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An Intangible Weight to Carry

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Topics: Love, Emotion
Allysha Conwell

ENGL 111 04F2011
Professor Susan Orenstein
17 June 2011

An Intangible Weight to Carry

In an excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, O’Brien acquaints us with a story of a group of soldiers in the Vietnam War enduring extreme physical and mental circumstances. He goes to vast lengths to describe the tangible difficulties these men must face while linking us to the mental anguish. This story is a beautiful account of love and the lack thereof, pain and tragedy, imagination and reality, and all the weight of burdens carried throughout life in war.
In great detail, O’Brien explains what these soldiers must carry on a daily basis during their journey of war. “Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates C rations, and two or three canteens of water.” (O’Brien 2) The weight of these items alone complicated travel under such circumstances, but we learn that each of these soldiers have sentimental items they haul along with them to feel comfort in such uncomfortable times. “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha…They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack.” (O’Brien 1)
We are offered a personal perspective into Cross, who spends his time at war fantasizing about a young lady named Martha from back home. He believes he is in love with Martha and spends his time finding comfort in daydreams of a woman who does not love him back. Throughout his reveries he begins to take less notice of his surroundings and loses focus of his duties as a lieutenant. “His mind wandered. He had difficulty keeping his attention on the war. On occasion he would yell at his men to spread out the column, to keep their eyes open, but then he would slip away into daydreams…” (O’Brien 16).
It seems because of Cross’ inattentiveness, one of his men, Ted Lavender, is shot and killed. This brings Cross to an emotional breaking point, a line of love and hate with himself and with Martha. “He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war.” (O’Brien 48) He comes to realize that Martha will never love him back and blames himself for being so emotionally involved with her in his mind, and not with his men in reality. His guilt and shame force him to take on a new stoic mindset to lead his men through this war.
O’Brien has a remarkable way describing the environment and complications to coincide with the psychological nature of the story. Depicting the nights as cold and wet and the days as oppressive and silent, we are given a tone of how one may feel in these environments. When O’Brien describes Lt. Cross ‘watching the night’, he says, “The air was thick and wet. A warm dense fog had settled over the paddies and there was the stillness that precedes rain.” (O’Brien 57) Later he writes, “The fog made things seem hollow and unattached.” (O’Brien 67) Hollow and unattached seems to be how most of these men were feeling through such difficult days. He goes on to speak about all of the diseases, physical pains, and unthinkable turmoil they are facing every moment. The expressions of agony reflect the emotional distress of the men.
It is repeatedly noted that each man had something sentimental they were carrying that likely allowed them this escape. O’Brien states, “They all carried ghosts.” (21) This is a true relation to how all of the soldiers, including Cross, held onto something they didn’t have in order to redirect their true emotions for reassurance. The ‘ghost’ turns into an unfortunate reality for Cross when Lavender is killed. Cross was distracted by his daydreams of Martha, a ghost of his own, leading to Lavender’s death, which is a ‘ghost’ he will carry forever.
O’Brien boldly claims that “Imagination was a killer.”(O’Brien 22) This speaks directly to the Lieutenant for allowing his thoughts to divert him from his job of protecting his men; thus, one of their lives was lost. It also tells the death of his emotions for Margaret, something he was imagining all along. O’Brien concludes this passage with Cross burning his letters and photos from Martha. I see this as the final symbolism of Cross separating himself from his love for Martha, though he cannot separate himself from the ghost he carries of his dead soldier.
O’Brien goes into great detail of all the items these men were carrying at one time or another but they were the things that are only implied that weighted most on them. It is nearly impossible to imagine what Cross and his men must have been feeling with the weight of life and death on their shoulders. The intangible things carried are the heaviest burdens that cannot simply be put down.

Works Cited
O’Brien, Tim. “The Things They Carried.” The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1990. HCC Southwest Learning Web. 2010. Houston Community College Southwest. Web. 9 July 2010.

Cited: O’Brien, Tim. “The Things They Carried.” The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1990. HCC Southwest Learning Web. 2010. Houston Community College Southwest. Web. 9 July 2010.

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