Symbolism in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
An American novelist Tim O’Brien is known for his unconventional approach to typical stories about war actions. There is so much compassion, soulfulness, and honesty in his book “The Things They Carried” devoted to the Vietnam War combats that the readers have been sympathizing with his characters for thirty years. The story of passion of Jimmy Cross, a platoon leader, to Martha, a girl he once dated in college, is entwined with the story of Ted Lavender, who is constantly anxious about the threats of war and dies first in Alpha Company. Through symbols, the author manages to make the readers gain an insight into the emotional burden of the war horrors and get amazed with the moral courage and strength of spirit of those who can cope with carrying it.
The literal and figurative meanings are interrelated in the story, and that makes the message of the author stronger. At first, understanding of ‘the things they carried’ from the book title seems to be related to supplies, belongings, and different kinds of equipment the soldiers have to take with them. Tim O’Brien draws parallels between the soldiers’ identities and the objects they carry, which serve as symbols of unbearable psychological burden of the war. Turning the last page, the readers know for sure that the characters have experienced so many emotional explosions and tragedies that the burden of invisible heavy load is much harder to carry than actual possessions. Traumas caused by the war make up the emotional weight no one can estimate correctly. The weight of soldiers’ equipment is huge, but the ‘ghosts’ mentioned by the author cause acute pain, turning the fears, guilt, misery, desperation, memory, shame, and sadness into an integral part of the luggage that cannot be left anywhere.
This contrast of physical weight and emotional strain is evident, for instance, in a pair of pantyhose carried by Henry Dobbins as they belong to his girlfriend or in the letters Jimmy Cross has from the girl he is obsessed with. The pair of pantyhose is a bright symbol of comfort, love, and peace. The letters are light but they along with his feelings distract him so much that he even loses concentration he needs so much to bear responsibility for the troop. Those letters symbolize a missed life target and unfulfilled dream of a peaceful life together with the girl he loves. The death of Lavender becomes a symbol of contrast between the real-life battle events and fancied feelings experienced to get rid of the unpleasant truth. Cross burns the letters in their physical form, but the memory still remains and it only adds to the pressure and emotional burden. In general, Jimmy Cross is a personification of a man who is susceptible for the pain of other men and is selfless and responsible for the others.
The symbolism of weight is presented by Tim O’Brien from a perspective of physical number of kilograms that actual things weigh and emotional burden of the witnessed terrible things at war. Unfortunately, the theme of the book has not lost its relevance, and the symbols Tim O’Brien are understandable and well-focused. The war time environment is cruel and absolutely inhumane, but symbolic images for shaping the characters let the readers get closer to humane nature of the participants of war actions and see their struggles, both external and internal. No wonder that the book resonates with the audience as it deals not with the glorious deeds or sophisticated was tactics, but with the suffering of the heart and how it endures terrible pain caused by the war.