The Things They Carried: A Realistic Portrayal of War

The Things They Carried: A Realistic Portrayal of War
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Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is a typical war story set in Vietnam. The novel may be described as typical because it talks about an issue common to Vietnam war movies, that is, American soldiers were sent to the battlefield without proper training. As expected, the characters suffer the common aftermaths of war such as fear, guilt and despair. Most of the elements of the story are common but Tim O’Brien manages to make the narration interesting by writing close to reality. The characterization, language and symbols are very simple. O’brien gets rid of flowery words that could conjure readers to emotionality, thus achieving a realistic portrayal of war.

Tim O’Brien is an American writer born in 1946 in Austin Minnesota. He graduated summa cum laude from Macalester College and was sent right away to the war in Vietnam (Kirszner & Mandell, 1994). In the war, he gathered experiences which he later expounded in his novels. “The Things They Carried” won him a Pulitzer Prize and the respect of critiques and contemporaries.
Tim O’Brien wrote with accuracy and simplicity. His characterization is well controlled; he makes the characters appear real, as if they really existed. Each person is described in full but without exaggerations. He has a mixture of flat and round characters, developing and static. Tim O’Brien, the narrator, is a combination of a round and developing character, although sometimes he could also be considered static because he still writes about the war even after more than two decades. From being afraid of going to the war to valuing valor and truth in the end, O’Brien reflects a development towards maturity. As a narrator, he can likewise be considered a round character as he gives attention to simple details such as Jimmy‘s habit of looking at Martha’s picture. He also varies the point of view of the story from the major character’s angle to the novelist’s. From the major character’s viewpoint, he sees the material things that the men carry such as ammunition, drugs, and other stuffs. From the novelist’s point of view, he sees his companions carrying “all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing… shameful memories (p.23). The shift in perspective thus suggests the roundness and development of the main character.

The language of the novel is simple and easy to comprehend, making the story achieve authenticity. O’Brien details the things that the characters carry, giving a notion that he has actually seen all of them. For instance, he notes that Ted Lavander carries tranquilizers, Jimmy Cross carries letters from Martha, and Kiowa carries a Bible. As the story progresses, he goes deeper into the details, saying that “In his wallet, Lieutenant Cross carried two photographs of Martha. The first was a Kodacolor snapshot signed Love…The second photograph had been clipped from the 1968 Mount Sebastian yearbook. It was an action shot—womens volleyball—and Martha was bent horizontal to the floor…the expression frank and competitive” (p.12). The tales behind the things carried add interest to the story because they provide deeper insights about the characters, suggesting familiarity of the narrator with the subject. Despite the details, the stories do not sound stilted because of the use of direct language and colloquial terms such as a poncho, grunts, and humping.

Moreover, in spite of the drama, O’Brien does not exaggerate in describing the events. Therefore, when Ted Lavender dies, he simply says, “He was dead weight. There was no twitching or flopping. Kiowa, who saw it happen, said it was like watching a rock fall, or a big sandbag or something—just boom, then down—not like the movies…” (p.14). O’Brien avoids retelling scenes just like how it is in the movies. He avoids the drama and makes the story more true-to-life and credible.

Furthermore, readers will not get bored reading the novel because of the style of the author. Unlike other authors who would write about places or setting using adjectives, O’Brien uses actions and appeals to the senses, thus: “The sound was ragged and clotted up, but even so he knew the voice. A strange gargling noise. Rolling sideways, he crawled toward the screaming in the dark. The rain was hard and steady. Along the perimeter there were quick bursts of gunfire. Another round hit nearby, spraying up shit and water, and for a few moments he ducked down beneath the mud. He heard the valves in his heart. He heard the quick, feathering action of the hinges.” (p.101)

It can be noted that the author uses more verbs than adjectives to describe a scene. Also, he uses short sentences instead of run-on sentences that could lead readers to boredom.
The symbols in the story are likewise well thought of. They are neither used to represent people as a whole nor represent an ideology of the author. Rather, they represent the kind of behavior the owner has. For instance, Kiowa’s Bible imparts that he is a religious person. Ted’s tranquilizers suggest his physical unsuitability to the war. Meanwhile, Rat Kiley’s comic books represent his jolly personality while Jim Cross who always bears Martha’s picture is a romantic lover who is unfit to be a leader because he is too preoccupied by love.

The symbols that O’Brien uses to reveal the qualities of the characters are appropriate and meaningful. Although some people may think of Jimmy Cross as an allusion to Christ because of their initials (J.C.) and bearing the men’s lives in his hands, readers may easily think that Cross is an example of a weak leader based on his actions of daydreaming, holding Martha’s picture while in the battlefield. Likewise the corpse of the child may be interpreted in another way but it may just be a representation of the chaos and injustices of war. Likewise, it can serve as a foreshadowing to the danger that awaits the troop, especially Kiowa. Reading about it, readers will sense death of some of the characters.

With the way O’Brien wrote the story, he provides readers a clear grasp of what happened to the soldiers sent to Vietnam. By the strength in O’Brien’s narration, anyone will find it easy to relate with the characters and share their adventures, fears, sorrows, camaraderie and valor. The characterization, language and symbols in the story

O’Brien, T. (n.d.). The things they carried. Retrieved March 11, 2013 from
Kirszner, L. & Mandell, S. (1994). Fiction: reading, reacting, writing. Florida: Harcourt Brace & Co., 246.