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Reflections On “The Things They Carried” Essay, Research Paper

Part I: Analyzing the story?s craftsmanship

Tim O?Brien wrote a story that is known as “The Things They Carried.” It is a carefully crafted, detailed account of

a Lieutenant and his men, the time period being right in the middle of the Vietnam war. In most war stories the

author spends most of his or her time describing actions and events to the reader, trying to really put the reader

“right there” in the middle of everything that is happening. However, O?Brien drifts away from that trend here,

hardly describing any events of import to us at all. Rather, he focuses on the thoughts of the soldiers, the inner

feelings, small personal nuances and quirks that really describe the men. Being out in the wilderness, far from home

or anything they recognize, these men must deal with the mental and physical stresses of war. Here is where O?Brien

implements his literary art form.

One thing a reader may notice when reading the story is the fact that the story is written in third person, limited

omniscient. The narrator is not actually in the story, merely telling us of the events, and yet we still get to see inside

Lt. Cross?s mind to more accurately picture his feelings. The narrator also, although letting us see the innermost,

personal thoughts of Cross, always refers to the Lieutenant as either “he,”, “him,” or “Lt. Cross,” never speaking of

him by only his first name, which seems rather formal. Also, it is odd that O?Brien should choose the third person to

write in when creating a story such as this one. Usually when an author wants the reader to feel what the main

character is feeling, they will write the story in the first person point of view, to give the events and thoughts a more

personal touch. However, the way O?Brien phrases his sentences, it is really very simple for the reader to get that

accurate feeling for the main character, even!

though it is not the main character speaking. For example, on the next to last page of the story, there is a large piece

that speaks about Lt. Cross?s feelings. “On the morning after Ted Lavender died, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross

crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha?s letters. Then he burned the two photographs. There was a

steady rain falling. . . He realized it was only a gesture. Stupid, he thought. Sentimental, too, but mostly just stupid.

Lavender was dead. You couldn?t burn the blame.” (Hansen, 436) This section is very vivid in the portrayal of Lt.

Cross. The reader can easily see the man, crouching in the bottom of a muddy hole, burning photographs while

thinking of a terrible blame he felt was his: it is a sad scene to picture.

Another thing O?Brien does in his story is, as I mentioned above, to concentrate more on thoughts and seemingly

minor details rather than on events. In the story, O?Brien skips the burning of a village in just a simple remark that

makes it almost feel like an afterthought. (”Afterward they burned Than Khe.” Hansen, 427) But, he spends almost

half of the story explaining what exactly the men carried with them, going into full detail of why they carried these

things, how much they weighed, etc. This is for a very good reason, though. O?Brien uses this weight factor as a

symbolism and parallel to the “weight” of the emotional baggage and mental conflicts the men must also carry with

them as they trek through this strange foreign land. At the bottom of the eleventh page O?Brien mentions this

directly: “They all carried emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were

intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity!

, they had tangible weight.” (Hansen, 434-435) He then goes on for another half of a page describing other

emotional baggage they carried. This shows some of the real horror of war; not who wins or who dies, but also what

effect it has on all parties involved, including the soldiers out there usually fighting battles that they would rather not

be fighting.

Also, O?Brien seems to revolve his story around Lt. Cross and his obsession with Martha, a woman he loves from

home. The story may drift to some of the other men, or speak of the weapons and equipment they all carry, but it

always comes back to that issue of LT. Cross, thinking of him and Martha on the beach, wondering if she is a virgin,

or just a random flash of her before his eyes. The reader acquires a very keen sense of how obsessed the Lieutenant

is on this woman, and therefore the ending holds that much more significance when he burns her letters and pictures,

vowing to never think of her again.

Part II: My story modeled after O?Brien?s

A Day at the Market

Mrs. Melissa Anne Johnson Cooper walked through the automatic supermarket doors, two children at her heels as

she pushed the cart with the baby along. Of all the things she had to do that day, this was one of the least favorite of

hers on the list. Plus, there was too much paperwork to be dealing with back at the house for her to be concentrating

on something like shopping. What with the separation and everything, Mrs. Cooper had been having a very rough

couple of days: she didn?t think she could put up with the entirety of this trip.

Every time the Coopers went shopping, the children always seemed to have their own agendas that prevented Mrs.

Cooper from having a peaceful afternoon at the market. Billy, who was eight, had ratty reddish hair and freckles,

and it seemed that he felt it his duty to consistently tease his sister. Laura was ten and had long brown hair that

reached almost to her waist. She was the all-knowing big sister, always trying to help mother however she could,

even though Billy sometimes got in the way of this. Jenny, sitting in the carrier of the shopping cart, was two years

old and simply gurgled consistently, smiling to herself and drooling on her bib, her fine flaming red hair sticking in

almost all directions as her head looked around for some activity that interested her.

Mr. and Mrs. Cooper?s relationship had been through a lot of stress lately due to many factors, and they had decided

it would be best for the kids if they got a separation until they worked things out peacefully. She often thought about

the specific reasons for the separation. Was it her fault? Was she too harsh in her judgments of him? Maybe if she

didn?t yell every time he left the toilet seat up? . . .

She shook her head suddenly, finding herself standing in Aisle 4 of the local Stop & Shop, Billy and Laura running

back and forth around the cart as Billy tried to pull on Laura?s hair. She stopped them, and got them down to

business; Every trip to the supermarket was a task of assignments. She would give parts of the grocery list to the

kids to give them something to do besides walk around, following her and generally just getting in the way. Billy

and Laura would always make sure to get the items that were assigned to them that were the healthiest and had the

lowest unit prices. They were smart children, and their mother had been “training” them for a long time. It then

became a contest as Billy and Laura went after the same list, seeing who would do better on each item assigned to

them.

Mrs. Cooper gave each of them a list: 1 gallon of 1% milk, 2 boxes of breakfast cereal (although these had to be of

certain kinds), 3 cans of chicken noodle soup, and 1 box of crackers. That would keep them busy comparing in all

the departments to give her some quiet time so she could think about what she was going to do during the

separation, since she got stuck with the three children and Dan went to Florida to visit his mother. She thought,

sometimes he could be such a big baby. Just before he left he had said that she acted like a child a lot. Then he ran

home to his mommy, she thought sarcastically, a bitter smile curling at the corner of her lips as she walked through

the juice and cookie aisle.

Meanwhile Billy and Laura were deep in the middle of competition. Billy scanned across all of the milk containers

on the bottom 4 selves, since that was all he could reach, looking for the smallest unit price of the 1% kind; $2.19,

$2.15, $2.29. They were all so close to each other, yet all slightly different. Laura was searching the crackers. Ritz,

Saltines, Town House: where was the Nutrition Facts label on this box? How can I know if this is better if I can?t

find the label? Laura thought, her thoughts deep on the fact of defeating her younger brother. She looked at the

Town House crackers, 120 mg of sodium, and then looked for the label of the Ritz. She had to win!

Part III: Analyzing my story in comparison with “The Things They Carried”

I know that my story isn?t bound for the best seller list, but it was my vain attempt at recreating the writing style of

Tim O?Brien in “The Things They Carried.” I tried to begin as O?Brien did, introducing the reader immediately to

the main character. This character is a person of authority, with much on their mind besides their duties. Lt. Cross

thinks of Martha, and Mrs. Cooper thinks of her husband.

Again, this story is written in the third person, limited omniscient point of view, the omniscience being into Mrs.

Cooper?s mind. The part where she thinks about her husband leaving is one example. “She thought, sometimes he

could be such a big baby. Just before he left he had said that she acted like a child a lot. Then he ran home to his

mommy, she thought sarcastically. . .” (Fifth paragraph)

As a substitute for the physical weight of the objects, I used the nutrition facts of the food that the children hunted

after. If the story had unraveled more, a deeper meaning about these intricate statistics would have been revealed, as

it did in O?Brien?s story.

A last point I tried to copy was the recursive nature of the story drifting back to one point. Since Lt. Cross kept

thinking about Martha, I wrote “A Day at the Market” to keep coming back to Melissa Cooper thinking about Dan

and the separation. She catches herself doing it four or five times in the story block above.

Overall, it was a difficult challenge to imitate O?Brien?s story. It involved a lot of rereading, revision, and looking

very closely at what was written. However, I feel that I did a fairly good job, and also somewhat enjoyed the

challenge. Maybe when I need something to do someday I will finish the story. . . maybe.

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