Tim O’Brien uses foreshadowing in The Things They Carried as way of revealing the varying effects of several important events in the book. Instead of using foreshadowing to give hints about upcoming important moments in the text, O’Brien often clearly states what happened, and then provides more detail as the book continues. Foreshadowing can stretch from one story to another, with O’Brien revealing some important event in one story, and then adding more details about that event in a later story. The overall effect supports the feeling that it is impossible to tell a story about war with completely clarity, a theme O’Brien returns to over and over.
Lt. Jimmy Cross Abandons Martha
In the first story in the collection, also titled “The Things They Carried,” Lieutenant Cross is deeply in love with Martha, a girl from back home. O’Brien writes that he “humped [carried] his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps.” In the story, Cross is often distracted from looking after his men because he’s thinking of Martha. After Ted Lavender is killed, Cross feels guilty and burns Martha’s letters, deciding that the gesture will remind him to be a better leader from now on. The burning of the letters foreshadows the irony that in other stories in the book, Cross will lose other men and feel equally guilty. His love for Martha was not the problem: war is. In another story, Lt. Cross tells the narrator that he saw Martha after the war and told her how he felt, but Martha did not return his love. Martha’s true feelings are also hinted at from the very first pages of the book.
Tim Decides to Flee to Canada
The story “On the Rainy River” opens with foreshadowing, as the narrator, Tim, tells readers that all of us “like to believe that in a moral emergency we will behave like the heroes of our youth…” The line foreshadows the moral emergency Tim will soon face. Tim explains he ran away, taking refuge at a campground in Minnesota after receiving his draft notice. He debates whether he should dodge the draft and tries to decide what a good man would do. But when the owner of the campground gives Tim the chance to safely cross into Canada, he realizes he can’t and returns home to enlist. As the story concludes, Tim says, “I survived, but it’s not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.” The story’s foreshadowing is ironic, because Tim realizes that a true hero, in his view, wouldn’t have enlisted to fight in a war he didn't believe in.
Tim Kills a Young Vietnamese Man
The killing of a young Vietnamese man is a recurrent plot point in the book. In the story “The Man I Killed,” Tim tells readers about the man’s corpse, which “lay face-up in the center of the trail, a slim, dead, almost dainty young man.” Throughout that story and in the next, “Ambush,” Tim repeatedly thinks about the dead man, trying to understand why he felt compelled to kill him, even though Tim “was in no real peril.” His friend, Kiowa, tries to help Tim process the killing, telling him that things like this happen in a war. In the end, Tim says he cannot sort it out, even years later when his daughter asks him if he ever killed anyone. This section of the book also foreshadows Kiowa’s death, first told in the story “Speaking of Courage” and then again in “In the Field.” Ironically, his death ends up being just another event that happened in the war.