The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried - Tim O'BrienIn The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien we have the theme of escape, conflict, guilt, acceptance and responsibility. Taken from his collection of the same name the story is narrated in the third person and after first reading the story the reader becomes aware of the significance of the title of the story. O’Brien (throughout the story) lists all the items that each soldier carries as they struggle through the war. By listing each item O’Brien manages to highlight to the reader the burden that each man carries, not only physically but emotionally as well. It may also be significant that by listing each item (particularly personal items), O’Brien is in some ways not only personalizing each man for the reader but is also exploring each man’s character. By telling the reader that Kiowa carried a Bible not only is O’Brien suggesting that Kiowa is a religious man but also the reader finds that Kiowa liked the smell of the Bible. This may be important as it is possible that Kiowa, through the smell of the Bible is escaping from the world (and war) around him.

O’Brien further explores the idea of escape through the letters and pictures that Lieutenant Cross has received from Martha. At night Cross would read Martha’s letters or look at the pictures of her, imagining himself to be with her. This is important as just like Kiowa, Cross is escaping from the reality (war) he finds himself in. O’Brien also mentions Rat Kiley’s comics and the tranquilizers and dope that Ted Lavender carries with him. Also Henry Dobbins wears a pair of his girlfriend’s stockings around his neck. Again symbolically these items are important as they also suggest the idea of escape. Each man having different methods to escape from the realities around them.

Symbolically the pebble that Cross received from Martha and which he carries with him may also be important. At first it represents a connection with Martha (for Cross), helping to comfort him as he struggles with the war. However it becomes clear to Cross that his fantasies about Martha are unrealistic and if anything the pebble becomes an impediment on Cross’ abilities to function (as a leader and soldier). By disposing of the pebble, Cross is in some ways taking responsibilities for the realities around him, again as a leader and as a soldier.

O’Brien also explores the idea or theme of acceptance in the story. As Lee Strunk is searching the tunnel, after drawing the number 17, there is a sense that Strunk, though he is aware of how dangerous the task of searching tunnels is, accepts that it is his turn. Likewise as the other men are drinking Kool-Aid, waiting for Strunk, Mitchell Sanders says ‘you win some, you lose some.’ This statement is important as it suggests that just like Strunk, Sanders accepts that part of his role as a soldier is to search tunnels regardless of how dangerous it is. However the most significant incident in the story, which demonstrates acceptance, is the fact that Cross accepts that he, through lack of concentration, may have been responsible for Ted Lavender’s death.

The idea or theme of conflict (internal) is also explored in the story. Just after Lavender’s death and as Cross is digging his foxhole O’Brien tells the reader that Cross not only felt shame but also ‘both love and hate.’ This may be important as O’Brien appears to be suggesting two conflicting emotions within Cross. His love for Martha and his hate for actually loving her, particularly as he knows that Martha in reality does not love him. There is a sense, that after Lavender is killed Cross becomes aware that by escaping into the fantasy of Martha (and what she represents), he has taken his focus off his role as a soldier and leader.

It is also at the end of the story that O’Brien appears to further explore the idea of acceptance. Despite knowing that the men will complain, Cross is adamant that things will change. No longer will he fantasize about Martha (which may prove to be not only difficult but impossible as Martha is etched in Cross’ memory) rather his focus will be on the task at hand (the war). Though he knows things will continue to be difficult, Cross appears to have accepted that as an officer, he is responsible for his men. The  reader left aware that the trigger for Cross’ acceptance of his role as a leader has been the death of Lavender, which he not only feels guilty over but appears to believe he is responsible for.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 17 Sep. 2014. Web.


  • Thoughtful review of a powerful story: thanks. I heard this on a podcast, can’t remember where, and found it very moving – hardbitten without the macho posturing of Hemingway; lyrical, without the excesses of Yellow Birds…

  • Maybe I’ll revisit this one; I read it years ago and don’t remember much of it, only that I thought the details were effective – though there was something in the story that kept me distant from it (I don’t remember what).

    I recently read another O’Brien story, Going After Cacciato (he wrote a novel of the same name, based on the short story if I remember right). I loved both its darkness and humor as it tells the tale of a group of soldiers in Vietnam going after a fellow soldier who has decided to just start walking towards Paris. He explores loss of sanity and purpose very effectively.

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