THE PROTAGONIST, who is named Tim O’Brien, begins by describing an event that occurred in the middle of his Vietnam experience. “The Things They Carried” catalogs the variety of things his fellow soldiers in the Alpha Company brought on their missions.
Several of these things are intangible, including guilt and fear, while others are specific physical objects, including matches, morphine, M-16 rifles, and M&M’s candy.Throughout the collection, the same characters reappear in various stories. The first member of the Alpha Company to die is Ted Lavender, a “grunt,” or low-ranking soldier, who deals with his anxiety about the war by taking tranquilizers and smoking marijuana. Lavender is shot in the head on his way back from going to the bathroom, and his superior, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, blames himself for the tragedy. When Lavender is shot, Cross is distracting himself with thoughts of Martha, a college crush. It is revealed in “Love” that Cross’s feelings for Martha, whom he dated once before leaving for Vietnam, were never reciprocated, and that even twenty years after the war, his guilt over Lavender’s death remains.
- Thesis Statement
- Structure and Outline
- Voice and Grammar
In “On the Rainy River,” the narrator, O’Brien, explains the series of events that led him to Vietnam in the first place. He receives his draft notice in June of 1968, and his feelings of confusion drive him north to the Canadian border, which he contemplates crossing so that he will not be forced to fight in a war in which he doesn’t believe. Sitting in a rowboat with the proprietor of the Tip Top Lodge, where he stays, O’Brien decides that his guilt about avoiding the war and fear of disappointing his family are more important than his political convictions. He soon leaves, going first back home to Worthington, Minnesota and later to Vietnam.In addition to Ted Lavender, a few other members of the Alpha Company are killed during their mission overseas, including Curt Lemon, who is killed when using a grenade to play catch with the medic, Rat Kiley. Though O’Brien is not close to Lemon, in “The Dentist,” he tells a story of how Lemon, who faints before a routine checkup with an army-issued dentist, tries to save face by insisting that a perfectly good tooth be pulled.
Lee Strunk, another member of the company, dies from injuries he sustains by stepping on a landmine. In “Friends,” O’Brien remembers that before Strunk was fatally hurt, Strunk and Dave Jensen had made a pact that if either man were irreparably harmed, the other man would see that he was quickly killed. However, when Strunk is actually hurt, he begs Jensen to spare him, and Jensen complies. Instead of being upset by the news of his friend’s swift death en route to treatment, Jensen is relieved.