The Weight of the Things: Physical and Metaphorical Heaviness in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried
by Phillip Butler
Many themes can be found in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Memory, truths, imagination, or shame are just a few that can be traced throughout. One particular idea that stands out the most is the physical and metaphoric weight of the things the soldiers carried. These tangible or intangible objects, which they lug around throughout the war and even well after the war, create certain heaviness for each individual. The title of this writing is very significant and foreshadows what is probably the strongest theme of the book.
The title offers a clear preview of the content of the book. It gives the idea that characters in the story carry something of importance. It is unclear however of what exactly these things may be. It is up to the reader to interpret what exactly O’Brien is truly writing about when referring to the title. By analyzing and digging deep into the context of the literature it is clear that each physical object that a soldier carries has significant symbolic meaning as well. They also help define each character in some way. For instance Kiowa carried a bible. “Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Okalahoma City, Okalahoma” (O’Brien 3). Symbolically the bible represented his faith and helped give a better understanding of who he is.
The physical objects described in the novel are extremely important. The author’s writing is very detailed simply because he wants the readers to feel something to help relate them to the soldiers. “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe” (78). Using the actual weight of objects that each soldier carried contributes to the effect intended to be left on the audience. “As PFCs or Spec 4s, most of them were common grunts and carried the standard M-16 gas-operated assault rifle. The weapon weighed 7.5 pounds unloaded, 8.2 pounds with its full 20-round magazine” (5). By imagining the heaviness of these and many other objects they carried it’s understood how much physical weight they must endure. Some of the items carried have more than physical weight but also the emotional weight attached to them.
One of the most common items that the soldiers carried was a photograph. Extreme emotional connections were often tied to these. “Almost everyone humped photographs” (4). They carried photographs to help them cope with being away from the people they loved. The pictures transcended the weight of memory. A photograph is not heavy itself, but the emotions attached can sometimes prove to be. For instance Lieutenant Cross burned his pictures of Martha because when he saw them it reminded him of how his obsession with her caused one of his soldiers to die. “On the morning after Ted Lavender died, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha’s letters. Then he burned the two photographs” (23). The burning of the photographs was his way to relieve himself of the weight of guilt.
Another very present weight that many of the soldiers carried was the feeling of guilt. Jimmy Cross felt it for allowing himself to get distracted which ultimately lead to Ted Lavenders death. He also felt this way when Kiowa died. “My own fault, he would say. Straightening up, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross rubbed his eyes and tired to get his thoughts together” (169).
Tim O’Brien’s character as a soldier felt many forms of guilt. He felt it when he killed the man on the path. Kiowa tried reassuring O’Brien, “Listen to me. You feel terrible, I know that.” Then he added, “Okay, maybe I don’t know” (127). He imagined how the man’s life must have been, which reflected his own because they both did not want to be in this war. This also brings up another aspect of guilt that is present within him. He did not believe in the war and felt the shame and guilt of not standing up for what he believed in. Tim confesses, “I was a coward. I went to the war” (61).
Another extremely heavy emotional and mental weight the soldiers dealt with was death. This was a common occurrence in the war and was something they had to accept and not let affect them. One way that the soldiers relieved themselves from the burden was to make jokes about it. For instance when Kiowa died drowning in the “shit field” Azar can be heard making fun of the situation. He said, “Wasted in the waste. A shit field. You got to admit it’s pure world class irony” (165). By doing this it helped hide the true pain and sadness. It helped disguise the realness of it all. Another method they used to help them was by pretending the dead men were still alive. For example when Ted Lavender was shot in the head they made jokes about how he had died peeing, but as they waited for him to get picked up by the chopper they mimicked a conversation with him. Mitchell Sanders said, “Hey Lavender, how’s the war today?” Mimicking Lavender someone said, “Mellow” (231). By pretending these soldiers were still alive they avoided having to struggle carrying the weight of it with them.
Imagination is also another aspect of the soldier’s mental heaviness that they endure. This idea has been exposed on numerous occasions throughout the novel. The fact that these soldiers are in such a strange and unfamiliar place made them vulnerable mentally. At times the men’s imagination was too much weight to bear. For example when the platoon was approaching an enemy fortress and they could only move at night, Rat Kiley lost his mind. He says, “This whole war. You know what it is? Just one big banquet. Meat, man. You and me. Everybody. Meat for the bugs” (223). To relieve himself from his imagination of these bugs, he did whatever he could to get out of the war, shot himself in the foot.
Imagination also played an important role for Tim O’Brien’s character. For the most part his feelings were ultimately based on only imagination. He felt guilty for not being able to go to Canada because he imagined that his whole town would see him as a coward. O’Brien’s character decides, “All those eyes on me- the town, the whole universe- and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment” (59). These images proved to be very heavy on him, as he would recall his decision throughout the story. Also the imaginary life that he had created for the man he killed on the path influenced his feelings. He felt so guilty and ashamed because he imagined this great life for the young man. The weight of this is apparent in the way he cannot stop staring at the man. The imagination seemed to have brought unnecessary weight on the soldiers but other times like when imagining the dead soldiers still alive, it helped them cope.
It is very apparent throughout this novel that the things the soldiers carried were physical objects and metaphoric objects, both with significant weight. The metaphoric objects such as the emotional and mental baggage seemed to create a heavier weight on them. Though both can be traced through the book the struggle with the metaphoric weight carried the most meaning and helped create a strong imagine for the audience.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1990.