The Things They Carried

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The Things They Carried Spin Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
O'Brien says sometimes the war wasn't always terrible: it could be "almost" sweet. He recalls how a boy with a plastic leg approached Azar and asked for candy. Azar gives him the candy and says "War's a bitch." O'Brien recalls watching Mitchell Sanders sit under a tree, picking off body lice from his skin. He put the lice in a USO envelope and sent it to his draft board in Ohio. O'Brien recalls Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins playing checks every evening. Often, the other soldiers would watch.
Azar says "war's a bitch" because the soldier who blew off the kid's leg would have shot the kid dead if he had more ammo. Sanders can't escape from the war, so his only form of retaliation is to send a letter, filled with his body lice, to the people who sent him there. There's comfort in playing/watching checkers because the rules don't change, unlike in war.
Themes
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Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
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O'Brien says he is now forty-three years old and he is a writer. The war is long over and a lot of it is difficult to remember. As he sits at his typewriter he remembers Kiowa disappearing under the mud and Curt Lemon blown up in pieces into a tree. O'Brien says the act of remembering becomes a kind of happening, and the characters of his memories do things: Kiowa yells at him, Curt Lemon steps into the sunlight. He says the bad stuff still happens. He says the war wasn't always this way, though.
O'Brien is bringing the reader to the present—he is introducing himself as a writer who remembers and writes stories. His memories have lives of their own, and the people he fought with who died still exist in their own way through memory and stories. And he emphasizes that it is too simplistic to say that war is just terrible—it's both a kid with a leg blown off and that kid being a kid, wanting and getting candy.
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O'Brien remembers how Ted Lavender acted when he took too many tranquilizers. When asked how the war was going, he would say it was a "nice mellow war today" with a spaced out grin.
We already know Lavender dies, so there's sadness in this recollection. But O'Brien shows that good memories are still associated with Lavender.
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O'Brien remembers how the Company once had an "old poppa-san" to be their guide through mine fields in the Batangan Peninsula for five days, and he led all of them to safety. Jimmy Cross gave the poppa-san a hug while Mitchell Sanders and Lee Strunk gave him boxes of C rations. The old man had tears in his eyes as they parted ways.
The old man crying shows the line between enemy and ally is blurred in war: he was a native but he still helped the soldiers survive and felt a bond to them.
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O'Brien recalls how much time they spent waiting around if they weren't "humping," which meant marching. He says the war was boring in a strange way. You'd try to relax, but as soon as you did you'd hear gunfire and be reduced to squeals.
Even when there was no fighting, the soldiers' minds were always on the war, always focused on the possibility of death
Themes
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O'Brien says he still feels guilty. At forty-three he's still writing war stories. O'Brien's daughter, Kathleen, tells him he's obsessed and he should write about happier things. He admits he should forget, but the problem with remembering is you can't forget. As a writer, you take from your own life and memories "at the intersection of past and present." He says the real obsession is writing the stories.
Part of O'Brien thinks he should quit writing about the war. He looks to his daughter's innocent suggestion as reason to forget his gruesome past and move on. But the nature of writing is the utilization of memory, and using memory means being unable to forget.
Themes
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O'Brien says there are happy stories too. He then presents a "peace story." A soldier goes AWOL and lives in Danang with a nurse from the Red Cross. The nurse loves him, and he gets everything he wants. Then one day he returns to his unit in the bush. One of his fellow soldiers asks what happened with the nurse and why he came back. He says the peace "felt so good it hurt. I want to hurt it back."
It's clearly not a story about peace, but rather that when this soldier goes AWOL and basks in freedom for a while from the war, he feels compelled to return to action because the peace isn't enough. After experiencing war, it doesn't feel right to feel at peace. He can't let go of the war—it's adrenaline fueled and terrible excitement.
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O'Brien often only remembers fragments. He recalls Norman Bowker one night lying down, watching the stars, and saying to O'Brien if he could have one wish it would be that his dad would write him a letter that says it's OK if he doesn't win any medals in the war.
Bowker not only feels the pressures of surviving in the war, but he feels the social obligation to his father and his reputation to come back from the war a hero.
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O'Brien recalls how Ted Lavender adopted a puppy he found. He spoon-fed it and carried it with him until the day Azar killed it. O'Brien says the average age in the platoon was about nineteen or twenty, so the atmosphere was playful in a warped way. He recalls Azar's words after he blew up Ted Lavender's puppy, wondering why everyone was so upset. "I mean, Christ, I'm just a boy."
The nature of "play" in war takes on a sinister shade. O'Brien is showing how war warps "play". Not only are the soldiers too young to always know right from wrong, but they've been put in a war where right and wrong doesn't exist.
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O'Brien knocks off a laundry list of other fragmented memories. The scent of an empty body bag. The moon rising over the paddies. Henry Dobbins sewing on his buck-sergeant stripes. A field swirling under the wind whipped up by a chopper, and then returning to normal when the chopper went away. A trail outside My Khe, a hand grenade, a dead young man, Kiowa telling O'Brien he had no choice.
O'Brien presents such a seemingly mundane list of memories that ends alluding to the man he killed. O'Brien's contrast of "normality" with his killing of another man shows the sudden, awful, and arbitrary intrusion of death and fear in a warzone.
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O'Brien repeats that he's forty-three years old and though the war happened "half a life ago," when he remembers the war it comes back into the present. When he makes the memories a story, it makes them forever. He says stories are for bringing the past into the future, when you can't remember how you got to where you are and memory is erased, all you have are stories.
The war never leaves O'Brien. He can't stop remembering it, not only because he doesn't want to, but because he feels compelled to write about it. By writing about it he makes these stories eternal.
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