Award winning and best seller novel, The Things They Carried, changed the ways many viewed the Vietnam war of 1955. Throughout the novel, Tim O’Brien works to seamlessly blur the lines dividing reality and fiction. To achieve this, he uses strong figurative language and concrete facts to engage the readers attention. The main way he does this is through his chosen title, The Things They Carried. The theme of the book is based around the title, allowing the reader to understand the items they carried not only physically, but in the way they carried things figuratively as well.
The men of the Vietnam war carried heavy, excessive loads of items in their bags and on their backs. For example, “—pocketknives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes…” O’Brien also uses realistic weights of the items as a metaphor for the weight and heaviness the men carry in their hearts and minds. O’Brien uses physical items carried to make way for the intangible items they carry, like pain and guilt. This is first seen when O’Brien mentions the death of Ted Lavender. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross had a hard time dealing with the loss. “He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something her would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest if the war.” Ted Lavender and his death is mentioned again throughout the book by several other soldiers like Kiowa.
Similar to Ted Lavender’s death, Curt Lemon’s death is repeated and rephrased, each soldier with their own view point. This can be seen when O’Brien uses surrealism to describe his death, stating, “—and when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him up into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms.” Later, O’Brien bring up his death again, quoting “Curt Lemon was dead.” Finally, he mentions is a few pages later, detailing how Dave Jensen and himself were “—ordered to shiny up and peel him off.” The purpose of O’Brien using the repetition of Curt Lemon’s death is to keep the idea of the men carrying the burden of death and loss constantly.
The idea of men carrying guilt and sorrow can be seen in the death of Kiowa. When the men become engaged in a sudden warfare during the middle of the night, they are unable to do anything besides bury down into the thick slime of the field. While trying to avoid gunfire and shrapnel, Norman Bowker hears Kiowa scream. By the time he could get to him, “There were bubbles were Kiowa’s head should have been” states O’Brien Later on, in the chapter titled “Notes”, O’Brien explains how he sent a copy of his book Going After Cacciato, to Norman Bowker. O’Brien writes that Bowker gave a somewhat bitter response saying “It’s not terrible, but you left out Vietnam. Where’s Kiowa? Where’s the shit?” Eight months after receiving that letter, Bowker hung himself. O’Brien mentions this particularly to show the guilt Bowker carried around with him. He felt responsible for not being able to save Kiowa, even years later. This carries the theme of the figurative things they carried. Bowker carried the hurt and guilt of his friend’s death, and it would ultimately be the cause of his suicide.
One last major section the reoccurring theme of the intangible things they carried is found is when O’Brien mentions the man he watched die in front of him. He claims, “—twenty years ago, I watched a man die on the trial of the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough.” O’Brien shares how even just seeing the man die in front of him, caused him guilt deep inside him, even though here had no art in killing him. In this quote, he supports the theme of the soldiers, and himself carrying things that aren’t physical.
Throughout this book, the men face both good times and hardships. They carry the weight of both their gear, and their heavy hearts. They carry the pain and guilt of their fallen soldiers and friends throughout the course of the war, and their lives well beyond the war. Some, like Norman Bowker, can’t live with it. The title gives the initial theme of the men carrying things other than physical items, and O’Brien includes several supporting factors to continue the theme as the story develops and progresses.