The Things They Carried
The symbols in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” are essential to understanding the soldiers and their lives during the Vietnam War. At the opening of the story, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross would dig into his foxhole and read the letters while imagining romance with Martha; however, at the end of the story after the death of Ted Lavender, he “crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha’s letters” (402). The inner feelings of Cross would be mistakenly ignored without the help of symbols throughout his travel through Vietnam. O’Brien uses the emotional and physical weight carried by the soldiers as a representation of their personalities and how they prefer to cope with the war. The
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Norman Bowker had carried with him the thumb from the dead boy that Mitchell Sanders had presented to him as a gift. Bowker was a very tender man; however, this thumb reminded him that he was tough and nothing was going to stop him from making it through this war. The trauma of being at war had desensitized the soldiers, leaving them no respect for others. After removing the thumb from the boy, Sanders smiles as he “kicked the boy’s head, watched the flies scatter, and said, It’s like with that old TV show---Paladin. Have gun, will travel” (398). The character Paladin in Have gun, will travel is forced to hunt and kill a mysterious gunman, relating this TV show to the reality of war and the loss of moral principles these soldiers continue to try to find in their superstitious items. The war has hardened them from the inside out. The emblem of the thumb represents the emotional and psychological changes that the men undergo up every hill and through the swamps. These soldiers were afraid of the unknown. The superstitious symbols they carried with them throughout the war allow the reader to feel all of the emotional baggage and terror that these men endure sunrise to sunset. The narrator states that “They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to” (401).
Symbolism functions in the story by relating the physical and emotional weight carried by the Vietnam soldiers to the