing experience he had in Vietnam. Several of the stories in the work, specifically those centered on a particularly painful experience, are told from a third-person point of view, so that O’Brien can sustain a distance from his memories. For example, in “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien describes the physical characteristics of the Vietnamese soldier’s corpse and illustrates how his fellow soldiers react to his killing the man, but he doesn’t at any point describe how he feels about the situation. His guilt is implicit in this lack of response. Like the other men of the Alpha Company, who would rather joke about how their comrades’ corpses look than deal with the impact of death, O’Brien uses third-person narration to achieve a distance that would have been impossible with first-person narration.
The use of the third person also gives a certain amount of universality to the work—indeed, O’Brien doesn’t think that his experience is any more horrific than that of his fellow soldiers. He realizes, for example, that he was not the only soldier to experience Kiowa’s death, and that Norman Bowker and Jimmy Cross experienced it differently and just as validly. The work is titled The Things They Carried, rather than The Things I Carried, because O’Brien is not speaking simply for himself, or even for his company of soldiers. As is evident from the change of subject in the last story—to the death of Linda, O’Brien’s first love—O’Brien is not even speaking only about Vietnam. The idea that people carry heavy emotional burdens is a universal one, and the alternation between first-person narrative and third-person narrative is a reflection of O’Brien’s belief that by telling his own story, he is telling the story of many.
What is the role of women in The Things They Carried ?
Although women play a small role in The Things They Carried, it is a significant one. Female characters such as Martha, Mary Anne Bell, and Henry Dobbins’s unnamed girlfriend all affect the men of the Alpha Company—although in two of the cases, the women aren’t even with the men they’re affecting. The men idealize the women and use their presence—in letters, photographs, and even their imagination—as a kind of solace and reminder that a world does exist outside the atrocities of Vietnam. Jimmy Cross, for example, carries pictures of Martha and memories of their only date. He carries, also, the hope that she might one day return his love so that he has something to look forward to, after the war. Henry Dobbins carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose for a similar reason: to remind him of home and to distract him from the harsh realities of being the machine gunner in a platoon of soldiers. Mark Fossie invites his girlfriend Mary Anne over to Vietnam because he believes her presence might save him from the horrors before him. These men do not think of these women as beings with thoughts, fears, and needs. They instead see them as motivation to survive the war.
But the women in The Things They Carried don’t always fulfill the fantasy role that the men carve out for them. We learn in “Love” that even after Jimmy Cross returns home from the war, he cannot ever win Martha’s heart. Similarly, after a short while in Vietnam, Mary Anne Bell falls captive to the jungle’s mystery and ends up leaving Mark Fossie and breaking his heart. Sometimes, in the end, though, the reality is not enough to affect the man holding a female fantasy—even after Henry Dobbins’s girlfriend breaks up with him, he still believes her pantyhose will bring him good luck.
1. “The Man I Killed” is the only story that focuses primarily on a Vietnamese character. Why does this shift in focus occur in this particular story? Why are Vietnamese characters largely absent from the rest of the text?
2. Although the work is supposedly about the Vietnam war, the final story focuses not on the war but on an episode from O’Brien’s childhood. Discuss how this story relates to the stories of the war. What is O’Brien’s purpose in ending his collection of stories this way?
3. What do the terms “story-truth” and “happening-truth” mean in the context of the book? How do they differ?
4. Although The Things They Carried contains a story called “The Man I Killed,” it is unclear whether O’Brien actually killed anyone in Vietnam. What purpose does this ambiguity serve?
5. How does shame fit into O’Brien’s portrayal of the war experience?
6. Discuss the structure of the work. Do the stories progress in a linear manner? How does the work’s fragmented style contribute to the themes that run through the stories?