Rose For Emily

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is not a novel about the Vietnam

War. It is a story about the soldiers and their experiences and emotions that

are brought about from the war. O'Brien makes several statements about war

through these dynamic characters. He shows the violent nature of soldiers

under the pressures of war, he makes an effective antiwar statement, and he

comments on the reversal of a social deviation into the norm. By skillfully

employing the stylistic technique of specific, conscious detail selection and

utilizing connotative diction, O'Brien thoroughly and convincingly makes each


The violent nature that the soldiers acquired during their tour in Vietnam is

one of O'Brien's predominant themes in his novel. By consciously selecting

very descriptive details that reveal the drastic change in manner within the

men, O'Brien creates within the reader an understanding of the effects of

war on its participants. One of the soldiers, "Norman Bowler, otherwise a

very gentle person, carried a Thumb. . .The Thumb was dark brown, rubbery

to touch. . . It had been cut from a VC corpse, a boy of fifteen or

sixteen"(13). Bowler had been a very good-natured person in civilian life, yet

war makes him into a very hard-mannered, emotionally devoid soldier,

carrying about a severed finger as a trophy, proud of his kill. The

transformation shown through Bowler is an excellent indicator of the

psychological and emotional change that most of the soldiers undergo. To

bring an innocent young man from sensitive to apathetic, from caring to

hateful, requires a great force; the war provides this force. However,

frequently are the changes more drastic. A soldier named "Ted Lavender

adopted an orphaned puppy. . .Azar strapped it to a Claymore antipersonnel

mine and squeezed the firing device"(39). Azar has become demented; to kill

a puppy that someone else has adopted is horrible. However, the infliction of

violence has become the norm of behavior for these men; the fleeting

moment of compassion shown by one man is instantly erased by another,

setting order back within the group. O'Brien here shows a hint of sensitivity

among the men to set up a startling contrast between the past and the present

for these men. The effect produced on the reader by this contrast is one of

horror; therefore fulfilling O'Brien's purpose, to convince the reader of war's

severely negative effects. In the buffalo story, "We came across a baby

water buffalo. . .After supper Rat Kiley went over and stroked its nose. . .He

stepped back and shot it through the right front knee. . .He shot it twice in the

flanks. It wasn't to kill, it was to hurt"(85). Rat displays a severe emotional

problem here; however, it is still the norm. The startling degree of detached

emotion brought on by the war is inherent in O'Brien's detailed accounts of

the soldiers' actions concerning the lives of other beings.

O'Brien's use of specific and connotative diction enhances the same theme,

the loss of sensitivity and increase in violent behavior among the soldiers. The

VC from which Bowker took the thumb was just "a boy"(13), giving the

image of a young, innocent person who should not have been subjected to the

horrors of war. The connotation associated with boy enhances the fact that

killing has no emotional effect on the Americans, that they kill for sport and

do not care who or what their game may be. Just as perverse as killing boys,

though, is the killing of "a baby"(85), the connotation being associated with

human infants even though it is used to describe a young water buffalo they

torture. The idea of a baby is abstract, and the killing of one is frowned upon

in modern society, regardless of species. O'Brien creates an attitude of

disgust in the reader with the word, further fulfilling his purpose in

condemning violence. Even more drastic in connotation to be killed is the

"orphaned puppy"(39). Adding to the present idea of killing babies is the idea

of killing orphaned babies, which brings out rage within the reader. The whole

concept is metaphoric, based on the connotations of key words; nevertheless,

it is extremely effective in conveying O'Brien's theme.

O'Brien makes a valid, effective antiwar statement in The Things They

Carried. The details he includes give the reader insight into his opinions

concerning the Vietnam War and the draft that was used to accumulate

soldiers for the war. While thinking of escaping to Canada, he says: "I was

drafted to fight a war I hated. . .The American war