The Things They Carried Study Guide

The Things They Carried By Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carry is a story that utilizes a fascinating literary device wherein the author introduces characters, all of them soldiers in the Vietnam War, by presenting the reader with the things they carry with them. An unnamed third-person narrator first describes the thoughts and feelings of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, who is preoccupied with Martha, the young woman he dated before he joined the Army.

He thinks of the letters she wrote him, whether or not she is still a virgin, and whether she loves him the way she loves her. (Her letters do not indicate any similar feeling on her part.) The narrator also (and primarily) lists things that the soldiers carry with them, from the tangible -- Cross' picture of Martha -- to the intangible -- his feelings for her.

Other members of Cross' unit are introduced through the things they carry. Ted Lavender carries tranquilizer pills; Henry Dobbins carries extra food; Kiowa carries a hunting hatchet. Each item (and thus each character) is introduced with a small amount of detail at first, and subsequent chapters reveal more details about the items and people, fleshing them out.

While each character may carry several items with unique stories, the essence of each character's personality can be found in the one symbolic item each carries: Dobbins carries a machine gun and his girlfriend's pantyhose; David Jensen carries soap, vitamins, and floss; Mitchell Sanders carries condoms, brass knuckles, and the unit's radio. Kiowa carries the Bible and some moccasins. All of them men carry weapons, tear gas, explosives, rations, and the Army newsletter.

Lt. Cross, as the focus of the story, is singled out, and the narrator offers the most detail about his interior thoughts and feelings, as well as some special things he carries. In addition to the photograph of Martha, his memories of their date, and his regrets that he didn't sleep with her, he carries the most delicate and precious goods of all: as the leader of his unit, he carries their lives and well-being on his shoulders.

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