This was an assignment for my english class, where we had to write five responses to the book The Things They Carried.
The physical things the soldiers carried vs. the mental things they carried
The Things They Carried is an appropriate title for this book as the characters carried both physical things and figurative things. Each character carries a heavy load of things, which can include equipment, food and personal things. Without a doubt, the soldiers carry a lot of physical things, but they also carry many things in their mind. An example of one of the mental things they carried is guilt. Guilt is something that is reoccurring throughout the story. An example of guilt is when Kiowa dies during the horrible night on the shit-field. In Speaking of Courage, Norman Bowker is talking to his father and he claims that the night that Kiowa died, he “wasn’t very brave”. Although Norman Bowker was distinguished with several medals, he was not satisfied because of his guilt. Later in the book, we find out that Bowker hanged himself. The guilt was too much for him. Another prominent presence of guilt is when Ted Lavender is killed and although no one really could have saved him, the soldiers feel guilty about it.
Along with the emotional things the soldiers carried like guilt, love and terror, there were also mental things they carried that were represented by the physical things they carried. The physical things that the soldiers carried were what defined them. Unlike other stories I have read where the author just spills out descriptions of each character and their back-stories, in TTTC, O’Brien used specific objects to “show” the reader what each character was like. And with the specific objects, we got an idea of the corresponding mental thing they carried. For example, Jimmy Cross carried maps and compasses; this shows the reader that he takes responsibility for guiding his men. Henry Dobbins always carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose; this represented the longing for love and comfort of her.
The soldiers both literally and figuratively had a huge load on their shoulders. With a limited room for items to carry, each one had to be important to the soldiers. Because of this, we see that they had an emotional reason for each item. But the soldiers also carried things like guilt, terror and love. In some cases, the soldiers, like O’Brien, carried these burdens long after the war had finished. The things he carried were the war stories from his experiences.
Speaking of Courage
Speaking of courage is a heavy-hitting chapter. Due to the persistant change between the peaceful setting of the lake town and the shit-field, the reader is constantly tossed between different emotions. O’Brien spends a lot of the chapter describing the placid lake setting, which personally makes me think of Muskoka. Around the lake, it is nice and quiet and the biggest problem around is that a man is struggling with his motorboat engine. It’s Sunday and in the picture-perfect town the sun is slowly setting. This mental image gives me feelings of tranquility and safety. But then, my emotions drastically changed when O’Brien started describing Vietnam. In this chapter, O’Brien is essentially describing Vietnam through the eyes of Norman Bowker. And when we see Norman’s description of the shit-field, our sense of tranquility and safety vanish. Just from the description of the terrible shit-field, we can tell Bowker was traumatized by it. For some reason the peaceful lake reminds Bowker of the terrible moments on the field. We can see some kind of parallel here because similarly to drowning in a lake, Kiowa was drowned in the mud. The shit-field is a metaphor for the power to take away. As he circles the lake, Bowker thinks about everything he has lost: his ability to communicate with his friends and parents, his relationship with his hometown, his ambitions, and most of all, his friend Kiowa. During this part of the story, Bowker aimlessly circles the lake, unable to break free from its pull. He is doomed to be taken by the shit-field, just as it took everything else he had. At the end of the chapter, he enters the water and in his mind, this is the very same water that took Kiowa’s life. In my opinion, this foreshadows his later suicide.
Story truth vs real truth
O’Brien is very good at conveying his stories. He is so good, to the point that I cannot tell whether a story he is telling is real or if it never really happened. Although some of his stories may not be completely truthful, they are emotionally hitting towards the reader and they convey good messages. In the chapter good form, O’Brien makes a distinction between “story truth” and “happening truth”. He feels that it is better to create a technically false story that truthfully portrays war, rather than just sating boring facts that create no emotion in the reader. An example of this could be in the chapter “The Man I Killed”. O’Brien almost surely did not know this man he killed, but he gave this long eulogy, which was very likely to be fictional. But since he wrote out this long eulogy, it made the reader feel more sympathetic for the guy who died. For example, any author can say, “I shot this guy and he died”. That does not really have a lasting effect on the reader. But when the author gives a whole back-story on the guy like, “he wanted to be a mathematics teacher… he hoped the Americans would go away soon”, it gives the reader a whole new perspective. Personally, I feel sad about the guy who was killed. The story may not be true, but it really evokes emotions among the readers. Any author can spit facts and numbers onto the page, like 1 million people were killed and it may be all true (like the Youtube video we saw), but it does not create an impact on the personal level for the reader. By giving this dead man a long back-story, we feel sorry for him, and because of this, we think the story is true. Just on a side note, within the story, when Rat was telling the guys about the sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, he even admitted to making some parts up, or exaggerating them to make the story more interesting, just like O’Brien was doing when he was writing the whole book.
The effects of war
The opening quote from the movie The Hurt Locker claims that “war is a drug”. This would also be a suitable quote to put somewhere in this book. Like any drug, war has a profound impact on those who are exposed to it. A drug can alter someone, change his or her mind, and this is exactly what happened in The Things They Carried. An example of the effects of war on someone and how they can change them is in chapter 5. After fighting the Vietnamese for so long, Dave Jensen becomes unable to tell what is right and wrong and in the process, he goes a bit crazy and hurts his own fellow soldier. Another example of the effects of war changing people is in chapter 9, Mary Anne Bell, who only after a few months in Vietnam turned crazy. She seemed to become part of the land itself, which no one can explain. Like a drug, she became addicted to Vietnam, to the point where she was nuts for it. Also, like I talked about before, Norman Broker is changed by the war in a way that, when he returns from it, he feels marginalized, as if no one would understand him. He can’t get away from his thoughts of the war and in the end, his only way out was to kill himself.
Tim O’Brien was also heavily changed by the war. After facing death of the people around him and all the other horrors of war, he was no longer the shy boy named Timmy. He had become the man, Tim. Most notably for Tim was that after the war, he had a new understanding of death. Although many people had died in his presence, he no longer viewed them as dead, almost like the sixth sense. The war caused him to have vivid memories of this dead people that allowed them to live on in his imagination. He recognized the burden placed upon him when he killed his enemies and the pain when his enemies killed his friends. But he also knew that by telling the stories of their lives, they would live on.
Final Response – Rating the book
So far, this book has been my favorite that we have done this year. First off, I want to say that although this book was not necessarily presented in chronological order, it was very easy to understand. The writing is clear and each character is well defined. When compared to a book like the Big Sleep, I think this one is superior. I found that the Big Sleep is in chronological order, but that does not necessarily make it easy to understand. There are too many characters and plot turns in that book, it is like a math equation with way to many variables. On the other hand, The Things They Carried lets the reader get to know each character in a very personal way. As we examine the day-to-day struggles of each character, we as a reader, see the effects of war, death, guilt and terror on them. Also, I found the action in the other books very dull, while in this book, O’Brien successfully mixes the action and thrill of war and the personal issues of the soldiers. This book has very solid truths to it, and the parts that are no true are very imaginative. Overall, this book tells a compelling story and has very powerful writing that makes “the stomach believe”. I would rate this book 9/10.