Themes and Symbols
Physical and Emotional Burdens: The ‘things’ in The Things They Carried are both figurative and literal. While every character carries a heavy physical load, they also all carry tremendous emotional baggage; grief, love, terror, longing, etc.
The physical burden carried by each man underscores the emotional burden. For example, Henry Dobbins carries around a pair of pantyhose belonging to his girlfriend, and with them he also carries the desire for love and comfort.
The Fear of Shame: The personal experiences shared by O’Brien depict how the fear of being shamed publicly is a powerful motivator in war. In “On the Rainy River” he relays the moral quandary he faces after first receiving his draft notice – he doesn’t believe in the war, and does not want to fight, but at the same time he does not want to be seen as a coward.
The Dead Young Vietnamese Solider: O’Brien is unclear as to whether or not he actually threw he grenade that killed a young man in My Khe. His recollection of the man’s dead body symbolizes man’s guilt over the horror of war. He attempts to distance himself by speaking in third person, and creating fantasies of what the man might have been like before his death.
Kathleen: Kathleen is representative of a reader who is capable of responding to the author. Similar to readers, Kathleen (the daughter of O’Brien) is often the recipient of O’Brien’s stories about the war. However, unlike the readers, she has as much of an affect on O’Brien as he has on her.