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The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | The Things They Carried | Summary



An epigraph from John Ransom's Andersonville Diary appears before the first story in the collection. Ransom was a Union soldier who was captured in 1863 and imprisoned in Andersonville in Georgia. Deaths, desperate acts, and atrocities became routine in the overcrowded prison. Ransom endured 14 months before escaping.

"The Things They Carried" combines the fragmented story of Jimmy Cross's reaction to a soldier's death with catalogs, or detailed lists, of what the soldiers carried. These characters frequently reappear throughout the stories that follow.

The first catalog lists necessities the soldiers carry—food and water, first aid, boots and helmets—and the weight, down to the ounce, of each item. But readers also learn that Dave Jensen carries "several hotel-sized bars of soap" because he worries about staying clean, that Ted Lavender carries tranquilizers to take the edge off his fear, and that Kiowa, a Native American and devout Baptist, carries "his grandfather's old hunting hatchet" along with a copy of the New Testament. A second catalog lists personal items, such as Jimmy's photos, and a third breaks out gear by soldiers' rank and jobs. Rat Kiley, the medic, carries "morphine" and "M&Ms for especially bad wounds"; Henry Dobbins, big and strong, "humps," or carries, the company's hefty M-60 machine gun, which "weighed 23 pounds unloaded" and an additional 10 to 15 pounds of ammunition.

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross leads Alpha Company. He daydreams about a young woman he knew at home named Martha, for whom he has developed romantic feelings. Every night he looks at Martha's letters and photos. He recalls going on dates with her and wonders if she is a virgin. Martha's letters are considerate, but they never mention the war or love. Jimmy recalls daring to touch Martha's knee and regrets not having gone further with her physically. Martha sends him a smooth pebble she found on the beach, which he carries in his mouth as a good-luck charm. He imagines her there, barefoot, and wonders if another man might have been with her.

The soldiers check out tunnels to be sure they are empty before blowing them up. On April 16 Lee Strunk draws tunnel duty and belly-crawls into the tight space while the others wait tensely. The day is pleasant and, Jimmy realizes in retrospect, oddly quiet. But fantasies of "dense, crushing love" for Martha invade his thoughts. Ted Lavender goes nearby to urinate. As he returns a sniper kills him. After the chopper evacuates the body, the platoon burns the village of Than Khe, probably the sniper's home. That night Jimmy weeps in his foxhole, feeling "both love and hate" and shame. He blames himself for Lavender's death because he was distracted by his feelings for Martha. The men leave him to his grief.

The next morning Jimmy carefully burns Martha's letters and photographs. He realizes that getting his men through the war is the only thing that should matter and decides to "perform his duties firmly," to shape the platoon up, and to "show strength, distancing himself" from the men. He sets aside ideas of love, accepting the cost of leadership.


The catalogs serve to reveal not only the physical but also the mental burdens of war, as well as the personalities of the soldiers who carried them. For instance, the men carry weapons and a "silent awe for the terrible power" of these things; Mitchell Sanders keeps some brass knuckles handy, perhaps for close combat, and Lee Strunk considers his slingshot his "weapon of last resort." The soldiers have good-luck charms as well, such as Jimmy's pebble and Henry's girlfriend's pantyhose.

So many catalogs punctuate the story of the day Ted dies that readers may wonder how it is physically possible to carry everything listed. But perhaps it is harder for the men to carry the psychological effects of wartime: fear and hope, the way the oppressive yet beautiful land around them haunts them, and the actions they witness or perform in war. Even after they return to the United States, many of them continue to carry these terrible burdens.

To read these catalogs carefully is to get to know the men of Alpha Company, just as to read the story line is to grasp the terrible pressure on their unprepared 24-year-old leader.

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