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The Things They Carried by O'Brien

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O'Brien was a successful author. He was also an obsessive and determined person. He said that his dedication to perfection had made a real impact on his personal life. Due to his writing habits, he only could write a book in about from four to five hours. His commitment was perfectly reflected in the critical reception of his body of work. O'Brien memoir dated 1979 called If I Die in a Combat Zone was a big piece that had won a great acclaim, as one of his other novels about Vietnam War. His work called Going after Cacciato won the National Book Award in 1979. However, O'Brien also wrote the masterpieces that had little to do with Vietnam. O'Brien fought in Vietnam, and since then he had enjoyed telling the true war stories from when he returned from the war. He made the stories that mostly discussed his own experiences. They displayed his desire to blur the line between fiction and reality, especially between a living person and a created character. He personally believes that stories are strictly born from real events and are forever linked to them. He admires the narrator in The Things They Carried, who was born and bred in a small town in Minnesota. The people in this town were very hard-working and patriotic as well. Nevertheless, they were less thoughtful. He began writing at a tender age. He then became interested in politics as he was growing older. Both of his pursuits were fully supported by his family (Herzog 45). O'Brien admired John Kennedy and did not like the way his hometown had ignored the politics. O'Brien also admired his father, who was an educated person. He enjoyed reading obsessively and also held a great respect of knowledge. Nevertheless, the same father was an alcoholic, and this strained their relationship with him. This resulted into loneliness and insecurity inside him. O'Brien escaped from his college where he had studied literature that was the basis for his writing. At the same time, he tried to protest against Vietnam War. However, he had a strong belief he was doing a wrong thing. He desperately wanted to stop it. Immediately, after two weeks of his graduation, he got his draft notice. That summer made him a real writer. Achieved conflicting emotions as well as his ideas inside of his head made the way of this all written on the page (Harris 41). Although, he was sure that looking back would make the prose appear terrible. He knew that the war played a great role in his development as a writer.

The work of O'Brien is quite unique; this is a value that makes it worth this discussion. This is due to the fact that despite having a group of twenty two short stories that are interconnected, the book is still referred to as a composite novel. His stories also have the immense power. This is due to the fact that they allow listeners and tellers to confront with the past to share their unknowable experiences. Narrating stories mostly returns to the foreground of the story again and again. Tim shows that the action of storytelling is not just a common coping mechanism for soldiers being involved in war but also a strategy of the proper communication throughout the whole life. A number of stories in The Things They Carried is narrated from Tim’s point of view twenty years after Vietnam War. Including this distance, the facts become cloudy, and all the experiences remained are lingering with memories and feelings. Tim’s insistence on the ideas that the stories can create some past forms as a part for the present shows that the priorities that he has are not dependent on the facts but on the people’s identification of their feelings. 

There are several techniques that are generally applied in poetry. This includes similes, metaphors, irony, symbolism, pathetic fallacy and juxtaposition. O'Brien applies quite a good number of them. One literary technique that is prominent in the novel The Things They Carried is repetition. In the story The Man I Killed, he repeats the narration of the dead body to perhaps show the readers how the image affects him or her. It provides the readers with the sense that it is the image that will be contained in his mind forever. By repeating this description, O'Brien also shows how a traumatic moment replays itself in the person’s brain over and over again. He also uses repetition in The Things They Carried. He continually asserts what “they carried” when starting sentences. This gives the information to the readers as a kind of the list, but normally emphasizes that these things are the burdens to them. By asserting what “they carried” in a repeated manner, that sense of being weighed down and the weight is emphasized. 

Symbolism is another technique that is perfectly covered in the collection of stories The Things They Carried. Throughout the novel, Tim mentions everything that soldiers normally carry with them, both emotional and physical. Everything they carry has to be with them, or, otherwise, they wouldn’t carry it, since most of them already carry about twenty pounds worth of gear. What they carry is normally decided to take with them due to fear that they have. Some of their colleagues carry more ammunition than the others do (O'Brien 78). By their homesickness and desperation to get out of war, Rat Kiley is observed carrying some comic books; and Jimmy Cross is carrying the portrait of Martha. Others carry some charms that they believe would make them lucky. They appear to know the weight of every item that they are taking with them, since everything is being the necessary part of them in one way or the other one.

The Tip Top Lodge is also observed as a symbol in this book. O'Brien goes to this lodge where he takes a moment to decide whether he is ready to flee to Canada or he is not. The owner of this lodge, Elroy Berdahl, gives O'Brien every chance that he needs to cross the border secretly. Nevertheless, O'Brien cannot make himself do this. It appears to be a turning point for Jim. He would prefer to die than to remain with what he believes in, especially if this is not acceptable to his friends and his family.

The song Tra Bong is another symbol in the book. This is the river that seems to symbolize savagery and power of the country. Mary Bell is seen disappearing in this river, when her hunger for life in the jungles appears to consume her. Kiowa is swallowed up by the muck found in the same river. The river, therefore, symbolizes the war itself as a beautiful, deadly, sometimes unforgiving and even violent thing.

The Silver Star is also an observed symbol. Norman, in O'Brien’s story, is almost winning the Silver Star, a medal that symbolizes bravery. Thus, he is later seen as not brave enough to have this medal. He leaves his close friend named Kiowa in the mud of the river. He deliberately did this due to the effects of the disgusting smell from the river. He could have born this if he wished to. After returning home from America, he tends to think about the Silver Star, as well as what it represents and what the bravery really means. He found out that he could not explain it further to anyone. Actually, getting or losing medals appears pointless to him when he thinks about his friend Kiowa dying there.

They are also observed carrying a pebble. It is carried by Jimmy Cross, the person who had received this item from Martha and is holding it under his own tongue. The presence of this pebble prevents him from performing his soldier duties. The pebble is a symbol of her feelings to him. This was due to the fact that he had found it on the shoes, where things normally came together and were separated as well. He loves her, although he does not understand what she means. Nevertheless, the physical items that are carried by men are more than just the equipment. They are normally the symbols that represent different facets of every soldier’s personality.

Another crucial technique is the use of the omniscient third-person narrator. The third person means that the narrator is an outsider who looks into the story. Omniscient, on the other hand, means that the person narrating knows of the feelings and thoughts of any character. This is shown by Cross as the narrator investigates deeply into his feelings and thoughts. The narrator also happens to use the limited omniscience of the third person, especially when concerning other characters. Another technique used by O'Brien is flashback. The death of Lavender is revisited quite a number of times in the novel.

There are two major arguments being central in the novel The Things They Carried. This includes some emotional and physical burdens and motivation due to the fear of shame. When we consider emotional and physical burdens, the title The Things They Carried is used to represent heavy loads that the characters have always to carry with them during the war time. These “things” can also reflect some heavy emotional loads that the war had forced them to carry. This could be the load of love feelings, anguish or horror (Healy 55). For example, Jimmy Cross carries his burden of responsibility for every man that he has been in charge of. He also has to carry the compasses and maps everywhere he is moving. His comrade Henry Dobbins also has to carry the pantyhose which belonged to his girlfriend, as the feeling of love and reassurance. For this reason, most of men have more cases of the emotionally related burdens compared to the physical ones. The men were also carrying the feeling of their own status, whereby no matter how much they were afraid of losing their lives. They are forced to continue fighting so as not to appear the cowards in front of the faces of their enemies. 

After the war has been over, the men are left with haunting moments scrawling down in their minds of how they have treated other people and caused their deaths or sufferings in their lives despite the fact that some of them could be innocent. They mostly suffer from the psychological burdens. Most of those soldiers that have survived know many touching stories which they want to tell. It seems that they are trying to come in terms with their guilt. 

When the motivation due to the fear of shame is considered, the fear of being ashamed before their fellow soldiers, as well as before the enemies is one of the greatest motivating factors during this war. O’Brien proved this through his own self-experience. Tim’s personal experience shows that the fear is experienced by any individual before his peers. This is normally a very powerful motivational factor encountered during this war. Most of his stories explain his moral quandary after he has received his draft notice. He is not interested in fighting in this war that seems unjust, but he never wants to appear as a coward. What keeps him from moving to Canada is not the dedication or patriotism to his country’s cause, but this is due to his concern over what his community and family may think of him if he is not fighting. This experience represents a symbol of conflict explored throughout the The Things They Carried among misguided anticipations of a group of individuals. These people are vital to the main character and that the character’s uncertainty is related to the proper course of action.

The fear of shame does not only motivate the reluctant people to go to Vietnam but it affects the relationship that the soldiers have towards one another as well. The concern of social acceptance that may appear as the unessential preoccupation during the war leads Tim’s characters to engage into some dangerous or even absurd actions. Cross, who participated in the war just because his friends participated, becomes uncertain. He is a confused leader that endangers the life of other soldiers. Tim O’Brien normally uses these characters to put in place the fear of shame misguided but as the unavoidable motivation for participation.

The action of courage is an argument that is interlocked with shame and fear in the novel The Things They Carried. O’Brien believes that most of the things that people do are not normally motivated by shame, and are not the courage. “Men killed, and died”, he asserts, “because they embarrassed not to”. The soldiers did not march down and up the Vietnam Mountains since they had been brave, but they did so because they had been afraid of being seen as the cowards. They were afraid of being humiliated in the eyes of their fellow peers. This notion is perfectly illustrated in the story of Curt Lemon, where the dentist pulls a good tooth to prove that he is not scared by the drill. But when Kiley finally gets himself out of the experienced desperation, no one calls him a coward. Maybe, Tim feels that the action required enough courage to continue marching through that brush. Tim revels in that the decisions that require the greatest courage are the ones that would cause other people to label their fellow as a coward. This is a typical test that he cannot pass on his own; and that is why he would be so disappointed with himself.

Although all members in the Alpha Company normally experience some feelings from time to time; they know that this could only reveal their vulnerability to enemies and sometimes even to their cruel fellow soldiers. A good example is O’Brien and Norman in the story of those things they were carrying. They are both highly affected by the death of their friend Kiowa. O’Brien is also affected by the death of the person that he had killed in Vietnam.

The subjection of truth to storytelling provides the foundation of uniqueness about the way that the writer is presenting the above arguments. By giving the narrator of the story his own name and taking some time to name his characters like those he had been fighting with in Vietnam War, Tim blurs his distinction from between the fiction and the fact. Therefore, it is not possible to be certain whether the entire event of these stories truly has occurred or not. He intentionally heightens the above impossibility when the characters in the story contradict with themselves for a number of times. Thus, he takes a chance to render the truth of any suspected statement that he makes.

O’Brien aims at blending the fiction and the fact. This was to allow him to make a point that the truth of this war story is not relevant as compared to the act of narrating the story. Tim is attempting to avoid writing the history regarding Vietnam War while using his stories. Instead, he explores the ways that narrating about the war establishes or fails to establish the bonds existing between the audience and this soldier. The fact that surrounds any personal event is less crucial than overarching; subjective is the truth of what the war has to mean to soldiers, and how it changes them. Various story tellers that we have in The Things They Carried are Mitchell Sanders and Rat Kiley, in addition to Tim’s work showing the ugly truth of war being normally so profound to the extent that they require neither long explanations nor facts (Harris 24).

The statements as “This is true” that opens with “How to narrate a true war story” do not normally establish that the events recounted in the narration have really occurred. Instead, they indicate that the thematic and stylistic content of this narration is true to soldiers experienced at war. The truth involved is often ugly, in contrast, to the ideas of heroism and glory associated with the war performed before Vietnam. In Tim’s ‘true’ war story, Kiley writes down to Lemon’s sister. After her ignorance, while responding to the message, he refers to her as a ‘dumb cooze,’ only adding to the story some ugliness. Tim’s declaration that the truest part of the narration is that it claims to have no moral underscores. The purpose of these stories is to relate the experienced truth not to come up with false emotions for the audience.

The arguments discussed above are effective in various ways. Every person that loses his life in the war gives O’Brien a new understanding of the word “death”. Due to the fact that he spends twenty years to write about people, he slowly realizes that they were not really dead. They are really alive in his imaginations and memory. He properly understands the pain of losing a close friend as well as the guilt of killing an enemy. But he is aware that his stories normally keep all of them alive. On the other side, the lack of purpose in men drives them crazy at times. They feel that they do not own a definite morality to what they will be after. Most of people become desperate to have anything, even if it means a game of checkers, which holds a definite loser or winner.

O’Brien finds himself in such position that does not allow him to forget even the smallest detail of Vietnam. The whole play is well confined in his memory and piece after piece he writes over and over again. He is really helpless in containing them (Herzog 87). Writing down of the activities of war is his link that exists between the past as well as the future. In fact, the beautiful and terrible things that he observes in Vietnam will forever be with him.

In conclusion, O’Brien uses the techniques discussed above such as flashback and repetition to define his novel as the literature of importance. Though he presents a real life story, it is full of the creative imagination that makes it an excellent piece of literature. For sure, The Things They Carried is a masterpiece that wins its smile from all of its readers.

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