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.
Shame and Guilt Theme Icon

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 he would be called to war—if that day ever came—in the story "On The Rainy River," and how in reality no such reserve existed.

The feelings of shame and guilt follow the soldiers into the war as well, and make them do irrational and crazy things. In "The Dentist," Curt Lemon faints when an army dentist treats him, much to his own shame. To prove to the men in his Company, as well as to himself, that he's man enough and brave enough to see the dentist (and, by extension, fight in the war) he goes to the dentist's tent in the middle of the night and demands that he pull out some of Lemon's perfectly healthy teeth. Survivor's guilt haunts many of O'Brien's friends, as well as O'Brien himself. Norman Bowker can't shake the shame of not winning The Silver Star of Valor because he thinks that he would have won it if he had not failed to save Kiowa's in "Speaking of Courage." Shame and guilt follow Bowker with such intensity that he eventually hangs himself.

In "In the Field," it's revealed that O'Brien is shaken by a similar shame and guilt over Kiowa, believing that he's the one that was actually responsible for Kiowa's death. Meanwhile, the other soldiers in the company blame Lieutenant Jimmy Cross in "In the Field" for stationing them in such a vulnerable position. Even Cross wavers between blaming himself (he first wants to write a letter to Kiowa's father commending how great of a soldier his son was) and blaming the cruelty of war (resolving not to write the letter). The war created impossible situations where death was inevitable, but that didn't stop those who survived from blaming themselves for the deaths of their friends—maybe if they'd just been a little braver, a little faster, a little smarter, they could have done something to save their comrade, and so they can't ever escape the guilt.

The solders even feel guilt about the deaths of the enemy. In "The Man I Killed" O'Brien throws a grenade into the path of an anonymous young man, killing him, and then tries to "un-kill" him by creating a history and future for the man—O'Brien, after seeing his own friends die, can't help but understand that the man he killed is just that, a man, just like O'Brien himself. Every story in The Things They Carried is riddled with feelings of shame and guilt. It is a feeling that no soldier in the collection, and as O'Brien insinuates, no soldier in Vietnam, was able to escape.

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Shame and Guilt ThemeTracker

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Shame and Guilt Quotes in The Things They Carried

Below you will find the important quotes in The Things They Carried related to the theme of Shame and Guilt.
The Things They Carried Quotes

For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn't, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die. In different ways, it happened to all of them.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

No one is immune from reacting in wartime, O'Brien suggests here. The men all displayed these exceptional reactions in their behavior. Reduced to a pure survival instinct, they did things they would otherwise be ashamed of: begging for their lives, discharging weapons without cause, making promises to their parents and God. In war, where mortality is always on the line, the senses are constantly heightened and the men are united by their shared fear. They accept that if one becomes hysterical with fear then they all have or will become hysterical too. The shame one would feel in civilized society for acting this way is not felt in the same magnitude in wartime, given their bond and shared experience. The social rules do not apply in war, and particularly in a war like Vietnam (or so O'Brien implies). No one is safe from the fear of dying. 


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Lavender was dead. You couldn't burn the blame.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Ted Lavender
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross burns all of his letters from his sweetheart, Martha, back in the United States. He is riddled with guilt over Ted Lavender's death. He believes that had he not been so distracted by constantly thinking about Martha, then he would have been a better leader and been able to prevent Lavender from being shot and killed. He realizes that burning the letters is a sentimental gesture, and will not change the fact that Lavender is gone. The blame he feels is monstrous and enormous, but there is no way to burn it, to make it disappear.

It's suggested that Cross also knows that the life he remembers with Martha is gone. She does not love him anymore - they are in different worlds. He is resolved to become a better Lieutenant, which he believes to mean accepting this new reality where he is alone and his only responsibility is leading his men and keeping them safe. So, for now, he does the only thing he has control over and burns the symbol of Martha, which was keeping him tethered to the old world outside of Vietnam. It will not make his guilt go away, but it's something he can do to fight it. 

Love Quotes

For a few moments he considered asking her to his room, but instead he laughed and told her how back in college he'd almost done something very brave. It was after seeing Bonnie and Clyde, he said, and on this same spot he'd almost picked her up and carried her to his room and tied her to the bed and put his hand on her knee and just held it there all night long. It came close, he told her—he'd almost done it. Martha shut her eyes. She crossed her arms at her chest, as if suddenly cold, rocking slightly, then after a time she looked at him and said she was glad he hadn't tried it. She didn't understand how men could do those things. What things? he asked, and Martha said, The things men do. Then he nodded. It began to form. Oh, he said, those things.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Martha
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Lieutenant Cross is visiting with Tim O'Brien many years after the war has ended and they have both returned home. He is telling O'Brien about how since he returned from the war, he saw his old flame Martha again at their class reunion. He maintains that he still loves her, and he discloses that when they saw each other again, he confessed to her that the night he walked her to the same place they were standing near her dorm at the reunion he wanted to take her upstairs, tie her to the bed, "and put his hand on her knee and just [hold] it there all night long." This harkens back to the title story in The Things They Carried where Lieutenant Cross can't stop thinking about touching Martha's knee while they both watch "Bonnie and Clyde" (page 4). 

When Cross tells Martha about wanting to touch her knee all those years ago, she does not react well. She cowers a little, crosses her arms, and appears cold. She tells him that she is glad he did not do that, and can't "understand how men could do those things." She leaves this in the abstract, even when Cross asks her to explain. "The things men do." Yet, he does not push her on the question because the answer makes sense in a way: "[the answer] began to form." Cross learned in the war, as O'Brien did, that the whole truth, the whole answer, is never available. He has come to accept the discomfort of uncertainty for what is true, and on top of that he has witnessed the horrors of war, the horrors of what men to do each other. Martha knows this too after she spent years as a combat nurse on mission trips throughout the world. She is not blind to the world he saw in Vietnam. In their world, men go off to fight one another, men start these wars. What men do, then, is inexplicable to her, and it is inexplicable to Cross as well. They are both caught in this double bind without answers to the big "why" of war and killing and lost love, but she can say she is glad he did not tie her up and touch her knee all night. That is something she can understand and react to, however strange it may be. 

Spin Quotes

The bad stuff never stops happening: it lives in its own dimension, replaying itself over and over.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

The memories of the war never stop replaying for O'Brien. It is like a tape on loop. O'Brien cannot look back on death as an event—instead he lives with the constant recall of the moments before his friends' deaths and then the deaths themselves. The feedback loop is endless and exists in a world of its own, a different "dimension." The title, "Spin," encourages this sensation of recurrence in the story. O'Brien is no longer fighting the war in Vietnam, but he can never escape the memories. Insofar as that is the case, he can never really see the end of war, and thus never see the end of guilt and trauma.

That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 35-36
Explanation and Analysis:

Stories defy life and death—something very important to O'Brien, particularly in the face of the deaths he has witnessed in war. As he claims here, stories exist as entities unto themselves that can be passed from person to person. Without a history, without any memories or a past, a story can still make sense. A story can envelop you when you are lost, with no memory of how you arrived at the present. 

O'Brien finds solace in the escapism of storytelling. He can define his own rules for morality and life and death. In stories, he can absolve himself of guilt, and can converse with friends who are no longer alive. He can relive the brotherhood he felt while he was fighting in the war. There is a safety in the world of stories that is constant and unchanging. It's the creation of something different and separate, where he can hide from the demons of his past. 

On the Rainy River Quotes

I felt myself blush. I couldn't tolerate it. I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn't make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that's all it was. And right then I submitted. I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien is on a boat with Elroy Berdahl, who is housing him near the Canadian border. O'Brien has fled from his town and his job in a panic, to prevent being sent to Vietnam after he's drafted. Elroy seems to know why O'Brien is so afraid, and does not ask him his reasons for being at the empty Tip Top lounge. He takes O'Brien out on his boat, and when they are no more than twenty yards from the Canadian shore, more than close enough to swim across and escape, O'Brien is struck with overwhelming shame. The embarrassment he experiences simply thinking about not going to the war is enough to make him go to Vietnam and potentially die. His reasons for fighting are not to defend America or its ideals, but instead to not be embarrassed. This is an important admission, and emphasizes O'Brien's common claims that war is not only about high ideals or even about constant violence, but just as often it's about petty emotions, drudgery, and shame. It is not very heroic, but it is very human for him to risk his life just to avoid embarrassment.

The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien here fast-forwards through his drive back home from the Canadian border, through the settings of the war itself, and back to America, where he returned after surviving combat. This is not a happy ending, he insists. He is a soldier who fought and he is also a coward. He cannot give himself credit for being a brave soldier, because his reasons for fighting were not noble. He went to the frontline only because he feared embarrassment more than death. In his mind, he cannot be championed as a hero or a patriot because his intent was self-preservation. Indeed, as O'Brien sees it, there might have been something more "heroic" about just going through with his plan for fleeing America and the war altogether.

The Man I Killed Quotes

In the presence of his father and uncles, he pretended to look forward to doing his patriotic duty, which was also a privilege, but at night he prayed with his mother that the war might end soon. Beyond anything else, he was afraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village. But all he could do, he thought, was wait and pray and try not to grow up too fast.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Man O'Brien Killed
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien weaves in episodic reflections about the the Vietnamese youth he killed in the war, as Kiowa tries to comfort him in the battlefield. In reflecting on the man, O'Brien finds himself giving the man a story. He imagines the family the man has left behind, and the things that the man used to enjoy as a boy. He imagines the sense of patriotic duty that the man feels socially obligated to fight for even though he is afraid. The man would not want to embarrass himself by failing to meet this obligation, and even if he no longer cared about embarrassing himself then he has to worry about embarrassing his family and his village.

O'Brien projects his own fears and insecurities about fighting in the war onto the dead man through this invented narrative. There is no need for O'Brien to come out and say this fictional story about the man, because of the way these reflections are situated between the telling of Kiowa's attempts to comfort O'Brien. This mirrors how O'Brien could not believe Kiowa in the moment; he could not even hear him or focus on the present. He was overcome by guilt for killing the man, and kept getting lost in inventing a life for the man - a guilt that pulls him deeper and deeper into new, false details about the man's family, the man's village, the man's education. 

These reflections echo O'Brien's anxiety throughout the book towards the limits of social obligation and the role of blame in war. O'Brien does not want to fight in this war, but if he flees or refuses, he fears the embarrassment this would bring upon himself, his family, and his town. Similar to the man he killed, whom he says "pretended" to care about his patriotic duty, O'Brien feels throughout the war that he is masquerading as a soldier. He is simply trying to survive, but it is fear of humiliation that brought him to combat, not patriotism. He believes he probably shared this anxiety with the young man he killed.

Ambush Quotes

I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty. I crouched and kept my head low. I tried to swallow whatever was rising from my stomach, which tasted like lemonade, something fruity and sour. I was terrified. There were not thoughts about killing. The grenade was to make him go away—just evaporate—and I leaned back and felt my head go empty and then felt it fill up again. I had already thrown the grenade before telling myself to throw it.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Man O'Brien Killed
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien prefaces the story by saying that he lied to his daughter, Kathleen, about not killing a man in Vietnam. He takes this story as an occasion to tell the "adult" version of what really happened. In describing the act of killing, he insists upon how fast it all happened. There was no sustained calculus of political or social obligation that drove him to throw the grenade, and he felt no ill will towards his target - the response was overwhelmingly automatic. The fact that another man's death is the result of a reaction clearly troubles O'Brien, given how absolutely final death is as a result. While he can offer no moral or even superficial justification for throwing the grenade, besides a need to make the man disappear, he nonetheless goes through the list of all of the things he did not think about the man. Thus we see both how O'Brien could blame himself for not thinking more about the man or the reasons for the war in the moment, as well as empathize with how fast these life and death decisions take place. This passage communicates the fleetingness of mortality - how life can become death in an instant without any time to process or understand. War is defined by these indigestible instants that defy explanation or justification - which is why O'Brien is so haunted by their memory. He can't help but feel things in the present and map them onto his recollections of the past. 

Speaking of Courage Quotes

Courage was not always a matter of yes or no. Sometimes it came in degrees, like the cold; sometimes you were very brave up to a point and then beyond that point you were not so brave. In certain situations you could do incredible things, you could advance toward enemy fire, but in other situations, which were not nearly so bad, you had trouble keeping your eyes open. Sometimes, like that night in the shit field, the difference between courage and cowardice was something small and stupid.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Norman Bowker
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien tells this story from the perspective of his platoon member Norman Bowker after he has returned to the small town in which he grew up after the war. Norman is still consumed with guilt for not being able to save Kiowa after he was blown up in the "shit fields." In order to not blame himself directly, he keeps the imaginative focus on how he failed to get the Silver Star, but he was close. He imagines riding in the car around town with his father, telling him the story of how close he had been. How even in his imagination his father cannot make him feel guiltless for Kiowa's death.

In describing the shit fields during combat, Norman highlights the fragility of mortality and the unpredictable strength of one's moral compass. The horrors and stresses of war put so much pressure on people that in the moment it's impossible to know how one will react. Courage takes on different forms, then, since no man was one way at all times. There was no guarantee one would be brave in response to danger. On the night Kiowa died, courage and cowardice are measured in minutia—the variables are so small that one's inner turmoil almost seems banal compared to something as final as death. Norman blames his inability to save Kiowa on the fact that the shit fields smelled so terrible that he could not continue to hold onto Kiowa's boot - instead letting him sink below the muck. He insists he could have been able to save him but for the overpowering stench. That small fact, and Norman's reaction to it, plague him at all times. He cannot accept the honors of his other medals or value his survival. Those gestures from the army are meaningless to him because Kiowa is dead. Winning the Silver Star would mean he would have lived, so the medal becomes a symbol of impossible achievement. 

Notes Quotes

By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker)
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

After O'Brien receives a letter from Norman Bowker years after the two fought together in Vietnam, he realizes the important role writing has played in his life and development following the war. Bowker is in terrible shape: he sleeps most of the day, plays basketball in the afternoons, and drinks at night as he drives his father's truck around his small town for hours on end. He asks O'Brien to write a story using his story, but changing his name. He says that he wishes he could write it, but he can't go back to that time; he doesn't have the words for it.

O'Brien sees that he's gotten off easily after the war; he even feels a bit of guilt for how quickly he has been able to re-enter society as a functioning individual. Writing has worked as a way to channel all of the memories out of him in a productive way instead of letting the tape loop endlessly in his mind without exit. He has given the stories a world separate from his own lived experience, and this allows him to make sense of those experiences. Whether the stories are entirely true or not is not necessarily of consequence, because their purpose is to search for meaning and reconcile the big questions of life concerning death and morality. 

Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own.

Related Characters: Tim O'Brien (speaker), Norman Bowker
Page Number: 153-154
Explanation and Analysis:

O'Brien reflects on writing "Speaking of Courage" about Norman Bowker, and he now wants to go beyond that story to actually change it in hindsight. He feels it necessary to insist upon the fact that Norman did not suffer from a lack of bravery or skill when Kiowa died and he missed the opportunity to win the Silver Star. Instead, O'Brien shoulders the blame himself for Kiowa's death (even though in that actual time and place, he had nothing to do with it). In war, blame is an all-consuming feeling that touches everyone. Blame avoids being assigned a clear agent in war as well, meaning that everyone can come to believe that a certain, immaterial event was their fault. Both Norman and O'Brien can rightfully believe Kiowa's death happened because of them, and they could both be right and wrong at the same time. O'Brien wants to emphasize at the story's end that he is solely responsible for Kiowa's passing. 

O'Brien even blames himself for Norman's death, now, because in the original iteration of the story he didn't include Kiowa, or the shit fields, or Vietnam. He hopes that this new version of the story lives up to what Norman would want to be told about him to the world, and believes that because he failed to do that the first time around perhaps Norman could not bear to live with the truth of his experiences alone. Stories help make it possible for O'Brien to live, and Norman was never able to properly tell his, which contributed to his suicide.