Writing about war is not easy, especially when the author has experienced it firsthand. A good example is the novel The Thing They Carried by Tim O’Brien. It depicts the experience of the Vietnam War and shows the huge psychological burdens carried by the soldiers and represented by the physical objects. Although many of the soldiers did not want to go to the war, they still went out of fear of shame; thus, throughout their Vietnam years, their inner struggles accompanied the physical battles. The paper will analyze the main theme of the novel, which is the fact that the physical objects the soldiers carry are symbols of psychological burdens, and it will also develop the minor theme of the novel, which is shame that motivates people to go to war.
Tim O’Brien had a firsthand experience on the war in Vietnam. Growing up as an obese child, he had his own battles during childhood. Right before being drafted, he graduated from the university and he had big prospects for his future career since he wanted to continue studying. However, he was drafted and he had to join the army to fight in Vietnam. In the beginning, the writer wanted to run away and escape the duty by going to Canada. However, he feared that his friends and relatives at home would despise him, so he came back and became a soldier. His experience in Vietnam deeply influenced his writing and helped to create his masterpiece. That is the reason the book is different from a typical history book as it contains real emotions and experiences as well as subjective view.
O’Brien’s novel depicts the stories of different soldiers and their experiences during the Vietnam War. Some of them died, some of them survived, but all had some things that represented their personalities, hopes, fears, and beliefs in life. The author organizes information based on the characters, making some sort of personalized diary. O’Brien describes how a soldier’s death affected a lieutenant deeply, but through the description of his belongings, the readers realize that there are far more things that damage and torment the man from the inside. Therefore, O’Brien uses external physical objects to describe the inner issues within a person to show how soldiers fight many battles. They have to fight with an enemy their government chose, and they have to fight with their enemies in the head. Throughout the novel, O’Brien shows that sometimes, the person is the enemy himself. The main theme the author focuses on in the object as a symbol of the pressure that constantly follows the individual.
The main theme of the work is to show the huge burdens the individuals have. They are rooted deeply inside them, and some small material things they bring with them materialize the pressures and the burdens of each person. For example, Lieutenant Jim Cross has the maps with him, and he also carries the compasses. Those things are not merely the tools for the soldiers he manages, but they also represent his leading position. They show that it is his responsibility to take care of the things around soldiers, and they look up to him when they need guidance and advice. However, the leadership is a great burden as the man feels accountable for all of the people in his team, and it makes war experience for him even more difficult. When one of the soldiers is killed, Cross begins to think about his love he had left at home, and then, the story revealed that the feelings were never mutual. This show the deep cuts and pain inside Cross’ head, and the things he carries show the struggles he has on his own.
Another soldier, Henry Dobbins, brought pantyhose of his girlfriend to the war. It is a reminder of the love he has for her as well as motivation to return to her. However, the pantyhose represents much more. It is a symbol of the life not there, not in the war zone, but in peaceful America where women can wear those clothes while men can enjoy their company and not think about staying alive and killing the enemy. When author describes the thing so meaningful for Henry, he does not simply speak about his love for the girl in America. He also speaks about his love for America itself, for the way of life there, for the peace and lifestyle that does not require fighting and risking one’s life for the cause one does not understand. Through showing this object, the author also shows the absurdity of war. People went to fight for those they cared about, but the war itself was meaningless and it did not spur any emotions besides doubt. Therefore, the pantyhose is actually a very meaningful symbol that shows the absurdity of war and soldiers fighting in it.
Besides physical objects, there are emotions the soldiers carry inside themselves. For example, all of them have many fears because some are afraid to die while others are afraid of being judged. Some fear to lose their faith and being considered cowards, which is the reason they have become soldiers in the first place. The emotions inside the people rule them and determine their actions, and just as they are represented by the physical objects, they are also deeply engraved in people’s hearts.
The author also shows that the burdens were not just difficult during the war. People experienced and battled their inner selves because the war pressured them so much, but even after they had returned home, they were still unable to let go of the things they carried, the fears, and accusations deep inside of them. For example, Cross continued blaming himself for the soldier’s death and he was unable to forgive himself. It shows that the burdens linger, and it is extremely difficult to get rid of them. Unlike the physical object one can lose or throw out, the psychological burdens remained with the soldiers, creating a generation with deep inner struggles and cuts.
The novel also speaks about shame as a burden that changes and moves people in a particular direction; this is the minor theme that the author develops. Shame was, in fact, the reason the author had joined the army, had gone to Vietnam and consequently wrote his book. It was his own burden to be afraid of the community’s judgmental remarks and criticism. Although the author does not support the war and he considers it meaningless and pointless, he also believes that in case he runs away from it, he will be judged and criticized to the point he will not be able to come back to his community and family. Therefore, in the struggle between his own beliefs and fear, he surrenders to the latter and makes decisions based on the opinions of others, not his own. This is his psychological burden, the one he carries with him through the war and then brings home just like the rest of the soldiers.
The novel is a powerful piece that shows how people’s personalities are shaped by the objects and beliefs they may not necessarily understand. People turn into mere tools and are manipulated by their beliefs that influence their actions and remain with them for a long time. The work presents the theme of psychological burdens in a memorable way, making viewers see the deep cuts left after the war and the huge cognitive dissonance the soldiers have experienced. The readers can also relate to the book as they see they carry similar burdens themselves. There are inner wars inside of people, and individuals fight them constantly; however, real wars only complicate the whole process. The absurdity of the Vietnam War and the deep mark it left on the American nation are also important ideas the readers get after finishing the novel. Thanks to its powerful messages, the novel remains one of the most valuable works on the war and the nation.
The novel breaks the traditional stereotypes about Vietnam and debunks the popular myths about it. For instance, it contributes to the political and social debate, showing that the war has created a generation of people who have been broken mentally and who have had a hard time returning to peaceful life in America. The book fits this course as it gives the readers a broader perspective and shows them that the things are not the same as they seem. I would definitely recommend it to others thanks to the impact it has had on me and my understanding of history. The book has helped me to see that the consequences of war lasted for a long time and stayed in people’s heads, so I would recommend it to others to grasp similar ideas. I would especially recommend it to the young people who have the capacity to change the country for the better.
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