The Things They Carried – Theme, Symbol, and Setting

Physical and Emotional Burdens (Theme)
The men carry physical things in the text, however, the theme shows the emotional burdens the men carry with them home and through the rest of their lives. These burdens often do not find an outlet for relief. Those men who cannot find a way to relieve their emotional burdens may end up like Norman Bowker. Those who do find a way to communicate and cope (like Tim O’Brien) assimilate back into society, however, they still feel separations between themselves and non-veterans (i.e. spouses and children).
Guilt (Theme)
The men carry guilt home and find it difficult to cope (would also fit under emotional burdens, however, because of the concentration on Tim’s guilt, guilt could become its own theme.
Friendship (Theme)
The importance of connections through difficult situations – the men become both enemies and friends, however, their dependence upon each other is paramount in their surviving the war and continuing on with their lives.
Fear as a motivator (Theme)
Tim’s compliance with the draft and his decision on the Rainy River shows this theme perfectly. Tim’s only motivation to go to war (to be a coward) is that he does not want to shame himself and his family.

Shame motivates Lemon to go to the dentist and have a perfectly good tooth pulled.

Language as a protector
The men use rough language and jokes to protect themselves from the emotional horrors of war. By naming burned babies “Crispy Critters”, they can push the reality of the dead infants from their minds.

The men work to create a separation between themselves and “the other” by using language to separate themselves.

Tim has trouble using language to separate himself from the war. He is not able to separate himself from the dead young Vietnamese soldier, and thus Tim uses language to do the opposite and gives the young man a past and a future.

Loss of Innocence (Theme)
The young men are thrown into a situation for which they are not ready. Since the draft does not allow the men to choose their involvement in the war, the young men have to process and cope with the war as best they can.

We see Tim’s innocence being stripped his first or second day of the war when the other men shake hands with the dead man. Tim refuses to shake the man’s hand.

We see Bobby Jorgensen’s innocence as he freezes and can’t get to Tim.

We see the baby water buffalo die as a representation of the death of innocence. Rat’s innocence dies with Curt Lemon. He murders the water buffalo to show his anger and grief at the death of Lemon and his innocence. He then dumps the body of the buffalo in the village well to poison the village’s water.

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The importance of memory
Memory can both be good and bad. Memories that are painful can hold people in the past, however, used in the right way, memories can keep the dead alive and give meaning to life. They can help people cope with grief and death.
Happening Truth vs Story Truth (Theme)
Tim shows the difference between happening and story truth.

Story truth can often tell a deeper, universal truth better than happening truth can. Happening truth may be true in a journalistic sense, however, the emotional truth is usually not present in happening truth.

Storytelling (Motif)
How to tell stories and the importance of stories adds both to several themes. O’Brien focuses on storytelling in several chapters including “Good Form” and “How to Tell a True War Story”. Storytelling form is critiqued during “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong” when Rat is told his tone is all wrong and he needs to work on his pacing. Storytelling also ‘saves’ lives in “The Lives of the Dead” where Tim shows us that memory and stories keep the dead alive within us.
Ambiguous morality (Motif)
Morality shifts in war time. The young men are confronted with situations that do not necessarily fit into societal ideas of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
Loneliness and Isolation (Motif)
The men are together, however, they all fight the war in their own way with their emotional burdens. They are away from home, losing girlfriends, and losing friends.

When they return home, the men are alone as well when they are no longer a part of the unit at war. The men cannot fully assimilate with the people at home, but they cannot stay living in the war. This isolation can end up leading to depression and suicide.

Dead, Young Vietnamese Soldier (Symbol)
This young man shows Tim’s guilt at the lives taken by war (even those he did not take himself). He refuses to speak to Kiowa showing that he himself died in some way when the young Vietnamese man died.

Tim also gives the young man a past and future by giving the young man a story. In this way, Tim himself refuses to speak, but he lets the story telling bring the young man to life.

The young man is a symbol of the innocence taken from all the young men forced into the war. He is a symbol of the possible futures taken away. He symbolizes the lost hope of the young woman waiting for him.

Kathleen (Symbol)
Kathleen shows the disconnect between the soldiers and the people at home.

She also shows the disconnect between the younger generation who cannot understand the trials, sorrows, and guilt of the previous generation’s wars.

Linda (Symbol)
She represents all of our first experiences with death and grief. She represents the fact that all people can be saved through memory and story. She also shows a grace unknown to many people in the face of death. She has a secret smile because she understands the beauty of life in the face of death. This grace is missing from the lives of the men forced quickly into the face of death during the war.
Baby Water Buffalo (Symbol)
The water buffalo symbolizes the death of innocence and the unyielding cruelties of war. The buffalo has done nothing. It is also specifically a ‘baby’ water buffalo. The baby shows we are supposed to draw connections between the death of the buffalo and the loss of innocence.
Field of Excrement (Symbol)
Everything in the war is nasty or namely, “shit”. The men are sunk down into it. No matter how many times they climb out of it, they are sucked back down into it. Many get out but always carry the knowledge and memory of it with them (Norman), but some (Kiowa) are sucked down into the muck and drown in it.

The other men dig to try to get their comrade out, however, they feel it is almost an impossible task. The commanding officer is absent (mentally) and the men do not ask him for help or advice. This separation between officer and enlisted soldiers shows the difference of experience, responsibility, and actions.

Mary Anne Bell
Mary Anne shows the reader’s reliance upon the male figure at war. We are used to reading about men at war losing their innocence and dying.

We are NOT used to reading about a woman with a necklace of tongues around her neck. Her descent into the dark of war and ambush shows that all humans are capable of the war changing them. Her descent cannot be brushed aside by our (American) societal values because we have preconceived notions that women are gentle and innocent. The women wait at home for the men to return dirty and lonely from war. Mary Anne steps outside this role and becomes a part of the war to a much further extent than Fossie.

Female Characters (Martha, Mary Anne, Kathleen, Linda)
Each female character represents a different role of women from home and response to the war.

Martha: rejects the war and men for some unannounced reason. She is a woman of peace and becomes a missionary that is uninterested in the instinctual needs of the flesh.

Mary Anne: the All-American girl who sinks into the Vietnam war who becomes almost a mythical creature. Her understanding and actions surpass those of the men. She wants to become a part of the land, a part of the violence.

Kathleen: shows the innocence and disconnect of the next generation from the veterans. She cannot understand why Tim needs to keep thinking about the war. She also represents America’s want for veterans to just “move on” from the war.

Linda: Represents life and death. She is Tim’s first love and first death. She shows Tim deeper meaning and grace in life and death. She shows Tim how one can survive death by staying alive in stories and memories. She is the youngest female character. She is also the character that we perhaps see the closest relationship with Tim himself. She ties the entire book together. She is the key to Tim’s entire message, and this key began in his childhood, not in the war.

Rainy River (Symbol)
The river shows the young men’s choice to go to war and do what society expects versus staying home (going to prison) or leaving the country and shaming themselves and family.

The Rainy River is a turning point in the book because we understand both writer Tim and character Tim’s mind sets on courage, family, shame, and cowardice.

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