Introduction: The year is 1968 and severity of the Vietnam War has taken its toll on the United States. Men from all over the united states were being drafted to fight for their country in a land that very few knew of. One such man received his draft notice in June of 1968, and his feelings of confusion drove him to the Canadian border, he thinks of crossing the border so that he will not be forced to fight in a war. Sitting in a rowboat, he goes into deep thought about his future, where he decides that his guilt about avoiding the war and fear of disappointing his family are more important than his political views. He decides to go back home to Worthington, Minnesota and later is shipped out to Vietnam where he is placed in Alpha Company. While in Vietnam, he encounters tremendous dangers and the death of his friends.
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Definition of Terms: Tim O’Brien was born October 1946 in Austin, Minnesota. O’Brien lived in the small town of Worthington, Minnesota that had a large influence on O’Brien’s imagination and early development as an author. He was never very fond of the war in Vietnam and was thinking about crossing the border to avoid the draft but as you read in the story his fear of disappointing his family drove him to join the draft. Ironically, O’Brien resents growing up in that town after serving saying that”a town that congratulates itself, day after day, on its own ignorance of the world: a town that got us into Vietnam. Uh, the people in that town sent me to that war, you know, couldn’t spell the word ‘Hanoi’ if you spotted them three vowels”(Vernon 24). O’Brien writes and resides in Central Texas with family and teaches full time at Texas State College. He leaves us with these words “Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead” (Vernon 10).
A symbol is “an object or action in a literary work that means more than itself stands for something beyond itself” (DiYanni 2003). Symbolism has a crucial role throughout the book. It gives the reader vivid depictions of the horrors of fighting in war and how the men cope with it. They symbols are crucial for the understanding of the story and need to be analyzed. One needs to understand the symbols to grasp the meaning behind them and to understand the story.
Review of the Literature: The primary source used is the novel The Things they Carried, by Tim O’Brien. In addition to the novel, two biographies on O’Brien will be used to help get a deep perspective on Tim O’Brien’s life, his prospective on the war, and his ideas. A literary critique of The Things They Carried will review and further analyze the ideas in symbols in the story. A literature reference book will give accurate definition of symbolism and explain why symbolism is used in The Things They Carried.
Methodology: Many people view the Vietnam War as an enormous success or failure, consequently there is ample information involving the conflict. The analysis of all these sources, will give the reader a grasp on the symbols used in the novel. The concepts and ideas used throughout the novel be identified with and understood.
Analysis: The Things Carried by Tim O’Brien is a complex story about his experiences in Vietnam with Alpha Company. The theme of the story is developed through recurring symbols that illustrate the horrors of war and what the men had to go through. The Story begins years after the end of the war, when Jimmy Cross goes to visit Tim O’Brien at his home in Massachusetts. They begin to reminisce and talk about the guys and the events that happened. As O’Brien is walking Cross to his car he asks him if he can write about what happened to them over there and the stories of the men.
O’Brien begins to write about the men in Alpha Company and their stories he starts story off by listing all of the physical objects that the members of the Alpha Company carry with them in Vietnam. They use all their personal objects as a way to lessen the emotional burdens that war brings upon soldiers bear. Many of the men have to handle the burden of tension between reality and fantasy as young men in a combat zone. Cross-believes his obsession with Martha and the life they might lead after the war, led to his men’s death. He cannot let go of Ted Lavender’s death and blames himself for it. His inner conflict with love and the war make his situation very difficult. The death of Ted is a symbol of inner conflict that Cross can never let it go. It will eat away at him forever. It displays how men in combat are life family, it hurts them just as if a real family member was to be killed.
Lt. Crosses love story about a women named Martha. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries reminders of his love for Martha. He met a girl in college in New Jersey who has given him no indication of her love for him. He carries her letters in his backpack and her good-luck charm on him at all times. After a long day, he takes out letters and reminisces the good times they had together before he left for the war. Though the letters are signed “Love, Martha” Lt. Cross knows that this is nothing more than a kind gesture. He begins to wonder if Martha is still single and if she is thinking about him at that moment. He carries a picture of her playing volleyball closer to his heart to hold on to the memories. The item Lt. Cross carries with him is love of Martha and his dreams that he can one day have a family with Martha. Henry Dobbins’s carries his girlfriend’s stockings, which he ties around his neck, to keep him from harm. He rationalizes wearing the stockings because their smell and feel remind him of his girlfriend and of a safer world that awaits him once he gets home. When the war ended and the soldiers returned home, soldiers realized that that their dreams were not always what they wanted. He puts his faith in his love for Martha because he has little faith in the war and that it gives him comfort.
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O’Brien goes on to talk about the burden he was carrying all throughout the war. When he was drafted by the military, he strong opposed to the war. When he receives the notice in the mail, he believes he is too good to fight in the war. O’Brien said “I’d come to this war a quiet, thoughtful sort of person, a college grad, Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, all the credentials”, but did not understand why a well educated man had to fight in this war (â€¦â€¦â€¦.). His town begins to pressure him to go but he decides to run to Canada. On his way to Canada, he feels that he will lose the respect of his family and community and returns home to be shipped off to Vietnam. O’Brien feels guilty about going to Vietnam against his principles. He questions his own motives and comes to realize that war is not just for poor men. Throughout the story he carries the guilt of having some of his best friends be from low income families and that he was wrong on his views of Vietnam and the people fighting for his freedom.
O’Brien was not the only one carrying guilt with him through Vietnam, but the killing of a man he did not know stuck with him forever. He and his company were out on an ambush, while on guard duty he saw a shadowy figure appear in the night carrying a rifle. O’Brien instinctively picked up a hand grenade and threw it. The man dropped his rifle but it was not in time he was blown away by the grenade. He even to that day remembered what the man looked like dead on the ground. “The man’s jaw was in his throat, he says, and his upper lip and teeth were missing. One eye was shut, and the other looked like a star-shaped hole” (â€¦â€¦â€¦â€¦..). His guilt makes him imagining an entire life for the man, from his boyhood and his family. The Characteristics given to the man, “slim, young, dainty man,” (man I killed) helps him cope with his actions and dull the pain he feels for killing him. While trying to hide the pain he slowly torturing himself, by giving the victim all of the same qualities as he, he begins to go into deep thought that it could have been him killed. He also goes into thinking that he did not have to kill him, if he had just sat there quit the man may have just walked right by. He tortures himself more by believing that the man he killed was in the prime of his life and had everything going for him before his death. That he may not make it out of Vietnam alive. This plagues O’Brien throughout the story and it is the fear of every other man in the unit. It was either kill or be killed. He not only has to deal with killing someone but the possibility of him not being able to save one of his friends from death. While in the field Alpha Company puts up camp on a sewage dump unbeknownst to them, the sewage can sink things into it, even people. While there in the sewage swap he and Kiowa are sleeping near each other. O’Brien hears his cries for help and rushes to his aid. He tries to pull Kiowa out of the sinkhole but to no avail, it is just too strong and it is too heavy. Kiowa is lost to the sewage and his body is never found, O’Brien blames himself for not being strong enough to pull him out. He feels guilty that he could have saved him if he had just reached him earlier. He tries to alleviate the pain by talking to Lt. Cross and eventually returning to the spot of Kiowa’s death to try and burry his guilt.
O’Brien was not the only one to feel guilty for the death of a person. Lt Cross had the guilt of the death of his own man hang on his shoulders. He was a young inexperienced commander that had to carry the weight of his soldiers’ actions and make tough decisions on the fly. His idea to make camp on sewage grounds caused the death of one of his men. Cross was more distracted by the loss of his girlfriend’s picture and was negligible of his decision on where to set up camp. He did not even realize where he was, what was going on, he never stoped to think that the orders he was given were wrong, and that for his men’s safety he should move camp to better grounds. He takes full blame for the death of Kiowa’s death he knew that if he had just focused on his men and their well being that Kiowa could be alive today. Lt. Cross tries to alleviate the pain by writing a letter in his head to Kiowa’s father and taking the responsibility for Kiowa’s death.
Conclusion: O’Brien’s use of symbols in the novel really drive home that soldiers live off the tokens they take with them from home. They use them to comfort them and to give them hope of a better future when the war is over. “They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of dishonor. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment” (things they carried). O’Brien gives the reader a feel of what real combat was like in Vietnam without having to be there. It tells how men had to suffer with the guilt of death and how they overcame their fears and survived.
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