The Things They Carried

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Themes and Colors
Mortality and Death Theme Icon
Social Obligation Theme Icon
Morality Theme Icon
Storytelling and Memory Theme Icon
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Things They Carried, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

The threat, even expectation, of death hangs over all of the soldiers in The Things They Carried. Even before he reaches Vietnam, Tim O'Brien (both the author of the collection and the frequent first person narrator) meditates on the inevitability of his death after he is drafted in "On The Rainy River," and considers dodging the draft and fleeing to Canada. The collection is haunted by the deaths of O'Brien's comrades—Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon…

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In The Things They Carried, O'Brien often focuses on how the men in his stories, even if they volunteered to fight, joined the army because of the unspoken pressure to fulfill their obligations as citizens and soldiers. These social obligations range from that of wider society (government, city/town) and narrows to the nuclear (family, friends, personal reflection). After being drafted in "On the Rainy River," Tim O'Brien runs from his hometown and ends up…

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Within the stories in The Things They Carried the characters tell many stories to each other, and the question always asked of the storyteller is "What's the moral?" In "How to Tell a True War Story," Mitchell Sanders tells O'Brien about a company who has to lie dormant and watchful in the pitch-blackness over a village. They begin to have auditory hallucinations: champagne glasses clinking, music playing, a full chamber orchestra. They aren't supposed to…

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Storytelling in The Things They Carried operates on multiple levels: at the level of the book itself, the stories within stories, and the reflections on the value of these stories both in the context of the war and then post-war. "The Lives of the Dead" speaks to O'Brien's belief that stories have the power to give an entire life to those who have passed on. He refers to his childhood love Linda who passed away…

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Shame and guilt are constant and often inextricable themes in The Things They Carried. Soldiers felt obligated to go to war for fear of embarrassing themselves, their families, and their towns if they fled. This embarrassment is bolstered by the guilt of not being "masculine" enough—not being brave, heroic, and patriotic enough. O'Brien reflects on how he thought he had a secret reserve of bravery and heroism stored away, waiting for the moment when…

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