Discuss the idea of carrying in O’Brien’s work. What things are carried, and by whom?
The theme of carrying is an important one throughout the text, and the title story provides the most comprehensive examination of this idea. The dense and detailed lists of objects that the men carry may seem tedious or irrelevant at times, but by mentioning that in addition to weapons soldiers brought mundane things like candy, cigarettes, and letters from their loved ones, O’Brien emphasizes their humanity. And in specifying the exact weight of several of the items, including food, weapons, and gear, he gives us a very tangible idea of what it was like to struggle under such weight.
But the soldiers carry more than just physical burdens—in many cases, they are weighed down by emotional baggage. Jimmy Cross thinks that he carried the idea of Martha so heavily, for example, that he caused Ted Lavender’s death. And because Ted Lavender carries so much anxiety—and tranquilizers and marijuana to slow him down and soothe him—he may not be paying attention while walking around, resulting in his being shot.
The metaphor of carrying is important to O’Brien’s work as a whole and extends through the different stories in order to give weight to the idea that the things one carries—whether physical or emotional—enable us to navigate life’s inconsistencies. Many of the characters and items introduced in the first story are carried by O’Brien into the later stories. Kiowa’s Bible and the effect it has on his life is a major topic of conversation in “Church.” Henry Dobbins’s character can be explained by the fact that he carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck, and in “Stockings,” O’Brien recounts what happens after the girlfriend breaks up with Dobbins. These recurring details indicate that personalities remained constant in Vietnam and that the beliefs and hopes of the main characters sustained these personalities throughout their time in the war.
Discuss the use of third-person narration in the work. Since most of the work is personal and written from a first-person perspective, what purpose does third-person narration serve? Why is the collection’s title phrased in the third-person plural?
In telling stories, O’Brien is able to gain some distance from the harrowing experience he had in Vietnam. Several of the stories in the work, specifically those centered on a particularly painful experience, are told from a third-person point of view, so that O’Brien can sustain a distance from his memories. For example, in “The Man I Killed,” O’Brien describes the physical characteristics of the Vietnamese soldier’s corpse and illustrates how his fellow soldiers react to his killing the man, but he doesn’t at any point describe how he feels about the situation. His guilt is implicit in this lack of response. Like the other men of the Alpha Company, who would rather joke about how their comrades’ corpses look than deal with the impact of death, O’Brien uses third-person narration to achieve a distance that would have been impossible with first-person narration.
The use of the third person also gives a certain amount of universality to the work—indeed, O’Brien doesn’t think that his experience is any more horrific than that of his fellow soldiers. He realizes, for example, that he was not the only soldier to experience Kiowa’s death, and that Norman Bowker and Jimmy Cross experienced it differently and just as validly. The work is titled
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