Symbolism of Items in “the Things They Carried” by Tim O’ Brien

Symbolism of Items in “the Things They Carried” by Tim O’ Brien

In “The Things They Carried,” a short story by Tim O’Brien, the reader is able to see, in great detail, each of the characters ways of dealing with the atrocities of the Vietnam War by what they choose to carry; how symbolically they use these objects as a means for remembrance of what they have left behind, to escape what they deal with each day, and for some, a false sense of security and/or control over the violence and death that surrounds them. Each soldier in the story “humps” an object of escape in the form of imagination, fantasy, or mind altering substances.

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The protagonist, Lt. Jimmy Cross, means of escape is love. This is brought through in vivid detail about his obsession, a girl from back home named Martha. He reads her letters, stares at her pictures, and will even “sometimes taste the envelope flaps,” (392) all the while understanding her affections are not returned. This is referenced symbolically with the mention of her volleyball picture “in her white gym shorts and yellow t-shirt,” (402). By which yellow represents the color of friendship.

Rat Kiley uses imagination as an escape through his comic books just as Kiowa carries a New Testament bible, not only to read but also for the comforting smell of it. Mitchell Sanders fills his need by fantasizing sexual liaisons by carrying condoms and tiger fatigues, the same as Henry Dobbins has his girlfriends pantyhose “around his neck as a comforter,” (396). Ted Lavender escapes through the use of tranquilizers and dope and Rat Kiley with brandy, both in hope of taking the edge off the reality which is fear beyond comprehension.

Other items of “necessity” were chosen for a sense of security, no matter how useless, and some for the feeling of control over a small part of their lives. Lee Strunk carries a slingshot so that ammo “would never be a problem,” (396) against men with guns and grenades. Kiowa thinks that moccasins will help to silence his movements even though he is burdened with over 20lbs of clanging metal. And Dave Jensen brought “night-sight vitamins high in carotene,” (396) to see better in a thickly canopied jungle.

Jensen also had brought items of his life that brings him a sense of control and normality over what he can- a toothbrush, dental floss, bars of soap for field hygiene and 3 extra pairs of socks and Dr. Scholl’s foot powder so he doesn’t get trench foot. Where I usually do not like “emotionally manipulative” stories of past atrocities, this story forced me to analyze what I would feel compelled to bring if placed in a similar situation.


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