The Things They Carried: Novel Summary: “The Things They Carried” and "Love"

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Text: O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction. Boston: Mariner Books, 2009. (Houghton Mifflin, 1990). 

The book is a collection of interrelated short stories about Alpha Company, the group of men the author served with in the Vietnam War. These are memories told and elaborated twenty years later, based on real events, but made into fiction, as he pointedly confesses. The author O'Brien creates himself as a character, Tim O'Brien. He often tells stories about his own character and other characters that he admits are imagined or doctored. He emphasizes that fiction tells the truth of the war better than facts.


Summary of “The Things They Carried”


The author, also a character, Tim O'Brien, tells in the opening short story about the various things the seventeen men of Alpha Platoon carried in their supplies as they marched through the jungles of Vietnam. The platoon leader, Lt. Jimmy Cross, kept letters from a college girl he was in love with at home, Martha, whom he pretended loved him back. He spends his time daydreaming romantic scenes with Martha, wondering if she is a virgin. Along with the necessary supplies such as knives, watches, dogtags, mosquito repellent, C rations, and water, each man carries something special to himself, for his morale. Ted Lavender is scared and carries tranquillizers. Henry Dobbins carries extra rations because he is big and also carries his girlfriend's pantyhose tied around his neck for luck. The Indian Kiowa is a Baptist and carries a Bible, moccasins, and a hatchet. The medic, Rat Kiley, carries morphine, plasma, malaria tablets, and comic books. The platoon is on a mission to clean out tunnels where the enemy hides. They draw numbers to see who has to go into the tunnel. Lee Strunk gets the mission, and gets in and out without harm. Just as the men are rejoicing on his success, Ted Lavender is shot dead when he goes to pee in the bush. Lt. Cross takes this personally as he is responsible for the men. Afterward, they go into the nearby village of Than Khe where the enemy had been hiding, and shoot all the animals and burn everything. That night, Lt. Cross digs his foxhole, sits in it and weeps uncontrollably. He burns Martha's letters, blaming himself for Lavender's death because he was daydreaming about Martha instead of taking care of the men.


Commentary on “The Things They Carried”


This opening story can stand alone as a summary of war experience. It is skillfully told, using a lot of repetition, lists of things that evoke the experience of war, and understatement to bring out the horror of war. The men do silly things, superstitious things to ward off death. They joke, act grossly and out of character, use insensitive language such as “greased” and “offed” to refer to killing, and kick corpses. As the author points out, it is because “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and gravity . . . They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained” (p. 20).


The author spends the opening pages describing equipment and supplies the men carry and how much each thing weighs. He establishes that the men have to carry heavy items, establishing the physical difficulty of walking in swamps. Then he moves on to the emotional baggage, which is heavier. The men mostly carry fear, described by O'Brien in an objective tone: “Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquillizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April” (p. 2).


Though terrified every moment of dying, the men are more afraid to appear to be afraid, and they must be actors, pretending toughness, making jokes, keeping a precarious balance. One of the burdens that accumulate over time, worse than the fear of death, is shame. The men are ashamed of what they are doing, of how they are feeling, and especially, of watching a buddy die. In this story it is Lt. Cross who feels guilt for Lavender's death, but as the stories unfold, it turns out that almost every man feels guilty for the death of any other man in the platoon, and this survivor's guilt is the heaviest burden of all, because, as the author shows, it does not go away after the war. He concludes, “They carried all they could bear” (p. 7).


Summary of “Love”


In a conversation between Lt. Cross and O'Brien after the war, Cross reminisces about Martha, and O'Brien asks if he can write a story about their love. Cross agrees, because he thinks Martha might read the story and learn to love him.


He explains how he met Martha after the war in 1979 at a college reunion. He was still in love with her, but she was a Lutheran missionary and a nurse who traveled to Ethiopia and Guatemala. She never married.  Cross realizes that he has never known Martha's inner life. She is beautiful but sad. He tells her how he is still in love with her and had almost carried her to his room after a date to make love to her when they were in college. Martha responds coldly saying she does not know how men can do those things.


Commentary on “Love”

There is the implication that Martha either had some tragic experience of sex that led her to become a single woman missionary, or she is influenced by a religious belief. She reveals a frigid attitude toward sex when Cross tries to be romantic. He begs O'Brien to show him as a noble soldier in the story and not to mention certain things. The things he wants to be omitted seem to be associated with sex or cowardice. Cross does not want Martha to see him as he was but as an imagined person, the way he imagined being in love with an ideal Martha, not the real, unromantic Martha. O'Brien, on the other hand, seems to reveal the reality of war, and though he does not give away Cross's secrets directly, implies that all of them were playing roles.

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