In The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, uses many writing techniques to help bolster his work. His use of symbols adds another level to his rather excellent work. “The Things They Carried” is a deep and immensely realistic story that connects the reality of war to the emotional toll it takes on soldiers and the people who interact with them back home. O’Brien
uses modes of a quest, symbols, a Christ figure, and his own political views to add another level to the novel.
Tim O’Brien expresses his own political views, to help show his stance on the unnecessary Vietnam war. O’Brien says, “I survived, but it’s not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war. (Pg. 79)” This is relevant because O’Brien is showing his disgust for the draft and his decision not to stand up for what he thought was right. O’brien’s disgust for the draft causes him to debate fleeing to Canada, this is a big moment in the story because he debates with himself on whether or not he should go to war. This shows Tim O’brien’s political views because he says he was a coward which means he didn’t advocate for what he believed in. O’Brien’s political views are an enormous part of the story, because, throughout the novel, he second guesses himself and all through his time in Vietnam. His decisions torment him and he is also ashamed of how he gave in to his family’s expectations. This adds a whole nother psychological element to the story, which in turn makes O’Brien’s novel even better. Another expression of his distaste for the war is when, at the beginning of the story, O’Brien drives to the Canadian border to try and flee the draft. The Canadian border experience is a defining moment for O’Brien because that is where he decides between his family’s respect, and support, and his own political beliefs. An example of this would be when O’Brien states “I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile.” (42). This presents his internal conflict and his ultimate, and life-defining decision of going to war. O’Brien uses this torment to further develop his story by expressing his political views.
O’Brien uses certain characters as Christ figures, to add a religious element to his rather dark and realistic story. In The Things, They Carried O’brien’s character of Kiowa represents the religious cornerstone and Christ figure to the platoon in the story. Kiowa is a Christ figure because he exhibits strong morals, carries a bible with him at all times, and is the most decent soldier in the group. This can be seen through Kiowa’s advice, “You did a good thing today,” Kiowa said. “That shaking hands crap, it isn’t decent. The guys’ll hassle you for a while—especially Jensen—but just keep saying no. Should’ve done it myself. Takes guts, I know that. (pg. 234)” Kiowa offers effective moral advice and helps many of the soldiers through tough times. His father is a pastor and a lot of his dad’s wisdom was passed down to him. This shows that even through terrible times like the Vietnam war there are people who can help others through it. This adds a realistic aspect to O’Brien’s fictional story because Kiowa is the exact opposite of the others in his platoon. While the other soldiers make fun of the Vietnamese, harass animals, and show no humanity, Kiowa is there to keep them in check. Another Christ Figure in “The Things They Carried” is Elroy Berdahl, who helps O’Brien through his life-changing choice of going to fight in Vietnam. When O’Brien arrives at the Tip Top Lodge where Elroy resides, he is a broken and tormented man, but with Elroy’s silent guidance Tim O’Brien sifts through the facts to make a rational and just decision. Elroy always knows what Tim needs and helps him find himself. This can be illuminated through Elroy’s actions, “‘Ain’t biting,’ he said.
Then after a time the old man pulled in his line and turned the boat back toward Minnesota.” (pg. 57). Elroy brings O’Brien to the brink with his silent teachings and advice. His silence and understanding are what helps Tim O’Brien in his choice to flee or go to war. O’Brien’s christ figures help the main character in their moral codes, and decisions.
O’Brien also uses symbols to add depth to his story. O’Brien writes, “I’ll tell you the straight truth,” he said. “The guy was dead the second he stepped on the trail. Understand me? We all had him zeroed.”(pg.232) The dead Vietnamese soldier represents the guilt that comes with killing someone. The Vietnamese soldier comes back multiple times in the story because that is the guilt that lingers with O’Brien the rest of his life. O’Brien is giving advice to the reader by showing that taking a life is a much harder, and longer process than just pulling the trigger. He is truly shaken by his actions and tries to justify the man’s death. Another example of this is, “I was terrified. There were no thoughts about killing. The grenade was to make him go away—just evaporate—and I leaned back and felt my mind go empty and then felt it fill up again (Pg. 235).” He tries to say it was a natural instinct and not his own conscious self that killed the man. This is his guilt coming back to him, trying to justify his actions and his morality in the situation. Even when he is with his daughter and she asks if he has killed anyone, he thinks of that star-shaped hole in the Vietcong soldier’s eye. O’Brien effectively uses symbolism to show the realism of the time spent in Vietnam and how it can linger with someone forever.
Tim O’Brien, with his excellent writing, makes The Things They Carried a wonderful masterpiece, where he weighs the weight and moral decisions that come with war. His use of Christ figures, symbols, and his own political views compile into a truly raw political statement. The adoption of those writing techniques, transforms his book, from being an ordinary war story to becoming amazing, and thought compelling story that will no doubt go down in history as being, one of the best Vietnam war novels ever.


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