The Things They Carried Summary
The Things They Carried Summary (1990) is a collection of linked short stories by American novelist Tim O’Brien, about a platoon of American soldiers fighting on the ground in the Vietnam War. His third book about the war, it is based upon his experiences as a soldier in the 23rd Infantry Division.
O’Brien generally refrains from political debate and discourse regarding the Vietnam War. He was dismayed that people in his home town seemed to have so little understanding of the war and its world. It was in part a response to what he considered ignorance that he wrote The Things They Carried. It was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1990.
Many of the characters are semi-autobiographical, sharing similarities with figures from his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973/paperback 1999). In The Things They Carried, O’Brien plays with the genre of metafiction; he writes using verisimilitude. His use of real place names and inclusion of himself as the protagonist blurs fiction and non-fiction. As part of this effect, O’Brien dedicates The Things They Carried to the fictional men of the “Alpha Company,” contributing to the novel appears to be a war memoir.
The Things They Carried Chapter 1 Summary
American soldiers in Vietnam during the war carry many things, most of them from home. First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries letters from a girl named Martha, a college student back in New Jersey. He loves her, and though he knows she doesn’t love him, he hopes she will. He often daydreams about romantic vacations with her. He wonders if she is a virgin. His love sometimes distracts him from taking care of his soldiers. The men in his platoon carry objects that revealed their personalities.
Henry Dobbins is a big man who liked to eat, so he carries extra food. Ted Lavender was scared, so he carried tranquilizers, which he took until he was shot and killed. Dave Jensen is worried about disease, so he carries soap and a toothbrush. They all carry heavy helmets and boots. Kiowa carries a bible–he is a deeply religious Baptist. Mitchell Sanders carries condoms, and Norma Bowker carries a diary. Rat Kiley, the medic, carries comic books. The nights are cold, the ground is wet, and you can bleed to death very quickly, so they carry ponchos and bandages.
Almost everyone carries, or “humps,” photographs. Jimmy Cross carries two photographs of Martha, one where she leans against a wall (he wonders who took the picture) and one where she is playing volleyball, her left knee supporting all her weight. He stares at that knee, remembering when they went to see the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” together. He had touched her knee, and she had given him a look that made him take his hand away. Looking at the volleyball picture now, he wishes he had been more aggressive with her. He should have carried her up to her room that night after the movie. “Whenever he looked at the photographs, he thought of new things he should have done.”
The Things They Carried Short Summary
The Things They Carried is a collection of twenty-two short stories by Tim O’Brien. The stories follow a platoon of soldiers who face death, disease, and depression during the Vietnam War. Among the soldiers are Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Ted Lavender, and Norman Bowker.
- The title story, “The Things They Carried,” lists all the items the soldiers carry with them: guns, ammunition, clothes, pills, comic books, pictures, and various personal items. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross treasures photos and letters from a girl named Martha.
- In April, the men draw lots to decide who will crawl through a Viet Cong tunnel and wire it with explosives. Though this mission proves successful, another soldier, a man named Ted Lavender, dies when he wanders away from the group and is shot by a sniper.
- Realizing that he hasn’t been a good leader to his men, Cross burns the mementos of Martha that he’s been saving. He then re-devotes himself to his men, determined to see them through the war alive.
Tim O Brien The Things They Carried Summary
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, of the Alpha Company, carries various reminders of his love for Martha, a girl from his college in New Jersey who has given no indication of returning his love. Cross carries her letters in his backpack and her good-luck pebble in his mouth. After a long day’s march, he unwraps her letters and imagines the prospect of her returning his love someday. Martha is an English major who writes letters that quote lines of poetry and never mention the war. Though the letters are signed “Love, Martha” Cross understands that this gesture should not give him false hope. He wonders, uncontrollably, about whether or not Martha is a virgin. He carries her photographs, including one of her playing volleyball, but closer to his heart still are his memories. They went on a single date, to see the movie Bonnie and Clyde. When Cross touched Martha’s knee during the final scene, Martha looked at him and made him pull his hand back. Now, in Vietnam, Cross wishes that he had carried her up the stairs, tied her to the bed, and touched her knee all night long. He is haunted by the cutting knowledge that his affection will most likely never be returned.
The narrator, Tim O’Brien, describes the things all the men of the company carry. They are things in the most physical sense—mosquito repellent and marijuana, pocket knives and chewing gum. The things they carry depend on several factors, including the men’s priorities and their constitutions. Because the machine gunner Henry Dobbins is exceptionally large, for example, he carries extra rations; because he is superstitious, he carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck. Nervous Ted Lavender carries marijuana and tranquilizers to calm himself down, and the religious Kiowa carries an illustrated New Testament, a gift from his father.
Some things the men carry are universal, like a compress in case of fatal injuries and a two-pound poncho that can be used as a raincoat, groundsheet, or tent. Most of the men are common, low-rank-ing soldiers and carry a standard M-16 assault rifle and several magazines of ammunition. Several men carry grenade launchers. All men carry the figurative weight of memory and the literal weight of one another. They carry Vietnam itself, in the heavy weather and the dusty soil. The things they carry are also determined by their rank or specialty. As a leader, for example, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries the maps, the compasses, and the responsibility for his men’s lives. The medic, Rat Kiley, carries morphine, malaria tablets, and supplies for serious wounds.
One day, when the company outside the Than Khe area is on a mission to destroy tunnel complexes, Cross imagines the tunnels collapsing on him and Martha. He becomes distracted by wondering whether or not she is a virgin. On the way back from going to the bathroom, Lavender is shot, falling especially hard under the burden of his loaded backpack. Still, Cross can think of nothing but Martha. He thinks about her love of poetry and her smooth skin.
While the soldiers wait for the helicopter to carry Lavender’s body away, they smoke his marijuana. They make jokes about Lavender’s tranquilizer abuse and rationalize that he probably was too numb to feel pain when he was shot. Cross leads his men to the village of Than Khe—where the soldiers burn everything and shoot dogs and chickens—and then on a march through the late afternoon heat. When they stop for the evening, Cross digs a foxhole in the ground and sits at the bottom of it, crying. Meanwhile, Kiowa and Norman Bowker sit in the darkness discussing the short span between life and death in an attempt to make sense of the situation. In the ensuing silence, Kiowa marvels at how Lavender fell so quickly and how he was zipping up his pants one second and dead the next. He finds something unchristian about the lack of drama surrounding this type of death and wonders why he cannot openly lament it as Cross does.
The morning after Lavender’s death, in the steady rain, Cross crouches in his foxhole and burns Martha’s letters and two photographs. He plans the day’s march and concludes that he will never again have fantasies. He plans to call the men together and assume the blame for Lavender’s death. He reminds himself that, despite the men’s inevitable grumbling, his job is not to be loved but to lead.