The Things They Carried: Characters
Azar is a young soldier who is violent and crude. He likes to say shocking and negative things to get a reaction from others. He acts irresponsibly and likes to play cruel tricks. He straps a mine to Ted Lavender's stray puppy to blow it up and is happy to help O'Brien get revenge on Jorgenson. He excuses himself by saying he is still a kid.
Mary Anne Bell
Mary Anne Bell is the beautiful high school sweetheart of Mark Fossie whom he sends for during the war, so he can live with her (illegally) in a remote outpost. This story is told by Rat Kiley about the influence of Vietnam and night patrol on people. Mary Anne loses interest in a conventional life or marriage and instead embraces the life of the Green Berets going out on missions, becoming a medic, and even doing strange native ceremonies and wearing a necklace of human tongues. She goes wild and eventually disappears into the bush.
Elroy Berdahl is the old man who owned the Tip Top Lodge where O'Brien stayed for a week when he ran away to northern Minnesota in hopes of escaping to Canada to avoid the draft. Berdahl sees Tim is having a crisis and stays with him, taking him fishing, and letting him work out his decision while giving him silent support. O'Brien says the old man saved his life with his kind understanding.
Norman Bowker is a decent man who blames himself for Kiowa's death. He wins several medals for being a good soldier, but because he could not pull Kiowa out of the mud at the Song Tra Bong field, he thinks he failed in his courage. He cannot live with himself after the war and cannot move on at home, feeling invisible and unable to communicate his war stories to his uninterested family and friends. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder with depression and numbness, finally committing suicide by hanging himself with a jump rope at a YMCA.
Lt. Jimmy Cross
Lt. Jimmy Cross is the 24-year-old platoon leader who fails to focus in leading the men because he obsessively fantasizes about a girl back home, Martha. Cross gets lost in his daydreams as a way to cope with the war. He does not feel ready to lead the men in this dangerous terrain. He blames himself for Ted Lavender's death and for Kiowa's death. He mistakenly made his men camp in the field that flooded where Kiowa drowned when they were attacked. Cross alternately weeps over the death of his men and acts indifferent, making excuses. After the war, he tries to get together with Martha, but she has never been in love with him.
Henry Dobbins is a simple-hearted good soldier, a machine gunner, a big man who does his duty and remains kind and gentle despite the war. The Buddhist monks call him “Jesus” because he has a good heart. He is superstitious and wears his girlfriend's pantyhose around his neck for good luck. O'Brien compares him to America, not very bright as far as the war goes, but with good intentions.
Mark Fossie is the soldier in the remote medical detachment in the mountains treating wounded soldiers. He flew in his girlfriend from the United States to live with him during the war, intending to marry her afterward. He is shocked when she changes and wants to live the wild life of a soldier, getting high on combat duty and disappearing into the jungle.
Dave Jensen is one of the less admirable soldiers. He tries to make O'Brien shake hands with a dead Vietnamese when he first arrives and sings “Lemon Tree” when Curt Lemon dies. When Lee Strunk steals his jackknife, Jensen breaks his nose. Afterwards, Jensen becomes paranoid that Strunk will seek revenge and kill him. He feels he is fighting both the Viet Cong and his own men. He breaks his own nose to appease Strunk and then becomes friends with him. The two men make a bargain that if either is crippled in the war, they will perform a mercy killing on the other. Strunk loses his leg, but when he begs Jensen not to kill him, Jensen gladly backs off.
Bobby Jorgensen is the medic who replaces Rat Kiley. He is at first too cowardly to attend to the men under fire, and when O'Brien is hit, he lets him lie in the field too long. When O'Brien recovers, he seeks revenge on Jorgenson. Jorgenson turns out to be a likeable guy, explaining how fear overcame him, and he apologizes. The other men have become friends with Jorgenson and do not want to help O'Brien play a trick on him. Jorgenson good-naturedly takes O'Brien's mean trick and then makes up with him.
Kathleen is O'Brien's young daughter who asks him questions about the war. She observes that her father is obsessed with his war stories. She wants to know if he ever killed a man. He takes her to Vietnam after the war to show her where Kiowa was killed. Kathleen seems unable to imagine why the war took place in the first place. She represents the following generation and the people back home who do not understand the war and are not grateful for the soldiers' sacrifices. Kathleen is a fictional character since O'Brien the author has sons, not a daughter.
Bob “Rat” Kiley
Rat Kiley is the medic of the platoon until he begins to lose his mind with fear and shoots himself in the foot to get out of the war. He is the soldier who was goofing around with Curt Lemon, playing catch with smoke grenades, until Curt was blown up by a mine. In grief, he tortures a baby water buffalo to death. Rat Kiley is the one who likes to exaggerate and tells the story of Mary Anne Bell to the men.
Kiowa is the Native American soldier who carries a Bible and a hatchet. The hatchet is from his grandfather, and the Bible from his father, who is a Baptist teacher. Kiowa is O'Brien's best friend. He is something of a father figure of wisdom and compassion in the platoon. All the men like him for his evenness and reliability. He teaches the men a rain dance. He tries to help O'Brien adjust when he first comes. He is a moral and religious person. His death at the river camp is a main event over which the rest of the men feel extreme grief and blame. Bowker especially feels Kiowa's death as his personal failure and commits suicide after the war because he cannot get over it.
Ted Lavender is a grenadier, so afraid that he takes tranquillizers and smokes dope to make it through the day. He is shot in the head when he goes into the bush to pee. Lt. Cross weeps uncontrollably at his death, feeling responsible.
Curt Lemon tries to act like a tough soldier, but when the dentist comes, he faints with fear. To regain his reputation with the men, he pretends he has a tooth ache and asks the dentist to pull the tooth, which was perfectly good, thus proving he has courage. While playing around with Rat Kiley, he steps on a mine that blows him to bits. O'Brien and Dave Jensen have to climb the trees to get the body parts to put in the bag to send home. Rat Kiley, beside himself with grief, writes a letter to Lemon's sister explaining what a great soldier he was, but she does not write back.
Linda is O'Brien's first childhood love in grade school. He describes how, despite their youth, they really loved one another in a silent and aware way. When she dies of a brain tumor, he is filled with grief. He meets her, however, in his dreams where she tells him not to cry. O'Brien sees his stories like these dreams where he can meet the dead.
Martha is the beautiful athletic girl Lt. Cross is in love with, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. She writes letters to him that he pretends are love letters, but he knows they are not. He fantasizes about their relationship to keep himself going in the war, but when Lavender dies, he burns her letters as penance for not taking care of his men. After the war he finds her, but she is an unmarried Lutheran missionary serving in foreign countries as a nurse and is uninterested in sex or a relationship with him.
Tim O'Brien is the author but also an invented character. He makes it clear that he has imagined many of the things that happened to Tim, such as his killing a Viet Cong man in an ambush. O'Brien has collected these stories of his platoon in the Vietnam war and tries to bring out both the stress of the times and also the humanity of the men and his love for them. Tim shows his character being changed by the war. He becomes angry, vengeful, and full of guilt at the death of Kiowa, his best friend. Later, he brings his daughter to Vietnam to share with her the place where he became a writer. He knows he wrote the stories to save himself from Bowker's fate. He needs people to hear these stories about the war.
Mitchell Sanders is the radio operator of the platoon who cuts off the thumb of a dead Viet Cong soldier and gives it to Norman Bowker as a good luck charm. He likes stories and tells them himself so he lectures Rat Kiley on how he tells his story of Mary Anne Bell, disapproving of his sloppy technique.
Lee Strunk steels the jackknife of Dave Jensen, who breaks his nose in a fight about it. Jensen worries Strunk will get even and breaks his own nose. The two become friends and make a pact to kill each other if one becomes an amputee. Strunk is the one who loses a leg, but begs Jensen not to kill him after all. He would rather live. When he later dies, Jensen is relieved that he does not have responsibility for him anymore.
The Things They Carried Study GuideChoose to Continue
- “The Things They Carried” and "Love"
- Top Ten Quotes
- The Things They Carried
- “How to Tell a True War Story”
- “The Dentist”
- “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”
- “The Man I Killed”
- “Speaking of Courage”
- “In the Field”
- “Good Form”
- “Field Trip”
- “The Ghost Soldiers”
- “Night Life”
- “The Lives of the Dead”