Theme of Symbolism in "The Things They Carried"

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 705 |

Pages: 2|

4 min read

Published: Jun 13, 2024

Words: 705|Pages: 2|4 min read

Published: Jun 13, 2024

Table of contents

  1. The Weight of Physical Objects
  2. The Burden of Memory and Trauma
  3. Conclusion

War is a complex and multi-faceted experience that affects individuals in profound ways. In Tim O'Brien's novel, "The Things They Carried," symbolism plays a crucial role in conveying the emotional and psychological burdens carried by soldiers during the Vietnam War. Through the use of various keyword symbols, such as the weighty physical objects the soldiers carry and the intangible burdens they bear, O'Brien effectively explores the themes of memory, trauma, and the blurred line between reality and fiction. This essay will delve into the significance of these symbols, their implications, and their contribution to the overall message of the novel.

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The Weight of Physical Objects

Throughout "The Things They Carried," O'Brien highlights the weighty physical objects carried by each soldier as a symbol of the emotional and psychological burdens they bear. Lieutenant Cross, for instance, carries letters from a girl named Martha, which serve as a metaphorical anchor to his longing and distraction from the war. The letters symbolize his desire for love and connection, contrasting sharply with the harsh reality of war. Moreover, the weight of the letters represents the burden of responsibility that Cross carries as a leader, torn between his personal desires and his duty to his men.

In addition to personal belongings, the soldiers also carry weapons and equipment that symbolize their commitment to the war effort. The weight of these objects demonstrates the physical toll war takes on the soldiers, but it also symbolizes the psychological heaviness of the violence they are forced to inflict. For example, the soldier nicknamed "Kiowa" carries a New Testament Bible, which represents his spirituality and serves as a source of comfort in the midst of chaos. The Bible symbolizes his faith, providing him with solace and a sense of purpose amidst the brutality of war.

Furthermore, the characters' personal items, such as photographs, letters, and trinkets, serve as tangible reminders of their identities and connections to the world outside of war. These symbols of personal history provide a sense of stability and humanity amidst the chaos and uncertainty of combat. For instance, Ted Lavender carries tranquilizers and marijuana, which symbolize his attempt to escape the horrors of war through substance abuse. These items represent his vulnerability and desire to numb himself from the reality of the conflict.

The Burden of Memory and Trauma

Beyond the physical weight of the objects they carry, O'Brien explores the intangible burdens of memory and trauma that the soldiers bear. The characters in the novel are haunted by their past experiences, both on the battlefield and at home, and these memories shape their actions and perceptions of the world. The symbol of memory is highlighted through the character of Rat Kiley, who carries a medical kit filled with supplies to treat physical wounds. However, the kit also represents his attempt to heal the emotional wounds inflicted by war. Through his role as a medic, Rat Kiley symbolizes the collective trauma experienced by the soldiers, as he is tasked with mending both physical and psychological injuries.

Moreover, the use of storytelling as a form of therapy and catharsis is a recurring theme in "The Things They Carried." The soldiers share their stories and create a collective narrative that helps them make sense of their experiences. The character of Tim O'Brien, who shares the same name as the author, blurs the line between reality and fiction, questioning the reliability of memory and the power of storytelling. This blurring of boundaries symbolizes the subjective nature of war narratives and the way in which memory can be distorted or manipulated over time.

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In conclusion, Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" employs the use of symbolism to explore the emotional, psychological, and physical burdens carried by soldiers during the Vietnam War. The weight of the physical objects carried by the soldiers represents the heaviness of their responsibilities and the violence they endure. Additionally, the burden of memory and trauma is symbolized through the characters' personal items and their collective storytelling. Through these symbols, O'Brien delves into the themes of memory, trauma, and the blurred line between reality and fiction. This novel serves as a poignant reminder of the profound impact that war has on individuals, and it prompts readers to reflect on the weight of their own burdens, both seen and unseen.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

Theme of Symbolism in “The Things They Carried”. (2024, Jun 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 20, 2024, from
“Theme of Symbolism in “The Things They Carried”.” GradesFixer, 13 Jun. 2024,
Theme of Symbolism in “The Things They Carried”. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 20 Jul. 2024].
Theme of Symbolism in “The Things They Carried” [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2024 Jun 13 [cited 2024 Jul 20]. Available from:
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