"The Things They Carried" Themes

Marissa L.
6
min read
Aug 9, 2021

The Things They Carried is a collection of related short stories about the Vietnam War written by Tim O'Brien based loosely on his own experiences. Like many war stories, it is grim and somewhat depressing but it fascinatingly shows the perspective of individual soldiers during a time of war. It is considered one of the best works of literature depicting the Vietnam War. Its themes of truth, guilt, death, acceptance, burdens, and courage have made it a popular book in the high school curriculum. Let's get into the themes of The Things They Carried. 

Truth

The book is written interestingly, with Tim O'Brien being both the protagonist, primary narrator, as well as writer. Though many of the stories are based on his own experiences during the Vietnam war, the book is a work of fiction. In the book, he speaks about the difference between happening-truth and story-truth. He believes that sometimes story-truth is more important than happening-truth (what actually happened) because story-truth can better express how somebody actually feels in the moment compared to just a dry recounting of the facts. The story is full of slight contradictions like different characters getting the names of places mixed up or relating events in slightly different ways, showing the subjective nature of truth and highlighting the importance of story-truth versus happening-truth. 

Guilt

Guilt is an important The Things They Carried theme. Many of the young soldiers signed up for war because they would have felt guilty of not being manly if they tried to avoid it. Survivor's guilt is a complicated emotion for the troops to deal with after the death of Kiowa. Norman Bowker eventually commits suicide after the war because he feels guilty that he could not save Kiowa. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and Tim O'Brien both find ways of blaming themselves. Every soldier feels the guilt of not being able to save his comrades and some even feel guilty for killing the enemy once they see the humanity in them.  

Acceptance

Acceptance is another major The Things They Carried theme. Many of the young men came to war expecting glory, but soon realize that the only important thing is survival. Courage soon gives way to constant fear, and the act of killing someone is emotionally traumatic. Many are unable to accept the death of comrades and take drastic measures to escape the war. When Tim O'Brien visits his squadmates after the war, many are still unable to accept the things they did and have found it difficult to fit into civilian life. The ones that are the happiest are those that were able to accept what they saw, what happened to them, and what they had to do.

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Collective Identity

There are many situations when an individual has to give up his concept of self-protection for the benefit of the group. This is particularly evident in a war when soldiers must trust their comrades completely and at times may have to sacrifice for the group. When Ted Lavender is killed, the Army says Alpha Company has one casualty because referring to the collective is less emotional than referring to an individual. The story does a great job of showing the cohesiveness of the group but also highlighting the individual thoughts and experiences of individual members. They all share the load of the group but they all carry specific things that are unique to their histories, personalities, and stories.

Courage

As with many war stories, courage is one of the main The Things They Carried themes. The book speaks not just of the courage required to be in a war but also of the courage required to sign up for war. In a hyper-masculine society, war is seen as the manliest thing to do, but the young soldiers that end up fighting experience fear like they never have before. The constant threat of death makes people fear the smallest noises. Typically macho men like Curt Lemon end up being viewed as absurd caricatures rather than real people. 

Love

As a group of young men, roughly around the age of 20 and many being younger, love and sex are important considerations. Many men have sweethearts back home that they think and obsess over. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross believes that his obsession with Martha causes the death of  Lavender, and has to learn to shift focus away from love while at war. On the other hand, Mark Fossie brings his girlfriend to visit, but she gets seduced by the violence of Vietnam and ends up running off to become a vigilante. Love sustained many of the soldiers but also created problems for a lot of them.

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Death

From the very beginning, Tim O'Brien thinks about dodging the draft as a way of escaping what he thought would have been a sure death in the war. Death is a concern for everyone at war but the impact of the death of the three squadmates Is immense on the survivors. Death in war does not care about religion as in the case of Kiowa, does not care about preparedness as in the case of Ted Lavender, or bravado as in the case of Lemon. Death can come from anywhere at any time and the only thing that keeps people alive is luck. This realization weighs heavily on the members of Alpha сompany making death one of the important The Things They Carried themes.

Burdens

The soldiers carry not just items with them but emotional burdens as well. ‘The Things They Carried’ can be seen as a reference to the physical objects that each soldier valued and took with him but also as a reference to the burdens of war that each of them carried. Lieutenant Cross carries the burden of keeping his soldiers safe and after the death of one of his men realizes that the letters he was carrying from Martha were stopping him from fulfilling his duty. Soldiers carried the burdens of fear, loss, longing, and guilt with them throughout the fighting and in some cases for the rest of their lives.


There are several important themes in The Things They Carried but if you had to answer the question of what is the Theme of The Things They Carried? The best answer would be the burdens we all carry. Burdens arise from emotions like guilt, love, ideas of courage, dedication to a group, and death. To deal with those burdens, acceptance and truth are important elements. The Things They Carried is a complex work of fiction, so if you need any help with any assignments about it then don't hesitate to reach out to the experts at Studyfy. On the platform, you will find resources for homework help, experts in essay editing, and a lot more!

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