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The Things They Carried

Tim O’Brien

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Tim O’Brien

Tim O’Brien is both the narrator and protagonist of The Things They Carried. The work recounts his personal experience in the Vietnam War and allows him to comment on the war. He enters the war a scared young man afraid of the shame that dodging the war would bring him and leaves the war a guilt-ridden middle-aged man who tells stories about Vietnam in order to cope with his painful memories. To cover the distance between himself and what he recounts, O’Brien weaves a prominent thread of memory through the work. Reading these stories is similar to spending extended time with an old soldier, allowing his memories to come to him slowly.

O’Brien’s point of view shapes the events he relates. In many, if not most, cases, O’Brien holds himself up as evidence for the generalizations he makes about the war. He is our guide through the inexplicable horror of the war and the main example of how extreme situations can turn a rationally thinking man into a soldier who commits unspeakable acts and desires cruel and irrational things. Occasionally, O’Brien fades away and lets another character or a seemingly omniscient third person tell the story. This technique lends a universal human quality to the stories’ themes and gives us the opportunity to understand the Alpha Company from several different perspectives.

O’Brien uses storytelling as solace and as a means of coming to terms with the unspeakable horrors he witnessed as a soldier. His comments suggest that although he has become a successful writer and that his negotiation of memory through storytelling has been a good coping mechanism, he still thinks that certain realities cannot be explained at all. His experience with those untouched by the war, such as his daughter Kathleen, exposes an irony in his faith in storytelling. He knows that he can grapple with his feelings of disbelief and painful confusion by telling others what happened and how, but he cannot express every feeling.

Jimmy Cross

Jimmy Cross’s character represents the profound effects responsibility has on those who are too immature to handle it. As a sophomore in college, he signs up for the Reserve Officers Training Corps because it is worth a few credits and because his friends are doing it. But he doesn’t care about the war and has no desire to be a team leader. As a result, when he is led into battle with several men in his charge, he is unsure in everything he does.

Cross’s guilt is palpable every time one of his men dies, but it is most acute in the case of Ted Lavender. Right before Lavender is killed, Cross allows himself to be distracted and deluded by the thoughts of his coveted classmate, Martha, who sends him photographs and writes flowery letters that never mention the war. His innocent reverie is interrupted by Lavender’s death, and Cross’s only conclusion is that he loves this faraway girl more than he loves his men. Cross’s confession to O’Brien, years later, that he has never forgiven himself for Lavender’s death testifies to his intense feelings of guilt about the incident.

Jimmy Cross can be viewed as a Christ figure. In times of inexplicable atrocity, certain individuals assume the position of a group’s or their own savior. Such men suffer so that others don’t have to bear the brunt of the guilt and confusion. Cross is linked to Christ not only on a superficial level—they share initials and are both connected to the idea of the cross—but also in the nature of his role. Like Christ, who suffers for his fellow men, Cross suffers for the sake of the entire platoon. In “The Things They Carried,” Cross bears the grief of Lavender’s death for the members of his troop, such as Kiowa, who are too dumbfounded to mourn. In the same story, he makes a personal sacrifice, burning the letters from Martha so that her presence will no longer distract him. In each case, Cross makes a Christ-like sacrifice so that his fellow men—Norman Bowker and Kiowa, in this case—can carry on without being crippled by grief and guilt.

Mitchell Sanders

Mitchell Sanders is a likable soldier and a devoted friend. He has a sense of irony, picking lice off his body and sending them back to his draft board in Ohio, and a sense of loyalty, refusing to help O’Brien inflict revenge on the medic Bobby Jorgenson and standing by Rat Kiley in his decision to escape Vietnam by shooting himself in the toe. He also has a strong sense of justice—when Cross leads the troops into the sewage field where Kiowa eventually meets his death, Sanders refuses to forgive him because the evidence shows that he should have known better.

Sanders often applies this pragmatism to his storytelling. He believes that a good war story often lacks a moral and that sometimes a story without commentary or explanation speaks for itself because he understands that war stories are never simple or cut-and-dried. In his story about the platoon driven crazy by phantom voices in the jungle, for example, he offers no explanation of what the voices were. Instead, he focuses on the soldiers’ experience of the voices, which he considers more relevant and concrete. Sanders is in this way a mouthpiece for O’Brien, who presents the stories that constitute The Things They Carried not to teach a moral but to portray an experience.

Kiowa

In life, Kiowa is diligent and honest, introspective and compassionate. He is practical, carrying moccasins in order to be able to walk silently and helping his fellow soldiers to rationalize their own unfortunate actions, especially O’Brien’s killing of a young Vietnamese soldier. A Baptist and a Native American, he brings a perspective different from that of his fellow soldiers to the unfortunate events that befall the Alpha Company.

Kiowa’s death is symbolic of the senseless tragedy of war. He dies in a gruesome way, drowning under the muck of a sewage field about which his lieutenant, Jimmy Cross, has a bad feeling. Kiowa’s entirely submerged body represents the transitory nature of life and the horrifying suddenness with which it can be snatched away. There is no dignity to Kiowa’s death; he becomes another casualty in a war that strips men of their identity and turns them into statistics.

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showing not telling

by TheDuckOffender, August 08, 2012

The secret O'Brien claimed to have kept may also have been depicted in that reoccurring emotional/fictional truth that we know oh so well from this story. Perhaps he even showed it in the first chapter, rather than telling it.

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5 out of 11 people found this helpful

Literary period

by vickie12, September 04, 2012

What literary period was the things they carried written in?

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19 out of 70 people found this helpful

Correction

by MendicantBias, October 21, 2012

Azar kicked O'Brein in the head not Jorgensen.

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22 out of 24 people found this helpful

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