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The Struggle Of "Weight" In Tim O'Brien'S The Things They Carried

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The Struggle of "weight" in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the word "weight" as "a mass or quantity of something taken up and carried, conveyed, or transported." Tim O'Brien's war story The Things They Carried, published in 1990, explores the theme of weight and its importance to men at war in considerable depth. The opening chapter of this book, which was originally written as a short story, is comprised of a collection of lists. O'Brien details for his reader both the physical objects, such as cigarettes, C rations, and packets of Kool-Aid, and the more intangible things, such as fear and silent awe, that weigh these soldiers down. With the amount of space that the author gives to enumerating the weight of these objects, one might assume that these objects are what are really important to these soldiers, but in reality it is the incalculable weight of their spiritual burdens that truly weigh them down.

For the reader, it is odd to be immediately presented with this catalog of belongings, but O'Brien has a clear purpose in introducing his characters in this manner. In the midst of these laundry lists of articles we also get the revelation of key plot points, such as when

Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl's foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity (O'Brien, 4).

O'Brien gives great meaning to these details by embedding them in this way. When skimming through these lists, the reader becomes desensitized, but by interspersing these mundane items with profound events O'Brien punctuates them. Detail after detail, the reader is lulled into a state of near-submission, until a bombshell is dropped on the reader, such as when we discover in the second paragraph of the book that Ted Lavender has been shot and killed. These landmark events then become all the more shocking because the reader is not expecting them. In a way, this dehumanizes the death of Ted Lavender and transforms it into just another item to be carried. This works on a larger scale as well. When the reader gets through the lists and finally gets into the narrative, that story becomes more engaging because of the mundane things that came before it. This style of narrative is also a good way to have your narrative come across as true and real. The reader is much more easily transported to the battlefields of Vietnam when they feel like they are sharing a cigarette with Lt. Jimmy Cross, talking about all the shit they have to carry. The secondary structural function that these lists serve is to make the reader just as weighed down as the men in the story. While reading, one must create a mental image for each item that is listed. This makes the reader just as weighed down as the characters because they share the experience of carrying all of these items.

Weight, both physical and mental, has various meanings for the men of Alpha Company. As men caught in the middle of an international conflict they find themselves in the jungles of a foreign country. This means that they are required to be completely self-sufficient and to carry all of the necessities with them. However, they are also fighting an enemy, which necessitates their ability to quickly mobilize and react to threatening situations. The burden of all the items in their rucksacks makes this difficult. Furthermore, the fact that their minds are occupied with things such as fear and loneliness diverts their attention from the task at hand, "as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps," (O'Brien, 5). In this way, the weight of the things that they carry is a negative thing. On the other hand, there are occasions when their baggage could be seen as a mode of inspiration. Jimmy Cross carries Martha's photo, Ted Lavender carries extra ammunition, and Henry Dobbins carries his girlfriend's panty hose. This can be paralleled to the movie Cast Away, in which Tom Hank's character leaves one FedEx box unopened and ready for delivery to give him a reason to survive. For each of these characters, their chosen items are deemed worthy of being carried because, to them, it symbolizes a reason to go on. However, the memories and emotions that come with these items create more weight for their bearer, which for some is fatal. This is clearly evidenced when Lieutenant



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