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The Things They Carried

Main Ideas

Metaphors and Similes

Main Ideas Metaphors and Similes

The Things They Carried

Kiowa, who saw it happen, said it was like watching a rock fall, or a big sandbag or something—just boom, then down—not like the movies where the dead guy rolls around and does fancy spins and goes ass over teakettle. . .

When Ted Lavender is shot and killed, Kiowa uses a simile to compare his manner of death to the falling of a rock or a sandbag—a mundane occurrence that contrasts with the dramatic way that death is often portrayed in films.

In some respects, though not many, the waiting was worse than the tunnel itself. Imagination was a killer.

Here the narrator uses a metaphor to compare imagination to a killer as the men wait for one of their fellow soldiers to search a tunnel, suggesting that their fears are as threatening as actual danger.   

On the Rainy River

All around me the options seemed to be narrowing, as if I were hurtling down a huge black funnel, the whole world squeezing in tight. There was no happy way out.

In this simile, the narrator likens his draft notice to becoming trapped in a funnel that eliminates all of his options in life and instead forces him to make a choice between two poor options—go to war or suffer the embarrassment of running away.

Enemies

Jensen couldn't relax. Like fighting two different wars, he said. No safe ground: enemies everywhere.

After a fight in which Dave Jensen breaks Lee Strunk’s nose, Jensen becomes paranoid that Strunk will seek revenge at some point, explaining that he feels like he’s fighting two wars—the war in Vietnam and another war with Strunk. 

How to Tell a True War Story

In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning.

In this simile, the narrator discourages readers from trying to find a moral in a war story, comparing it to the act of trying to pull a thread from a woven cloth: it makes the whole story fall apart. 

Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong

For Mary Anne Bell, it seemed, Vietnam had the effect of a powerful drug: that mix of unnamed terror and unnamed pleasure that comes as the needle slips in and you know you’re risking something.

When Mark Fossie manages to get his sweet girlfriend from home, Mary Anne Bell, to come to his post in Vietnam to stay with him, she quickly adapts to soldier life, surprising everyone when she transforms into a killer; the narrator uses a metaphor to compare this transformation to the effect of injecting oneself with a strong narcotic. 

Speaking of Courage

He looked out across the lake and imagined the feel of his tongue against the truth.

After the war, Norman Bowker wishes he could talk to someone about the night in the mud field when he couldn’t save Kiowa, so he imagines telling his father the story; but even in his imagination, the full impact is hard to put into words, as if his tongue is not used to the feeling of telling the true account.

In the Field

Lieutenant Cross wished the rain would let up. Even for an hour, it would make things easier. 
But then he shrugged. The rain was the war and you had to fight it.

As the men search the fields for Kiowa’s body, Lieutenant Cross uses this metaphor to compare the relentless rain to the war itself because it can’t be changed or wished away; the men have no choice but to deal with it.

The Ghost Soldiers

I kept seeing you lying out there, heard you screaming, but it was like my legs were filled up with sand, they didn't work.

In this simile, Bobby Jorgensen tries to apologize to O’Brien for not helping him when he was hit, claiming that his legs became immovable, like sandbags, when he heard O’Brien’s screams.  

The Lives of the Dead

That's what a story does. The bodies are animated. You make the dead talk.

In the final story in the collection, the narrator explains that he writes in order to remember the people he’s loved and lost, using a metaphor to compare his writing about the dead to bringing them back to life and giving them the words to tell their stories.