Honors Capstone Project
Date of Submission
Arts and Science
Capstone Prize Winner
Won Capstone Funding
English Language and Literature
Most will remember Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War narrative, The Things They Carried, for its exploration of the war experience of American soldiers and for its original style and form. While less conspicuous, O’Brien also provides a complex account of the role of things in relation to his characters throughout the collection of short stories. In my paper, I argue that the soldier characters depend on things to help them survive the war (physically and mentally) and that this strong dependence on things ends up having a damaging effect on the men. The soldiers’ fixation on things plays a key role in establishing their feelings of alienation and disconnection from other people and in creating a break from reality which the soldiers experience. This disconnection leaves them obsessively longing for meaningful human interaction throughout the book.
In order to further my argument, I closely examine O’Brien’s text and analyze the most significant interactions between people and things. Through investigating the soldiers’ keepsakes, such as letters, pictures, and other tokens from loved ones, I expose an alternate reality that many of the soldiers create based on these keepsakes and the memories of home associated with them. By entering their alternate realities, the soldiers are able to temporarily escape the war. As the men constantly use this escape, the characters connection to their reality of war and to their fellow soldiers becomes limited. The soldiers also rely on their keepsakes as outlets for emotions that they are afraid to express to the other soldiers due to their desire to seem brave and ruthless rather than cowardly. Similarly, the soldiers also redefine the uses of things other than keepsakes, such as supplies, in order to better serve their actual wartime needs. Their ability to redefine things illustrates the idea that meaning is not intrinsic in things, but gained through interaction with people.
I go on to suggest that, because the soldiers are so disconnected from women, they objectify the one American woman who comes to Vietnam, and, because they are so desensitized to death, they treat dead bodies and parts of dead bodies as objects (and even as material possessions). The fact that the soldiers are no more emotionally affected by the “human things” (objectified people, bodies, and body parts) than by the “non-human things” (keepsakes and supplies) illustrates a break from reality as they adopt the emotionless and inhuman persona that war demands. Without this disconnect that the Army seems to require, soldiers would be too emotionally distraught by the regularity of death and destruction to function effectively.
O’Brien’s soldier characters use things as a crutch to ease the hardships of war but are also crippled by this use of things. Through their intense connection to and dependence on things, they become more and more like things themselves as they struggle to hold on to their sense of humanity and identity in the dehumanizing climate of war. The connection O’Brien makes between humans and things throughout The Things They Carried adds depth to his assertion that everything blends together in the fog of war. The difference between human and thing becomes insignificant as the war becomes more surreal than real to the soldiers because the reality they have always known, only exists in their fantasies (alternate realities).
Polster, Allison, "The Connection Between Humans and Things in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried" (2010). Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects. 333.
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