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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Physical and Emotional Burdens

The “[t]hings” of the title that O’Brien’s characters carry are both literal and figurative. While they all carry heavy physical loads, they also all carry heavy emotional loads, composed of grief, terror, love, and longing. Each man’s physical burden underscores his emotional burden. Henry Dobbins, for example, carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose and, with them, the longing for love and comfort. Similarly, Jimmy Cross carries compasses and maps and, with them, the responsibility for the men in his charge. Faced with the heavy burden of fear, the men also carry the weight of their reputations. Although every member of the Alpha Company experiences fear at some point, showing fear will only reveal vulnerability to both the enemy and sometimes cruel fellow soldiers.

After the war, the psychological burdens the men carry during the war continue to define them. Those who survive carry guilt, grief, and confusion, and many of the stories in the collection are about these survivors’ attempts to come to terms with their experience. In “Love,” for example, Jimmy Cross confides in O’Brien that he has never forgiven himself for Ted Lavender’s death. Norman Bowker’s grief and confusion are so strong that they prompt him to drive aimlessly around his hometown lake in “Speaking of Courage,” to write O’Brien a seventeen-page letter explaining how he never felt right after the war in “Notes,” and to hang himself in a YMCA. While Bowker bears his psychological burdens alone, O’Brien shares the things he carries, his war stories, with us. His collection of stories asks us to help carry the burden of the Vietnam War as part of our collective past.

Fear of Shame as Motivation

O’Brien’s personal experience shows that the fear of being shamed before one’s peers is a powerful motivating factor in war. His story “On the Rainy River” explains his moral quandary after receiving his draft notice—he does not want to fight in a war he believes is unjust, but he does not want to be thought a coward. What keeps O’Brien from fleeing into Canada is not patriotism or dedication to his country’s cause—the traditional motivating factors for fighting in a war—but concern over what his family and community will think of him if he doesn’t fight. This experience is emblematic of the conflict, explored throughout The Things They Carried, between the misguided expectations of a group of people important to a character and that character’s uncertainty regarding a proper course of action.

Fear of shame not only motivates reluctant men to go to Vietnam but also affects soldiers’ relationships with each other once there. Concern about social acceptance, which might seem in the abstract an unimportant preoccupation given the immediacy of death and necessity of group unity during war, leads O’Brien’s characters to engage in absurd or dangerous actions. For example, Curt Lemon decides to have a perfectly good tooth pulled (in “The Dentist”) to ease his shame about having fainted during an earlier encounter with the dentist. The stress of the war, the strangeness of Vietnam, and the youth of the soldiers combine to create psychological dangers that intensify the inherent risks of fighting. Jimmy Cross, who has gone to war only because his friends have, becomes a confused and uncertain leader who endangers the lives of his soldiers. O’Brien uses these characters to show that fear of shame is a misguided but unavoidable motivation for going to war.

The Subjection of Truth to Storytelling

By giving the narrator his own name and naming the rest of his characters after the men he actually fought alongside in the Vietnam War, O’Brien blurs the distinction between fact and fiction. The result is that it is impossible to know whether or not any given event in the stories truly happened to O’Brien. He intentionally heightens this impossibility when his characters contradict themselves several times in the collection of stories, rendering the truth of any statement suspect. O’Brien’s aim in blending fact and fiction is to make the point that objective truth of a war story is less relevant than the act of telling a story. O’Brien is attempting not to write a history of the Vietnam War through his stories but rather to explore the ways that speaking about war experience establishes or fails to establish bonds between a soldier and his audience. The technical facts surrounding any individual event are less important than the overarching, subjective truth of what the war meant to soldiers and how it changed them.

The different storytellers in The Things They Carried—Rat Kiley and Mitchell Sanders especially, in addition to O’Brien—work to lay out war’s ugly truths, which are so profound that they require neither facts nor long explanations. Such statements as “This is true,” which opens “How to Tell a True War Story,” do not establish that the events recounted in the story actually occurred. Rather, they indicate that the stylistic and thematic content of the story is true to the experience that the soldiers had in the war. This truth is often ugly, in contrast to the ideas of glory and heroism associated with war before Vietnam. In O’Brien’s “true” war story, Kiley writes to Lemon’s sister, and when she never responds, he calls her a “dumb cooze,” only adding to the ugliness of the story. O’Brien’s declaration that the truest part of this story is that it contains no moral underscores the idea that the purpose of stories is to relate the truth of experience, not to manufacture false emotions in their audiences.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

O’Brien believes that stories contain immense power, since they allow tellers and listeners to confront the past together and share otherwise unknowable experiences. Telling stories returns to the foreground of the narrative again and again. Mitchell Sanders, the Alpha Company’s resident storyteller, whose anecdotes range from the mythic (the story of six men who hear voices in the jungle) to the specific (the story of how Rat Kiley shoots himself in the foot and as a result is allowed to leave Vietnam), contends that truth and morality in a war story have little to do with accuracy. For example, after telling the story of the men who hear voices in the jungle, Sanders admits that he made up a few things in order to get his point across. Nevertheless, his story has resonance. The added details are only further proof of the universal truth: the eerie quiet of the jungle causes soldiers’ imaginations to run wild with fantastic images far stranger than anything they might actually encounter.

O’Brien shows that storytelling is not just a coping mechanism for soldiers who are embroiled in the war but also a strategy for communication throughout life. Several of the stories in The Things They Carried are told from O’Brien’s point of view, twenty years after the war. With this distance, facts have become cloudy and all that remains of the experience are the lingering feelings and memories. He is aware of his omissions and exaggeration of detail, and in the case of “Good Form,” he even suggests that all of his previous stories are made up. Even if he did not actually kill a soldier in My Khe, the truth of his feelings about war is no less valid. His insistence on the idea that stories can make the past become part of the present shows that his priority is not on the facts but on our identification with his feelings.

Ambiguous Morality

O’Brien’s stories show that the jungle blurs boundaries between right and wrong. The brutal killing of innocents on both sides cannot be explained, and in some moments of disbelief, the men deal with the pain of their feelings by pointing out the irony. “There’s a moral here,” Mitchell Sanders ironically points out again and again, each time stressing the actual immorality of the specific situation. After Ted Lavender is fatally shot by the enemy, for example, Sanders jokes that the “moral” of Ted Lavender’s accidental and tragic death is to stay away from drugs.

Exposed to these horrors, the men’s notions of right and wrong shift and bend. After Ted Lavender’s death, for example, Cross evens the score and deals with his own guilt by burning the entire village of Than Khe. Similarly, Rat Kiley deals with his frustration about Curt Lemon’s death by brutally killing a water buffalo. Affected by the senselessness of war, even O’Brien—a college educated, peace-loving man—feels himself grow hard and callous, willing to wish others harm. Ironically, the moral or lesson in The Things They Carried is that there is no morality in war. War is ambiguous and arbitrary because it forces humans into extreme situations that have no obvious solutions.

Loneliness and Isolation

O’Brien argues that in Vietnam, loneliness and isolation are forces as destructive as any piece of ammunition. In repeatedly emphasizing the impact of solitude on the soldiers, he shows that thoughts, worries, and fears are as dangerous—if not more dangerous—than the Vietnamese soldiers themselves. In “How to Tell a True War Story,” Mitchell Sanders’s story concerning soldiers made so paranoid by their experience on listening patrol that they hear strange noises emphasizes how the imagination can take over instantly in the lonely silence. In “The Ghost Soldiers,” O’Brien takes unfair advantage of the power of isolation when he attempts to frighten Bobby Jorgenson while Jorgenson is on night guard duty. In order to emphasize the evil intentions of his revenge plot, O’Brien reflects on his fear of being cut off from the outside world and the close relation between night guard and childhood fears of the dark. In Vietnam, isolation is synonymous with endless time to dwell on the unknown.

Loneliness remains a strong presence enveloping the soldiers long after the war is over. Jimmy Cross, for example, feels bereft after the war because his hope for happiness in Martha is dashed by her rejection. Norman Bowker also feels empty and isolated after the war. In “Speaking of Courage,” he aimlessly drives around a lake in his hometown, thinking that he has no one to talk to. He even attempts to converse with an A&W employee, but no one will offer him consolation. O’Brien himself realizes that if he didn’t have writing to work through his trauma, he might be in as abject a place as Bowker. The character O’Brien’s narration—and, in effect, the author O’Brien’s The Things They Carried—is an attempt to combat the destructive isolation that the Vietnam experience fostered.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Dead Young Vietnamese Soldier

Although O’Brien is unclear about whether or not he actually threw a grenade and killed a man outside My Khe, his memory of the man’s corpse is strong and recurring, symbolizing humanity’s guilt over war’s horrible acts. In “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien distances himself from the memory by speaking in the third person and constructing fantasies as to what the man must have been like before he was killed. O’Brien marvels at the wreckage of his body, thinking repeatedly of the star-shaped hole that is in the place of his eye and the peeled-back cheek. The description serves to distance O’Brien from the reality of his actions because nowhere in its comprehensive detail are O’Brien’s feelings about the situation mentioned. His guilt is evident, however, in his imagining of a life for the man he killed that includes several aspects that are similar to his own life.


Kathleen represents a reader who has the capability of responding to the author. Like us, O’Brien’s daughter Kathleen is often the recipient of O’Brien’s war stories, but unlike us, she can affect O’Brien as much as O’Brien affects her. O’Brien gains a new perspective on his experiences in Vietnam when he thinks about how he should relay the story of the man he killed to his impressionable young daughter.

Kathleen also stands for the gap in communication between one who tells a story and one who receives a story. When O’Brien takes her to Vietnam to have her better understand what he went through during the war, the only things that resonate to the ten-year-old are the stink of the muck and the strangeness of the land. She has no sense of the field’s emotional significance to O’Brien, and thus does not understand his behavior there, as when he goes for a swim.


Linda represents elements of the past that can be brought back through imagination and storytelling. Linda, a classmate of O’Brien’s who died of a brain tumor in the fifth grade, symbolizes O’Brien’s faith that storytelling is the best way for him to negotiate pain and confusion, especially the sadness that surrounds death. Linda was O’Brien’s first love and also his first experience with death’s senseless arbitrariness. His retreat into his daydreams after her funeral provided him unexpected relief and rationalization. In his dreams, he could see Linda still alive, which suggests that through imagination—which, for O’Brien, later evolves into storytelling—the dead can continue to live.

Linda’s presence in the story makes O’Brien’s earlier stories about Vietnam more universal. The experience he had as a child illuminates the way he deals with death in Vietnam and after; it also explains why he has turned to stories to deal with life’s difficulties. Just like Linda, Norman Bowker and Kiowa are immortalized in O’Brien’s stories. Their commonplace lives become more significant than their dramatic deaths. Through the image of Linda, O’Brien realizes that he continues to save his own life through storytelling.

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

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Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz



What’s the strongest motivation for fighting in Vietnam according to O’Brien?
The belief in America and Democracy
The thrill of action and bloodlust
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

Themes, Motifs & Symbols QUIZ

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz
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.


6 out of 12 people found this helpful

Literary period

by vickie12, September 04, 2012

What literary period was the things they carried written in?


37 out of 127 people found this helpful


by MendicantBias, October 21, 2012

Azar kicked O'Brein in the head not Jorgensen.


51 out of 59 people found this helpful

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The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried (SparkNotes Literature Guide)

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