Symbols and Themes in “The Things They Carried”

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Words: 1665


“The Things They Carried” is a collection of short stories written by Tim O’Brien. Through storytelling, O’Brien addresses the themes of war, memories, and redemption. The story itself is based on O’Brien’s recollections of his experience serving in the army during the Vietnam War (1). The author describes the soldiers’ everyday lives and shows their stive to maintain a connection with civilian life through ordinary items they carried. This paper will analyze the themes and symbols O’Brien depicts in “The Things They Carried.”


The experience of war, in general, is traumatizing for any individual, and the Vietnam War is a particularly vivid example of the horrors that the US citizens had to live through when being sent to a remote location and forced to attack both the foreign military and the civilians. According to Daraiseh, O’Brien discusses the guilt that guilt hat he and other soldiers who served in Vietnam felt and the fact that they had to hide their true feelings from their friends and families (228). The difficulty of having to face warfare and the effect of it on the people’s life and emotional wellbeing is, therefore, the central theme that O’Brien depicts.

Daraishes states that “Tim O’Brien refers to what the majority of soldiers do at war as “erasing”; a means of unburdening oneself in front of the world” (228). Hence, although the civilians perceive the actions of soldiers as heroic, the military professionals themselves carry a burden of war, which they cannot share with others. Therefore, the theme of O’Brien’s work is linked to the author’s desire to unveil the truth and show that war is horrific and has a detrimental impact on the soldiers’ lives and their mental state.

In the story titled “On the Rainy River,” the author described him receiving the drafting notice. Daraiseh exposes some details of O’Brien’s biography that explain the theme behind his story, one of which is his political ideology (228). O’Brien despised war and violence, but he was forced to participate in the warfare. During that time, he was a student at a university and contemplated the idea of running away to Canada to escape his deployment (Daraiseh 228). Hence, through this collection of short stories, the author tries to communicate his ideas about war and peace since although “The Things They Carried” is fiction, it comprises a plethora of actual events, names, and experiences.

Considering the author’s attitudes towards war, another important theme is the emotional struggles of the soldiers, who had to face violence and death often at a very young age. One way to interpret the title of this short story collection is by perceiving “the things” as not physical objects but as feelings that the soldiers had over the course of the story. Lieutenant Cross, for example, held onto his love for Martha as the only positive recollection he had during his service. Another character who carries the emotional burden of being deprived of love is Henry Dobbins. Among the things he has in his rucksack, there are the pantyhose of this girlfriend, which he sometimes used as a comforter when he wrapped them around his neck (O’Brien 7).

Later on in the story, O’Brien reveals the depth of the emotional struggles that these soldiers faced. For example, Lieutenant Cross confesses that he never forgave himself for the death of Ted Lavender (O’Brien 16). Arguably, dealing with the loss of a friend is difficult on its own, and considering that Cross was a Lieutenant responsible for guiding these soldiers, his emotional struggles must have been tremendous. Moreover, when O’Brien discusses his own recollections of being drafted, he admits that the only reason why he did not escape to Canada was a feeling of shame (24). He believed that war was unjust, yet he went to Vietnam because he was scared of what his friends and family members would think. The theme of emotional burden is seen both in the soldier’s lives at war and through their motivation to fight.

Daraiseh also argues that O’Brien tries to depict the theme of love over the course of his story (228). Apart from this, the soldier’s longing for comfort, both emotional and physical, is evident. Again, the examples of Cross and Dobbins vividly point out the fact that these men wanted to return home to the normal course of life. They used the few objects they were able to bring with themselves from their civilian life as anchors to their past, which helped them distance themselves from the warfare.

Although war is traditionally depicted as something romantic, whether heroes fight for their state, O’Brien diminishes this stereotype. Pun and Kim point to the idea that O’Brien tries to address the romanticized ideas of war in this story (105). Instead, she shows the brutality and suffering that are an uninventable result of the war actions. Indeed, people who return from wars are usually viewed as patriots and heroes, and little attention is given to what actions they have committed on the battlefield.

O’Brien allows the readers to look at the romanticizing of wars and war heroes through the eyes of a soldier and see that they often suffer from this experience and feel little pride for what they have to do. According to Pun and Kim, “he encourages readers to hate war through the use of postmodern counternarratives” (105). Moreover, the researchers argue that O’Brien shows war as something animalistic rather than human.

Apart from guilt, shame, horrific actions, and dead soldiers encounter at war O’Brien also shows how war action disturbs the normal course of people’s lives. At the beginning of the story, the reader is introduced to Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, and O’Brien discusses Cross’s love for a girl Martha (1). Cross and Martha went on one date while the former was still in college. Arguably if it were not for the war actions, Cross would be able to go on many dates, either with Martha or with other girls he liked. Instead, during the war action, Cross holds on to the memory of Martha, which is perhaps one of the not many happy recollections he has to keep his spirit upon the battlefield.


The name of this short story collection itself reflects the idea that each item the character carries has a symbolic meaning to it. Auslander and Zahra argue that people always try to carry ordinary things with them when they flee from warfare or leave their homes even if having these possessions is of great difficulty (1). From the beginning of this story, O’Brien introduces the items that his fellow soldiers took with them to the war. For example, Cross had letters from his love interest Martha, which “were not love letters,” but the Lieutenant kept them as a symbol of hope (O’Brien 1). Cross re-read these letters every afternoon, and after he was finished with his duties, such as checking the perimeter, he would spend the rest of the day thinking about Martha. Clearly, for the Lieutenant, these letters were of great value and symbolized love as well as peaceful life for him.

Another set of symbolic items that O’Brien depicts in his story are the necessary military attributes. He writes that most items the soldiers had were “largely determined by necessity, for example, can openers, knives, weapons, tags, gum, their military certificates, among other things (O’Brien 2).

These attributes symbolize the difficulties of military life, as opposed to a peaceful life. These soldiers had to carry all the things they would need to eat or maintain their hygiene in their backpacks, the weight of which was approximately 10 to 15 pounds (O’Brien 2). However, normally people carry with them only several basic things they might need throughout the day, and the rest stays at their homes, which they can return to every evening (Worth Books 15). Thus, O’Brien describes the objects that soldiers had with them in great detail to symbolize the difficulties that soldiers faced even when satisfying their basic physiological needs.

Apart from the items that the soldiers had, which symbolized their hopes, dreams, and desire to return to peaceful life, there are other symbols O’Brien writes about. For example, he mentions killing a man in the city of My Khe (O’Brien 79). Through the author’s description, it is unclear whether this act is a reality, a literary device, or a result of O’Brien’s imagination due to the pressure he faced. In the chapter dedicated to this event, the author provides many details about the man’s appearance. For example, he writes that the latter had “bony legs, a narrow waist, long shapely fingers” (O’Brien 79). The feeling of guilt and shame are the central elements of this chapter since O’Brien shows that killing even one innocent man can cause an immense sense of shame and regret, and at war, soldiers usually kill dozens of people.

An important symbol that helps the reader understand the attitudes of civilians towards soldiers is O’Brien’s daughter Kathleen. When he introduces her in the story, he mentions that she shames him for being obsessed with writing war-themes stories, despite him being thirty-three already (O’Brien 22). Despite this, the author admits that he cannot stop doing this. Clearly, Kathleen’s character represents the lack of understanding or empathy for people who return from war and try to cope with their difficult memories in any manner available to them.


Overall, this paper analyzes the themes and symbols of O’Brien’s collection of stories titled “The Things They Carried.” Mainly, the author tries to deconstruct the aromatized image of warfare, heroism, and patriotism. He shows that soldiers are often driven by fear of being misunderstood by their families. Moreover, as demonstrated through the symbol of Kathleen, their emotional struggles are usually misunderstood even upon their return home. Each of the soldiers that O’Brien discusses carries some item from their civilian lives, with the most prominent examples being pantyhose and letters. These symbols help understand the soldiers’ longing for comfort and love.

Works Cited

Auslander, Leora, and Tara Zahra. Introduction. The Things They Carried: War, Mobility, And Material Culture. Cornell University, Web.

Daraiseh, Sawsan Ahmad. “The Oppression of Love and War in O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and The Man I Killed: A Study in Technique.” US-China Foreign Language, vol. 18, no. 7, 2020, pp. 228-232.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Mariner Books, 2009.

Pun, Bhim Bahadur, and Dae Wan Kim. “Private Irony In “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien: From Nepalese Perspective.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 22, no. 4, 2019, pp.105-132.

Worth Books. Summary and Analysis of The Things They Carried. Worth Books, 2017.