Review: “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried

In the short story, “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien, the author uses a technique in which he uniquely describes aspects of the characters and the situation by listing the items the men are carrying with them in the war. Some items were necessary in a war—things like can openers, pocketknives, dog tags, mosquito repellent, food, and weapons. As he continues to list items, O’Brien tells us something about the men through them. We learn that Henry Dobbins has a sweet tooth because he “was a big man” and “was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake.” Dave Jensen “carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-size bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia” and is likely one of the few who is this clean because O’Brien points out that he “practiced field hygiene,” implying that the others do not, and that these hygiene items are not carried by most others.

Read the story, “The Things They Carried,” here.

The items carried by the men were not only tangible things. Jimmy Cross, who was the first lieutenant and platoon leader, “carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded,” yet he also carried something heavier than physical weight—“the responsibility for the lives of his men.” Ted Lavendar carried “unweighed fear,” and “they all carried ghosts.”

O’Brien also points out the weight of certain items: “twenty-eight-pound mine detector,” “steel helmets that weighed five pounds,” “jungle boots-2.1 pounds,” and “the M-60, which weighed twenty-three pounds unloaded, but which was almost always loaded.” This is likely a technique used to show the reader the great burden that each man is under. The intangible items may not have physical weight, but they have a heavy emotional weight attached to them.

The listing of various items is the majority of the description in the story. There is much left unsaid, but when we look at the combination of the items, we get a good picture of what it must have been like for the men. Where there are guns and grenades and heavy helmets needed, we know that the men will be shooting and will be shot at. The radio and mine detectors show us that they are in a dangerous area and are far from any military base. The technique used here by O’Brien is a great example of revealing things about the story by showing details, rather than just telling it in plain words.

My rating: 4 out of 5 = really liked it

Available in this collection of short stories.

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