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The Things They Carried

Tim o'brien.

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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Physical and Emotional Burdens

The “[t]hings” of the title that O’Brien’s characters carry are both literal and figurative. While they all carry heavy physical loads, they also all carry heavy emotional loads, composed of grief, terror, love, and longing. Each man’s physical burden underscores his emotional burden. Henry Dobbins, for example, carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose and, with them, the longing for love and comfort. Similarly, Jimmy Cross carries compasses and maps and, with them, the responsibility for the men in his charge. Faced with the heavy burden of fear, the men also carry the weight of their reputations. Although every member of the Alpha Company experiences fear at some point, showing fear will only reveal vulnerability to both the enemy and sometimes cruel fellow soldiers.

After the war, the psychological burdens the men carry during the war continue to define them. Those who survive carry guilt, grief, and confusion, and many of the stories in the collection are about these survivors’ attempts to come to terms with their experience. In “Love,” for example, Jimmy Cross confides in O’Brien that he has never forgiven himself for Ted Lavender’s death. Norman Bowker’s grief and confusion are so strong that they prompt him to drive aimlessly around his hometown lake in “Speaking of Courage,” to write O’Brien a seventeen-page letter explaining how he never felt right after the war in “Notes,” and to hang himself in a YMCA . While Bowker bears his psychological burdens alone, O’Brien shares the things he carries, his war stories, with us. His collection of stories asks us to help carry the burden of the Vietnam War as part of our collective past.

Fear of Shame as Motivation

O’Brien’s personal experience shows that the fear of being shamed before one’s peers is a powerful motivating factor in war. His story “On the Rainy River” explains his moral quandary after receiving his draft notice—he does not want to fight in a war he believes is unjust, but he does not want to be thought a coward. What keeps O’Brien from fleeing into Canada is not patriotism or dedication to his country’s cause—the traditional motivating factors for fighting in a war—but concern over what his family and community will think of him if he doesn’t fight. This experience is emblematic of the conflict, explored throughout The Things They Carried , between the misguided expectations of a group of people important to a character and that character’s uncertainty regarding a proper course of action.

Fear of shame not only motivates reluctant men to go to Vietnam but also affects soldiers’ relationships with each other once there. Concern about social acceptance, which might seem in the abstract an unimportant preoccupation given the immediacy of death and necessity of group unity during war, leads O’Brien’s characters to engage in absurd or dangerous actions. For example, Curt Lemon decides to have a perfectly good tooth pulled (in “The Dentist”) to ease his shame about having fainted during an earlier encounter with the dentist. The stress of the war, the strangeness of Vietnam, and the youth of the soldiers combine to create psychological dangers that intensify the inherent risks of fighting. Jimmy Cross, who has gone to war only because his friends have, becomes a confused and uncertain leader who endangers the lives of his soldiers. O’Brien uses these characters to show that fear of shame is a misguided but unavoidable motivation for going to war.

Read more about the psychological reasons for going to war in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage .

The Subjection of Truth to Storytelling

By giving the narrator his own name and naming the rest of his characters after the men he actually fought alongside in the Vietnam War, O’Brien blurs the distinction between fact and fiction. The result is that it is impossible to know whether or not any given event in the stories truly happened to O’Brien. He intentionally heightens this impossibility when his characters contradict themselves several times in the collection of stories, rendering the truth of any statement suspect. O’Brien’s aim in blending fact and fiction is to make the point that objective truth of a war story is less relevant than the act of telling a story. O’Brien is attempting not to write a history of the Vietnam War through his stories but rather to explore the ways that speaking about war experience establishes or fails to establish bonds between a soldier and his audience. The technical facts surrounding any individual event are less important than the overarching, subjective truth of what the war meant to soldiers and how it changed them.

The different storytellers in The Things They Carried —Rat Kiley and Mitchell Sanders especially, in addition to O’Brien—work to lay out war’s ugly truths, which are so profound that they require neither facts nor long explanations. Such statements as “This is true,” which opens “How to Tell a True War Story,” do not establish that the events recounted in the story actually occurred. Rather, they indicate that the stylistic and thematic content of the story is true to the experience that the soldiers had in the war. This truth is often ugly, in contrast to the ideas of glory and heroism associated with war before Vietnam. In O’Brien’s “true” war story, Kiley writes to Lemon’s sister, and when she never responds, he calls her a “dumb cooze,” only adding to the ugliness of the story. O’Brien’s declaration that the truest part of this story is that it contains no moral underscores the idea that the purpose of stories is to relate the truth of experience, not to manufacture false emotions in their audiences.

The Power of Friendship

In a grim and violent book, one gentler theme is the importance of friendship in life. The men of the platoon bicker and tease each other, but more often provide support and understanding in a way no one else can. When the character of Tim struggles to understand how he came to commit murder in “The Man I Killed,” Kiowa gently guides him through his despair, saying, “You feel terrible, I know that.” After the war is over, characters still provide friendship and understanding to each other, as when Lt. Cross tells Tim to write about them, or when Norman writes Tim a long letter about his work. Tim’s friendship with his daughter, who tries to understand what he’s been through, is another reinforcement of this theme.

The Pointlessness of War

The characters of the platoon are repeatedly shown to have no real understanding of why they’re being sent on any particular mission, nor how their actions fundamentally change the conflict in which they’re embroiled. Lt. Cross calls in air support after a member of the platoon dies, and a village is heavily bombed. Tim kills a man who posed no real threat to him. Mary Anne is corrupted by the war, becomes a killer, and disappears into the jungle. There’s never any point or result to these actions. The war grinds on, and the men either survive or are ground up with it. They never speak of the rationale for the war, and when one of the men shoots his own foot to get sent home, they do not judge him because they know the war is pointless.

Death’s Power

In “The Lives of the Dead,” Tim remembers having to collect the bodies of 27 enemy combatants, after which his friend Mitchell tells him, “Death sucks.” Over and over in the stories, the horror of death – its inevitability, violence and unexpectedness – is depicted, particularly in the violent ways Ted Lavender, Dave Jensen and Kiowa die. Yet O’Brien concludes the book with his realization that remembering the dead by telling their stories allows them to very briefly be alive once more. Writing about people who have died, the book implies, is the only way to conquer death.

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The Things They Carried

Tim o’brien, everything you need for every book you read..

Mortality and Death Theme Icon

Mortality and Death

The threat, even expectation, of death hangs over all of the soldiers in The Things They Carried . Even before he reaches Vietnam, Tim O'Brien (both the author of the collection and the frequent first person narrator) meditates on the inevitability of his death after he is drafted in "On The Rainy River," and considers dodging the draft and fleeing to Canada. The collection is haunted by the deaths of O'Brien's comrades—Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon…

Mortality and Death Theme Icon

Social Obligation

In The Things They Carried , O'Brien often focuses on how the men in his stories, even if they volunteered to fight, joined the army because of the unspoken pressure to fulfill their obligations as citizens and soldiers. These social obligations range from that of wider society (government, city/town) and narrows to the nuclear (family, friends, personal reflection). After being drafted in "On the Rainy River," Tim O'Brien runs from his hometown and ends up…

Social Obligation Theme Icon

Within the stories in The Things They Carried the characters tell many stories to each other, and the question always asked of the storyteller is "What's the moral?" In "How to Tell a True War Story," Mitchell Sanders tells O'Brien about a company who has to lie dormant and watchful in the pitch-blackness over a village. They begin to have auditory hallucinations: champagne glasses clinking, music playing, a full chamber orchestra. They aren't supposed to…

Morality Theme Icon

Storytelling and Memory

Storytelling in The Things They Carried operates on multiple levels: at the level of the book itself, the stories within stories, and the reflections on the value of these stories both in the context of the war and then post-war. "The Lives of the Dead" speaks to O'Brien's belief that stories have the power to give an entire life to those who have passed on. He refers to his childhood love Linda who passed away…

Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon

Shame and Guilt

Shame and guilt are constant and often inextricable themes in The Things They Carried . Soldiers felt obligated to go to war for fear of embarrassing themselves, their families, and their towns if they fled. This embarrassment is bolstered by the guilt of not being "masculine" enough—not being brave, heroic, and patriotic enough. O'Brien reflects on how he thought he had a secret reserve of bravery and heroism stored away, waiting for the moment when…

Shame and Guilt Theme Icon

The Things They Carried Themes

"The Things They Carried" Themes

theme statements in the things they carried

"The Things They Carried" is a compelling collection of short stories that provides a unique perspective on the experiences of soldiers during the Vietnam War. Written by Tim O'Brien and based loosely on his own experiences, this book is known for its grim yet fascinating portrayal of individual soldiers during wartime.

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Now, let's get into the themes of The Things They Carried.

The book is written interestingly, with Tim O'Brien being both the protagonist, primary narrator, as well as writer. Though many of the stories are based on his own experiences during the Vietnam war, the book is a work of fiction. In the book, he speaks about the difference between happening-truth and story-truth. He believes that sometimes story-truth is more important than happening-truth (what actually happened) because story-truth can better express how somebody actually feels in the moment compared to just a dry recounting of the facts. The story is full of slight contradictions like different characters getting the names of places mixed up or relating events in slightly different ways, showing the subjective nature of truth and highlighting the importance of story-truth versus happening-truth. 

Guilt is an important The Things They Carried theme. Many of the young soldiers signed up for war because they would have felt guilty of not being manly if they tried to avoid it. Survivor's guilt is a complicated emotion for the troops to deal with after the death of Kiowa. Norman Bowker eventually commits suicide after the war because he feels guilty that he could not save Kiowa. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and Tim O'Brien both find ways of blaming themselves. Every soldier feels the guilt of not being able to save his comrades and some even feel guilty for killing the enemy once they see the humanity in them. If you need to do more profound research on this theme, you can try to hire a writer for an essay and get your paper done by real pros.

Acceptance is another major The Things They Carried theme. Many of the young men came to war expecting glory, but soon realize that the only important thing is survival. Courage soon gives way to constant fear, and the act of killing someone is emotionally traumatic. Many are unable to accept the death of comrades and take drastic measures to escape the war. When Tim O'Brien visits his squadmates after the war, many are still unable to accept the things they did and have found it difficult to fit into civilian life. The ones that are the happiest are those that were able to accept what they saw, what happened to them, and what they had to do.

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Collective Identity

There are many situations when an individual has to give up his concept of self-protection for the benefit of the group. This is particularly evident in a war when soldiers must trust their comrades completely and at times may have to sacrifice for the group. When Ted Lavender is killed, the Army says Alpha Company has one casualty because referring to the collective is less emotional than referring to an individual. The story does a great job of showing the cohesiveness of the group but also highlighting the individual thoughts and experiences of individual members. They all share the load of the group but they all carry specific things that are unique to their histories, personalities, and stories.

As with many war stories, courage is one of the main The Things They Carried themes. The book speaks not just of the courage required to be in a war but also of the courage required to sign up for war. In a hyper-masculine society, war is seen as the manliest thing to do, but the young soldiers that end up fighting experience fear like they never have before. The constant threat of death makes people fear the smallest noises. Typically macho men like Curt Lemon end up being viewed as absurd caricatures rather than real people. 

As a group of young men, roughly around the age of 20 and many being younger, love and sex are important considerations. Many men have sweethearts back home that they think and obsess over. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross believes that his obsession with Martha causes the death of  Lavender, and has to learn to shift focus away from love while at war. On the other hand, Mark Fossie brings his girlfriend to visit, but she gets seduced by the violence of Vietnam and ends up running off to become a vigilante. Love sustained many of the soldiers but also created problems for a lot of them.

The Things They Carried Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

In this activity, activity overview, template and class instructions, more storyboard that activities.

  • This Activity is Part of Many Teacher Guides

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in The Things They Carried

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes to Look For and Discuss

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

The Burdens We All Carry

The primary theme in the novel The Things They Carried is the burdens we all carry. The first chapter of the novel is dedicated to the physical and emotional burdens the men carried with them as they marched: the guns, the gear, the photos, the letters, the hope, the fear, the memories, and the guilt. Some of these things create a physical burden that must be borne; for some men, the emotional burdens weigh more than the gear. For instance, Lieutenant Cross feels responsible for thinking about his love for Martha rather than ensuring his men's’ safety; when Ted Lavender is killed by a sniper, Lieutenant Cross carries that guilt with him, and rips up and burns all of Martha’s letters.

Story-Truth vs. Happening-Truth

Another important theme is the exploration of the relationship between story-truth and happening-truth. O’Brien analyzes the different facets of a true war story in his chapter, “How To Tell A True War Story”. A true war story “cannot be believed… Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.” O’Brien’s stories often present one story, or linear idea, and then he’ll contradict it later. He’ll change names and places, but he’ll also combine experiences and admit that sometimes the “pictures get jumbled.” This does not make the story any less true, however; a true story is not always about memory. It’s about emotion. Emotional truth is truer than memory. O’Brien’s stories may not always stick to the details, but they convey the same feeling and the same themes, which is a higher truth to him and other soldiers. He writes, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

There’s the obvious guilt that the men carry from their mistakes, the people they’ve killed, from chances not taken, and opportunities squandered. There’s also another kind of guilt, which Norman Bowker writes about in a letter to O’Brien. Bowker expresses his frustration that he shouldn’t have anything to complain about: he lived, he made it home, he’s in safety and security again. Yet, he can’t hold a job, he doesn’t feel normal, and he can’t understand it. Many soldiers return home and suddenly find themselves wishing they were back at war, where life is actually much more simple. After reading his letter, O’Brien feels guilt that he never experienced the haunting ghosts that debilitated Bowker and others, but then realizes that he found a sort of catharsis through his writing. His writing allows him to express his guilt about his mistakes and choices, and the things he had seen.

Another theme that the novel examines is acceptance. O’Brien uses his writing to accept his own experiences, and to explore the different kinds of truth that he knows exist. Throughout the novel, the men come to accept the realities of their situation: the duties they must perform; the deaths of Kiowa, Curt Lemon, and Ted Lavender; the acceptance of their roles in the unit; the acceptance of the fight; the acceptance that even in war, there is beauty, too. Rat Kiley comes to accept his best friend Curt Lemon’s death by shooting a baby buffalo, and then is unable to accept the war anymore and shoots himself in the foot. When they return home, Bowker is unable to accept his new role as a civilian and hangs himself; Ted Lavender accepts his realities by taking tranquilizers until he is shot. The men all cope and accept their new situations in different ways. O’Brien’s stories attempt to bring acceptance to their war story, the collective story-truths that also includes the happening-truths and exist in one, cohesive universe in their minds.

Motifs, Imagery & Symbols

An important recurring motif in The Things They Carried is O’Brien’s discussion about the purpose of stories. He talks about how telling his stories is not necessarily therapy for him, but it is cathartic. He says that telling war stories makes them come out from the past and into the present, and their purpose is to join the past to the future. He analyzes his penchant for continually telling stories so many years after the war as a 43-year-old man, when his daughter Kathleen calls him on it. He supposes that he should probably write about something else, but at the same time, he sees the importance of the stories - it keeps his memories, his friends, and even his mistakes alive.

The Man I Killed

An important recurring symbol is the young Vietnamese man that O’Brien may or may not have killed. This fits with O’Brien’s musings that every soldier carries a burden from war. For O’Brien, this man seems to be one of the bigger things that he still carries. O’Brien describes the man in grotesque detail after he killed him, but then he speculates about who the man was before, and some of the biographical details seem to line up with O’Brien’s own life. He makes a connection with the man, even though he is unclear as to whether or not he did kill him. Regardless, the man is a ghost in the stories that O’Brien is clearly still struggling to cope with.

The Field Where Kiowa Dies

Another important symbol is the field where Kiowa dies. In the most pleasant of terms, it is a field full of swampy waste: “the village toilet”. The men settle in near it and the field is attacked during the night. Norman Bowker tells about going towards a screaming Kiowa, but when he gets to him, he’s already underneath the muck. He sinks into it and Bowker lets go of his boot, because he can feel himself sliding under, too. Bowker says that he could have won the Silver Star if it hadn’t been for the smell. Later, O’Brien reveals that it wasn’t Bowker who lost his nerve and the Silver Star that night; it was him. Later, O’Brien goes to visit the field with his daughter, Kathleen. It is clear that Kiowa’s death still weighs on him.

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Activity", update the instructions on the Edit Tab of the assignment.)

Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in The Things They Carried . Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.

  • Click "Start Assignment".
  • Identify the theme(s) from The Things They Carried you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  • Create an image for examples that represent this theme.
  • Write a description of each of the examples.

Themes in Literature

Lesson Plan Reference

Grade Level 9-10

Difficulty Level 3 (Developing to Mastery)

Type of Assignment Individual or Partner

Type of Activity: Themes, Symbols & Motifs

  • [ELA-Literacy/RL/9-10/3] Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme
  • [ELA-Literacy/RL/9-10/5] Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise
  • [ELA-Literacy/SL/9-10/2] Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source

(You can also create your own on Quick Rubric .)

Things They Carried, The

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - Characters

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The Things They Carried

By tim o'brien, the things they carried themes.

Courage and the cult of manhood are familiar themes from earlier war novels and stories, but O'Brien turns the concept completely on its head. In "On a Rainy River," he describes how he forced himself into the "courageous" act of going to war through shaming himself by imagining what others would think of him if he did not go. Once in Vietnam, the idea of courage becomes laughable. Everyone jumps at the slightest noise, everyone fears for their life. Macho characters like Curt Lemon seem absurd to O'Brien, because O'Brien believes no one is actually courageous. It is a physical impossibility.

Sexual Longing

The Vietnam War was mostly a man's war, and this book is populated mostly by men. But the adolescent soldiers are obsessed by sex, and miss their virgin girlfriends desperately. The one soldier who ships in his girlfriend sees the relationship go horribly sour, so he is sexually frustrated, too. Yet the promise of women is always in the air; one of the draws of going to Japan are the cute nurses there. In fact, nurses are the ultimate sex symbol, because they are one of the few sexual outlets open to the men. But they are scarce, and sexual longing becomes just another source of tension.

The single uniting theme of this book lies in the burdens that soldiers bear, both physical and emotional. The title points this out, and most of the stories -- in one way or another -- are about burdens the war forces upon the soldiers. The burdens almost always seem too much for them to carry. Jimmy Cross is responsible for the lives of all of his soldiers, but he is unable to keep all of them alive. The soldiers carry drugs and lucky pantyhose and Bibles but most of these fail to keep them safe. Many of their burdens seem primal, almost biblical. "Well, that's Nam," says one character. "Garden of Evil. Over here, man, every sin's real fresh and original" (76). Part of the reason the burdens seem unbearable, the evil so fresh, is that the men are so young. They have many more years to carry the same burdens. Tim O'Brien must carry the burden of having killed a man for the rest of his life.


Religion is something some of the soldiers carry around with them, like a talisman that may have the ability to save them. But the most religious character, Kiowa , ends up dead, face-down in a shit field. Similarly horrific things happen to the non-religious, too. War and death seem to make no distinction. The value of religion seems not to be preservative, but rather as an indicator of how decent the men may be while still alive. Especially in “Church,” the two most decent men turn out to be the company’s two most religious men: Henry Dobbins and Kiowa. As for superstitions, most of the soldiers believe in them. O’Brien writes that it was difficult not to be superstitious in a country as "spooky" as Vietnam. The superstitions give the soldiers some illusion of control. By adhering to certain traditions they think they can control their own fates. This, like the promise of religion in the book, turns out to be an illusion.

The Vietnam War was the least popular war of all time among the American public. But it was also deeply unpopular among the soldiers themselves, most of whom were drafted. More than 50 percent of troops engaged in active disobedience, much politically motivated. Discontent is threaded through O’Brien’s account of the war, although his comrades don’t seem particularly political. Instead, they are escapist. They play checkers, they smoke dope, they watch movies, and they masturbate to Jane Fonda. They will do anything to take their mind off war. The very premise of The Things They Carried involves the the things the soldiers are forced to carry, many against their will, as well as the small talismans or entertainments the soldiers hang onto to engage in escapism from a terrible situation. For O’Brien, writing is a form of escapism. As he writes in the last story in the book, he thinks and hopes that through this particular form of escape he can make the impossible happen. In this form of escape he can make the dead live again.

The Vietnam War both defiles and preserves the innocence of those who participate. Most of the men at war are young, not yet twenty. Many have peachy skin and blonde hair. But O'Brien is relentless about pointing out that although they are young and innocent, they are killers. They kill on command, which makes their crimes seem somehow mitigated. But there is also the sense that they are in a primordial jungle of sorts and are somehow inventing evil anew each day. Perhaps the clearest parable of the loss of innocence is the story "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong", in which a young blonde soldier's girlfriend is brought over from America only to become intoxicated with Vietnam and become a killer.

In the quagmire of an incomprehensible war, one imperative is clear-cut: revenge. Revenge is not trained on the enemy. The soldiers have little to no sense of what the enemy has done “wrong.” So they wreak revenge on one another. The central motivation of “Enemies” is the standoff between two friends, one of whom seeks physical revenge. Revenge seems to be one of the few emotions other than shame that drive the young O’Brien when he is a soldier. “The Ghost Soldiers” is all about the revenge O’Brien wreaks on a young medic who he thinks didn’t treat him in time when he was wounded. (One of the most gripping qualities of the book is the narrator’s honesty about his own shortcomings.) His greed for revenge is fueled by an unattractive sense of his own worth. It blinds him, distorts his morals, and makes him temporarily seem a monster in the reader’s eyes. But he does not flinch at recalling his actions, nor does he decline to tell them to the reader.

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The Things They Carried Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for The Things They Carried is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

what ultimately is the power of storytelling?

Clearly O'Brien wants readers to wrestle with the distinctions between fact and fiction. What matters for him, as he explained at a conference on the literature of the Vietnam War, is the "power of stories, whether they're true, or embellished,...

Why does he continue to tell stories about the Vietnam  War, about Linda?  

Linda was his first love. Talking about her makes her real again.... it brings her back to life.... and it makes her immortal.

All of the following words in the first three sentences should be taken at face-value except

First three sentences of.....?

Study Guide for The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried study guide contains a biography of Tim O'Brien, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

  • About The Things They Carried
  • The Things They Carried Summary
  • Character List

Essays for The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.

  • Rationalizing the Fear Within
  • Physical and Psychological Burdens
  • Role of Kathleen and Linda in The Things They Carried
  • Let’s Communicate: It’s Not About War
  • Turning Over a New Leaf: Facing the Pressures of Society

Lesson Plan for The Things They Carried

  • About the Author
  • Study Objectives
  • Common Core Standards
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Home — Guides — The Things They Carried — Unveiling the Themes of The Things They Carried: A Comprehensive Study

by Tim O'Brien

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  • Lt. Jimmy Cross
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The Things They Carried: Themes

Table of contents.


In Tim O’Brien’s novel “The Things They Carried,” the theme of war is explored extensively, delving into its profound impact on individuals, their experiences, and the larger human condition. Through a collection of interconnected stories, O’Brien presents a multifaceted exploration of war that goes beyond mere descriptions of combat and delves into its psychological, emotional, and moral dimensions.

One of the central aspects of the theme of war in the novel is its dehumanizing effect. O’Brien depicts the soldiers’ struggle to maintain their sense of humanity in the face of violence, trauma, and loss. The weight of the physical and emotional burdens they carry becomes a metaphor for the toll that war takes on their humanity. The constant presence of death and the moral ambiguity of their actions challenge their moral compasses and force them to confront their own vulnerability and mortality.

The theme of war is also explored through the lens of storytelling and the power of narratives. O’Brien reflects on the nature of truth and fiction, blurring the line between reality and imagination. He emphasizes the role of storytelling in shaping and preserving individual and collective memories of war. Through his narratives, O’Brien highlights the subjective nature of truth and the power of stories to convey the complex and layered experiences of war.

Another significant aspect of the theme of war in the novel is the portrayal of the soldiers’ relationships with one another. O’Brien examines the camaraderie, loyalty, and brotherhood that develop among the soldiers as they navigate the horrors of war together. These relationships become a source of support and survival in the midst of chaos and uncertainty. However, the destructive and divisive nature of war is also evident in the conflicts, tensions, and betrayals that arise within the ranks.

Furthermore, the theme of war in the novel extends beyond the physical battlefield and encompasses the psychological and emotional landscapes of the characters. O’Brien explores the trauma, guilt, and post-war experiences of the soldiers, delving into the long-lasting effects of war on their psyche. The characters grapple with the haunting memories and emotional scars that continue to shape their lives long after the war is over.

Ultimately, the theme of war in “The Things They Carried” goes beyond a simple depiction of combat. It delves into the complexities of human experience, the fragility of life, the moral dilemmas faced by individuals in extreme circumstances, and the lasting impact of war on both individuals and society as a whole.

In conclusion, Tim O’Brien’s novel “The Things They Carried” explores the theme of war through a nuanced and layered portrayal of the soldiers’ experiences. Through its examination of the dehumanizing effects of war, the power of storytelling, the dynamics of relationships, and the psychological and emotional aftermath, the novel offers a profound exploration of the profound impact of war on individuals and the human condition. It serves as a testament to the enduring significance and complexity of war as a theme in literature and in our understanding of human existence.


The theme of burden is one of the key themes in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. It is a recurring motif that symbolizes the physical, emotional, and psychological weight carried by the soldiers during the Vietnam War. Through vivid descriptions and powerful storytelling, O’Brien explores the burdens that the characters carry and the profound impact these burdens have on their lives and identities.

One of the primary aspects of the theme of burden in the novel is the physical weight carried by the soldiers. O’Brien meticulously details the gear, weapons, and supplies that the soldiers lug around, emphasizing the sheer physical strain and exhaustion they endure. The heavy equipment becomes a tangible representation of the burdens imposed on them by their duty and the war itself. O’Brien describes the weight of the equipment in great detail, highlighting how it restricts movement, causes pain, and becomes a constant reminder of their responsibility and the ever-present threat of danger.

Beyond the physical weight, the theme of burden also encompasses the emotional and psychological burdens carried by the soldiers. O’Brien explores the trauma, guilt, and fear that weigh heavily on their minds and hearts. The soldiers are burdened by the memories of lost comrades, the moral dilemmas they face, and the atrocities they witness and participate in. These emotional burdens shape their experiences and contribute to the erosion of their innocence and sense of self.

Furthermore, the theme of burden extends beyond the individual soldiers to encompass the collective burdens of war. The soldiers bear the weight of societal expectations, patriotic duty, and the legacy of previous conflicts. They carry the burdens of the past and the present, feeling the weight of history on their shoulders. O’Brien also explores the burden of memory and the responsibility to remember and honor the fallen, which further adds to the emotional weight carried by the characters.

The theme of burden in the novel also raises questions about the purpose and meaning behind the soldiers’ sacrifices. O’Brien delves into the existential burden of war, examining the futility and ambiguity of their mission. The soldiers question the worthiness of their sacrifices and the ultimate purpose of the war, adding to the burdens they carry. The theme of burden becomes intertwined with themes of moral ambiguity, existential crisis, and the search for meaning in the face of overwhelming adversity.

However, despite the overwhelming weight of their burdens, O’Brien also explores the potential for resilience and growth. The characters find moments of solace, connection, and even beauty amidst the burdens. They rely on each other for support and create bonds that help alleviate the weight they carry. Through acts of camaraderie, storytelling, and shared experiences, the soldiers find moments of reprieve from their burdens, demonstrating the human capacity for resilience in the face of adversity.

In conclusion, the theme of burden in “The Things They Carried” permeates the novel, symbolizing the physical, emotional, and psychological weight carried by the soldiers during the Vietnam War. Through vivid descriptions and powerful storytelling, Tim O’Brien explores the physical strain, emotional turmoil, and existential crisis faced by the characters. The theme of burden highlights the profound impact of war on the individuals involved and raises questions about the purpose and meaning behind their sacrifices. Despite the weight they carry, the characters also find moments of resilience and connection, demonstrating the human capacity to endure and find meaning amidst the burdens of war.


In Tim O’Brien’s novel “The Things They Carried,” the theme of guilt is a pervasive and complex motif that explores the moral and emotional burdens experienced by the soldiers during the Vietnam War. Through various narratives and introspective reflections, O’Brien delves into the profound impact of guilt on the characters’ lives, identities, and sense of self.

Guilt manifests in multiple forms throughout the novel, stemming from a range of experiences and actions. One prominent source of guilt is the soldiers’ participation in the war itself. They grapple with the ethical dilemma of taking part in a conflict that they often perceive as unjust or morally ambiguous. This guilt stems from the sense of personal responsibility they feel for the violence and suffering they witness or inflict upon others. The characters constantly question their actions and the consequences of their choices, bearing the weight of guilt for their involvement in the war.

The theme of guilt is also intricately tied to the loss of life and the deaths of fellow soldiers. The characters carry the guilt of survivor’s guilt, feeling remorse for being the ones who have survived while their comrades have perished. They question why they have been spared and grapple with feelings of unworthiness and a deep sense of loss. The guilt they feel for the deaths of others is compounded by their inability to prevent or save them, leaving lasting emotional scars.

O’Brien explores guilt through individual character arcs as well. For instance, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross experiences guilt for his preoccupation with love and Martha, which he believes distracted him from his responsibilities as a leader. He carries the guilt of feeling responsible for the death of Ted Lavender, as he believes his inattention and distraction contributed to the tragedy. The weight of this guilt transforms Cross’s character, leading to self-reflection and a heightened sense of duty.

Norman Bowker is another character profoundly affected by guilt. He carries the burden of guilt for the death of Kiowa, feeling that he could have saved him but failed to act. This guilt consumes him, leading to a sense of emptiness and purposelessness upon his return from war. Bowker’s inability to reconcile his guilt eventually drives him to a tragic end, highlighting the destructive power of unresolved guilt.

The theme of guilt is also explored through the narrative device of storytelling. O’Brien suggests that storytelling can be a means for the characters to confront and alleviate their guilt. Through storytelling, they attempt to make sense of their experiences and find solace in sharing their burdens with others. The act of narrating their stories becomes a form of catharsis, allowing them to grapple with their guilt and seek some form of redemption or understanding.

Furthermore, O’Brien portrays the complex nature of guilt by highlighting its irrational and enduring quality. The characters often carry guilt for actions or decisions that were beyond their control, or for incidents that may have been unavoidable in the chaotic reality of war. This portrayal of guilt challenges simplistic notions of moral responsibility and underscores the psychological toll it takes on the characters.

In conclusion, the theme of guilt in “The Things They Carried” is a powerful and pervasive motif that explores the moral and emotional burdens experienced by the soldiers in the Vietnam War. Tim O’Brien delves into the multifaceted nature of guilt, depicting its various sources, impacts, and consequences. The characters grapple with guilt related to their participation in the war, the loss of comrades, and personal actions or decisions. O’Brien illustrates the destructive power of unresolved guilt and the ways in which storytelling can provide a means of confronting and alleviating guilt. Through the theme of guilt, the novel delves into the complex moral and psychological dimensions of the characters’ wartime experiences, highlighting the enduring effects of guilt on their lives and identities.


In Tim O’Brien’s novel “The Things They Carried,” the theme of memories plays a central role in exploring the profound impact of war on the characters’ lives and identities. Through vivid recollections, fragmented narratives, and introspective reflections, O’Brien highlights the significance of memories as a means of processing trauma, constructing personal narratives, and preserving the humanity of the soldiers.

One aspect of the theme of memories is the power of memory to shape personal narratives and individual identities. The characters in the novel often rely on memories to construct their sense of self and make sense of their experiences. The memories they carry with them become a part of their identity, defining who they are and how they view themselves in the context of the war. For example, the protagonist and narrator, Tim O’Brien, uses memories as a way to piece together his story and make sense of his past. Memories become a tool for self-reflection and self-examination, allowing the characters to confront their fears, regrets, and traumas.

Moreover, memories serve as a means of preserving the humanity and individuality of the soldiers amidst the dehumanizing and chaotic environment of war. The characters often cling to memories of home, loved ones, and peaceful moments as a way to retain their sense of self and anchor themselves to their humanity. Memories become a source of comfort and solace, offering respite from the harsh realities of war. They serve as a lifeline, reminding the characters of their connections to the world beyond the battlefield.

The theme of memories also highlights the subjective and unreliable nature of recollection. O’Brien acknowledges that memories can be fragmented, distorted, and influenced by the passage of time. He blurs the line between fact and fiction, emphasizing that memories are not always accurate representations of reality. This blurring of memory and imagination underscores the challenges of narrating and understanding the complexities of war. The characters’ memories are often colored by their emotions, fears, and biases, highlighting the subjective nature of their experiences.

Furthermore, the theme of memories explores the ways in which traumatic experiences can haunt and shape the characters long after the war has ended. The memories of war become burdensome and inescapable, persisting in the characters’ minds and affecting their daily lives. O’Brien depicts how memories can resurface unexpectedly, triggering intense emotions and forcing the characters to confront their trauma. The characters carry the weight of their memories with them, as they struggle to reconcile their past with their present.

In conclusion, the theme of memories in “The Things They Carried” showcases the profound impact of war on the characters’ lives and identities. Memories serve as a means of constructing personal narratives, preserving humanity, and processing trauma. The characters rely on memories to make sense of their experiences, and memories become an integral part of their identity. The theme also emphasizes the subjective and unreliable nature of recollection, blurring the line between fact and fiction. Additionally, the theme explores how traumatic memories persist and continue to affect the characters long after the war has ended. Through the theme of memories, O’Brien offers a profound exploration of the power and significance of remembering in the face of war and its aftermath.


The theme of death permeates Tim O’Brien’s novel, “The Things They Carried,” presenting a haunting and unyielding presence throughout the narrative. Through vivid descriptions and poignant storytelling, O’Brien explores the multifaceted aspects of death and its profound impact on the soldiers in the Vietnam War.

Death in the novel is portrayed as a constant companion to the soldiers, lurking in the shadows and shaping their every move. O’Brien vividly depicts the physical and emotional weight carried by the soldiers, both in the literal sense with their equipment and in the metaphorical sense with the burden of death. The characters carry not only their own mortality but also the deaths of their comrades, constantly grappling with the fragility of life and the inevitability of death.

One of the ways O’Brien explores the theme of death is through the portrayal of the soldiers’ fear and anxiety. The fear of death is ever-present, leading to a constant state of alertness and paranoia. O’Brien describes the soldiers’ heightened senses, their constant scanning of the environment, and their hypervigilance as they try to anticipate and avoid the threat of death. This fear creates a sense of vulnerability and powerlessness, highlighting the harsh reality of war and its potential for indiscriminate destruction.

Moreover, O’Brien delves into the psychological and emotional toll of death on the soldiers. He explores the survivor’s guilt that plagues many of the characters, as they grapple with the deaths of their comrades and question their own worthiness to have survived. Death becomes a specter haunting their thoughts, fueling their memories and shaping their identities long after the war has ended. The soldiers are haunted by the faces and names of the dead, burdened by the weight of their absence.

O’Brien also delves into the ambiguity and blurred lines surrounding death in war. The soldiers often witness death in brutal and senseless forms, challenging their beliefs and moral compass. They are confronted with the complexities of killing and the dehumanization that war necessitates. O’Brien explores the psychological effects of taking a life and the lingering trauma it leaves behind, further emphasizing the profound impact of death on the soldiers’ psyche.

In conclusion, death is one of the central and pervasive themes of “The Things They Carried .” Tim O’Brien skillfully portrays the fear, psychological turmoil, and moral dilemmas associated with death in the context of war. Through his evocative storytelling, he captures the heavy burden of mortality carried by the soldiers and the lasting impact of death on their lives. The theme of death serves as a poignant reminder of the sacrifices and the profound human cost of war.

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Introduction see all, summary see all.

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