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Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” and its Place in the Eponymous Collection of Short Stories

HomeEssaysArt, LiteratureTim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” and its Place in the Eponymous Collection of Short Stories
Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and its Placein the Eponymous Collection of Short Stories
17.08.2020
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“The Things They Carried” is the opening short story in the collection of short stories written by Tim O’Brien. The work of art under consideration plays a very important role in terms of tuning up the audience. Specifically, it determines the thematic framework of collection, as a whole. Apart from that, “The Things They Carried” gives insight into the stylistic peculiarities of the collection itself. Thus, it helps to better understand the author’s creative manner of writing. All things considered, “The Things They Carried” can be viewed as an example of how the notion of introduction can be reconsidered artistically and employed in piece of fiction.

“The Things They Carried” is the short story, and the collection of short stories, respectively, represents the idea of a semi-autobiographical work of art. Retrospection is the artistic principle that the author uses most vividly, frequently, and effectively all through the entire collection of short stories. Past and present, fact and fiction are intertwined in the work of art under consideration. In other words, in the short story that is being analyzed, there is no strict demarcation line to separate fiction from the events that had really happened. Past and present, in their turn, are inseparably connected and make a coherent whole in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”.

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As far as the notion of the narrator’s voice in concerned, the following aspects should be mentioned. Firstly, the idea of a third-person, omniscient, reliable narrator applies to the short-story that is being analyzed. Secondly, the author plays simultaneously the part of the narrator and that of one of the supporting characters (observers) all through the entire collection of short stories. Furthermore, it seems that the narrator is present at each point over a span of time covered in the short-story. Lastly, in spite of all the calamities, hardships, and mischief that author/narrator/supporting character has been through, no one and nothing can cast the doubt on his credibility.

“The Things They Carried” portrays an American infantry unit in the years of the Vietnam War. The story begins approximately in 1968, when the members of a group meat up and get introduced to one another in Vietnam. Love, loss, friendship, death, cruelty, experience, coming of age, honor, bravery, heroism, identity, actualization of self, desolation, corruption, abomination, resurrection, re-socialization, and starting new life – this is what Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is all about.

The short story under analysis is unique in itself. In a way, its title can be considered symbolic. “The Things They Carried” would be a reference to some personal belongings that each of the group members treasured most of all. “The Things They Carried” is a phrase that is constantly repeated throughout the short story. The very first sentence in the collection The Things They Carried reads: “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl …” (O’Brien 13). Lieutenant Cross is one of the central figures in the short story being summarized. The foregoing quote implies that Lieutenant Cross himself is an inexperienced man, blinded by his own affection for a young woman and also disillusioned by it. Lieutenant Cross is a man of word, duty, and honor. As cynical as it may sound, his affection, compulsive at times, becomes his main downfall.

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In the very next chapter, the audience gets to know that the young woman Lieutenant Cross had once fallen for never loved him back; still, the author plants a seed of Lieutenant Cross’s not giving up on the woman he adored, even all those many years after the war. Lieutenant Cross’s love story, in particular, can be viewed as an example of how “The Things They Carried” connects to other short stories within a collection.

The things that the soldiers of the group portrayed in the short story under analysis owned and carried along with them through the war differed and depended on each soldier’s specialization: “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity” (O’Brien 14). Developing the statement noted above, the author continues: “What they carried varied by mission” (O’Brien 21). Evidently, the soldiers of the infantry unit in the short story, being discussed, needed something to believe in, something that might have guided them through the horrors of war. Therefore, Tim O’Brien makes the following statement: “The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition” (25). It cannot be denied that one of the most difficult things at war is to accept the fact the one may be forced to take somebody else’s life to survive, preserving this lust for life even after the choice to survive at any cost has been made. In spite of all the odd remarks and evidences of deviant behavior (either real or imagined), the soldiers of the infantry unit, that Tim O’Brien was a member of, attempted to rethink such notions as humanity, morality, honor, and dignity. Hence, the author writes: “… they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity” (O’Brien 32). All in all, Tim O’Brien turns out to be, perhaps, one of the very few of the team members who have actually managed to resists the evils of war.

Reflecting on life and death, good and evil is the integral part of Tim O’Brien’s short story. The vast majority of soldiers, who by chance combated side by side with the author, were overwhelmed by the realization of the fact that they might have died any minute: “They were tough. They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die” (O’Brien 34). Apparently, each and every one of the soldiers on Lieutenant Cross’s team, including Tim O’Brien himself, were willing to accept what was going to happen to them. Naturally, it was not easy for them to do so. On their way to embracing the destiny, the soldiers portrayed in the short story being analyzed occasionally have found themselves in the situations that under all circumstances can be considered as tragic.

Certainly, Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” can be considered a credible historical source by no means, even though it was written by a man who had seen many battles of the Vietnam War and had been in Vietnam during the most intense periods of the war itself. At this point, it is important to take a small detour to make a statement that it is very unlikely that the author himself intended to create a historically valid, factual work. The Things They Carried is a suggestive, reflexive, descriptive, and partly transcendental work. It cannot be denied that the short story is important culturally and artistically. Factual accuracy and fiction are woven into the canvases of both – the short story and the novel quite harmoniously. Hence, it happens so that fact and fiction complement each other in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” in order to create a relatable and topical vision of the momentous, great, and tragic event in the history of mankind. With regard to this, one can assume with utter surety that Tim O’Brien’s collection of short stories The Things They Carried can be regarded as an admonition. As a man of letters, thinker, philanthropist, and intrinsically pacifistic person, Tim O’Brien not just shows the awfulness of war and its calamitous aftermaths. The writer as if urges each and every one of his readers to act responsibly and bear the past in mind. Only then one can look into the future with hope and optimism.

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The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien can be defined as by all means a controversial work. It is artistically perfect in the sense that the plane of content and the plane of expression are perfectly coordinated in the collection itself. All controversies and ambiguities associated with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried are related to the short story content, as the Vietnam War in itself is associated with political, social, cultural, economic, and (to a certain extent) environmental implications. “The Things They Carried”, the first short story in the book, explores how each of the aforementioned aspects was a concern of all those who were called up for active service.

All in all, Tim O’Brien has managed to redefine the notion of introduction in a literary work. “The Things They Carried” is the opening short story on the collection of the short stories of the same name. All short stories in the collection are interrelated. The short stories are connected by subject matter, common themes and motives, characters, and narrator’s voice. “The Things They Carried” introduces the characters and sets the scene for the events portrayed in the collection of short stories itself. It is a link between the author’s intention, the plane of content, and the plane of expression. All in all, the message behind Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried can be interpreted as follows. Learning from the past is the key to looking into the future with hope and certainty. From the very first short story, the statement noted above becomes a leitmotif of Tim O’Brien’s collection of short stories The Things They Carried.

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