Critical Essay of The Things They Carried
The title story of The Things They Carried, which O'Brien himself describes as "sort of a half novel, half group of stories," dramatizes the lives of foot soldiers in Vietnam during the later years of the war. O'Brien characterizes them as "legs," or "grunts," as those who carry burdens both literal and figurative: from photographs and tranquilizers to shame and responsibility. The story, like the lives of the men in Lt. Cross's platoon, depends on a delicate balance, upon "poise," to use O'Brien's term. Walking a blurred line between fact and fiction, the story requires readers to balance the physical and the metaphysical world.
O’Brien uses the list of physical objects that the members of the Alpha Company carry in Vietnam as a window to the emotional burdens that these soldiers bear. One such burden is the necessity for the young soldiers to confront the tension between fantasy and reality. The realization of this tension disrupts Cross’s stint as the resident dreamer of the Alpha Company. Cross thinks that because he was so obsessed with his fantasy of Martha and the life they might lead after the war, he was negligent. He sees Ted Lavender’s death as the result of his negligence. If “The Things They Carried” is the illustration of the conflict between love and war, then the death of Ted Lavender and the subsequent disillusionment of Lieutenant Cross signify a triumph for war in this conflict.
Everything they carry is precious in some way--it has to be, or they wouldn't carry it, because many of them already carry at least twenty pounds worth of gear. What they carry is decided by their fear (some of them carry more ammunition than others) and by their homesickness or desperate need for distraction from the war (Rat Kiley carries comic books, and Jimmy Cross carries pictures of Martha). Some of them carry good luck charms. They all seem to know the weight of each thing they carry, because thing is a necessary part of them, for one reason or another.
They all carry as much as they can, for entertainment and protection, including awe and fear of the things they carry.
The emotional burdens that the soldiers bear are intensified by their young age and inexperience. Most of the men who fought in Vietnam were in their late teens and early twenties—they were children, students, and boyfriends who had no perspective on how to rationalize killing or come to terms with their friends’ untimely deaths. From the beginning, O’Brien uses explicit details to illustrate what the experience was like for the scared men. Among the things the men carry are guilt and cowardice that they are neither able to admit to nor negotiate. Although they are sad for the loss of their friend Lavender, their predominant feeling is of relief, since they are still alive.
Cross’s reaction to Ted Lavender’s death shows how the horrors of the war can make men irreparably cynical and gloomy. Before Lavender’s death, the most vivid images Cross carries in his mind are those of Martha. He is obsessed with trivial matters such as whether or not she is a virgin and why she so tantalizingly signs her letters “Love.” But when he decides his thoughts of her have led him astray and that they—and she—caused the distraction and incompetence that led to Lavender’s death, he expresses his anger at her in the only way possible. He burns Martha’s pictures and letters in an attempt to distance himself from the sentimentality he sees as a destructive force during wartime.
When Jimmy Cross understands that Ted Lavender is really dead, and that he might have prevented it, his whole outlook changes. After Lavender dies, Jimmy Cross burns Martha's letters and photos. Before, he couldn't get Martha out of his head. He was a daydreamer and a lover more than he was a soldier, and he thought often about that.He knows it is a silly gesture, because he has all of them memorized. But now he knows that she will never love him. He begins to hate her, even as he loves her. He turns into a soldier--a man who does not let his feelings take him out of the reality of his duty. He still thinks about her, but she is no longer really with him. Now he understands that when someone dies, that can't be changed. He decides that from now on he has to be stricter with his men, and distance himself, not caring about anyone as much. He plans the day’s march and concludes that he will never again have fantasies. He plans to call the men together and assume the blame for Lavender’s death. He understands that he is now living in another world, and that he is a soldier whether he wants to be or not. He reminds himself that, despite the men’s inevitable grumbling, his job is not to be loved but to lead. His conclusion, at the end of this story, that it is better to be loved than to lead, reveals how the experience of Lavender’s death has affected his mentality.
O’Brien’s decision to intersperse profound thoughts with mundane events establishes the matter-of-fact tone of the story. The story’s narrative alternates between reflections on war and the story of Ted Lavender’s death. By arranging the work this way, O’Brien uses facts to create setting. He explicitly demonstrates his characters’ natures not by describing them but by showing the items they carried with them in such dire circumstances. Rather than explain Kiowa’s heritage in concrete terms, for example, O’Brien simply mentions that Kiowa carries his grandfather’s hatchet and an illustrated New Testament. O’Brien here offers us glimpses of characters whose traits become integral to the ideas that O’Brien explores throughout The Things They Carried.
After Lavender dies and Kiowa, who saw it happen, explains just how suddenly he fell, never to get up again, Cross tries not to cry. He is thinking of Martha, of how she is leading a different life far away, and will never love him, and he hates himself for letting that distract him from his men. Kiowa tries to tell Bowker the story of Lavender's death, but Bowker gets angry about hearing it over and over. Silent, Kiowa tries to feel bad about Lavender's death, but it happened so quickly he can't feel anything but surprised. He would like to be able to feel as sad as Jimmy Cross does. Suddenly Bowker sits up and demands that Kiowa tell him the story again: he hates silence more than chatter.
Usually the men are brave, but sometimes when they are being attacked they become terrified and cry and scream and make promises to God. They are ashamed afterward. They don't want to look cowardly in front of the others. They tell jokes to distance themselves from their grief and fear: whenever someone dies, they don't call it death, they call it being "greased" or "offed" or lit up." It doesn't mean that they care any less, it only means that they know that caring doesn't change anything. They don't want to be thought of as weak or soft. They all dream about simply lying down and not getting up, or shooting off their own toe, so that they can be taken out of the war. They dream about not having to carry anything anymore.