Summary of “The Things They Carried”
The first story in the collection introduces the cast of characters that reappear throughout the book. The cast is made up of the soldiers of the Alpha Company, led by First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. The platoon is deployed to fight in the Vietnam War. The narrator, O’Brien, is one of the soldiers, and he distinguishes one soldier from another in this first story by the items that they carry.
O’Brien lists the things the soldiers carry -- both physical and emotional. All carry basic military goods and personal items: provisions, ammunition, and special ponchos that they may be wrapped in if they die. Army slang for carrying goods is “humping” them. Aside from the basic goods, explains O’Brien, all of the men “hump” slightly different things. One wears his girlfriend’s stockings around his neck, another carries a bible, another carries a slingshot, another comic books, another condoms.
Cross carries letters from a gray-eyed English literature student named Martha. He is in love with her, but he is obsessed with whether or not she is a virgin. He remembers taking her out on a date, trying to put a hand on her knee, and being rebuffed. He wishes he had carried her up to her room, and “kept his hand on her knee all night.” After she sends him a pebble he keeps it in his mouth and imagines it is her tongue. As lieutenant, O’Brien points out, Cross “carries” responsibility for the lives of all of his men. Cross considers this a heavy burden.
The first casualty for the company is Ted Lavender, a soldier who is shot dead outside Than Khe. O’Brien recounts that he hits the ground solidly, fast, weighed down by all the things he was carrying. He was more afraid of the enemy than most soldiers, so he was carrying more ammunition than was required. He had gone to relieve himself while his comrades were blowing up a tunnel. Kiowa, a part native-American soldier in the company becomes obsessed by the death of his comrade. “Boom-down,” is how he describes the sound of the death to anyone who will listen. “Dead weight” puns O’Brien.
Kiowa is horrified by his comrade’s death. But it does serve to make him better enjoy being alive. As he settles down to sleep that night with his Bible as a pillow, he enjoys the smell of the glue and paper and the feeling of his own living body.
Lavender is one of the only soldiers who dies in combat. The soldiers rarely see enemy fire -- mostly they sit around and play checkers. All of the men walk around in a state of constant boredom and constant tension. They are aware that they might die at any moment, which drives them crazy. But O’Brien describes how they try to cover their fear with tough talk about the “pussies” who shoot off their own fingers and toes to be discharged from the army. They all secretly long to do the same, explains the narrator, but are too embarrassed to try.
Meanwhile, the person hit hardest by Lavender’s death is Cross, who essentially blames himself. He feels he may have a hard time focusing on the war because he is so wrapped up in thoughts of Martha, and may have not taken the proper precautions, thereby letting Lavender's death happen. The morning after Lavender is killed, Cross burns the letters he has received from Martha. Then he burns his photographs of her. But still he feels responsible. Setting the photographs on fire strikes him as a futile gesture.
But even as he beats himself up over Lavender’s death, Cross can’t help returning to his obsessive thoughts about Martha. He convinces himself that he no longer loves her or cares whether she is a virgin. He feels both love and hate for her. He resolves to think less about Martha and more about his men, resolves to pull his raggedy crew together and make them abandon the equipment they don’t need so that they will be able to travel lighter, decides he should be less of a friend and more of a leader.
The author uses a familiar and ancient trope in this first short story, which provides the title for the collection. Authors as far back as Homer described soldiers going into battle by naming the things that they carried: goatskins filled with water, spears, locks of hair from their beloved ones. O’Brien updates this literary strategy. His characters carry the modern implements of war. But the feeling evoked is similar: static lists make the characters seem already dead, prematurely mourned. The lists are like wills.
The first story is told in third person, with some insight into the mind of Jimmy Cross. This movement between perspectives is called free indirect discourse, and serves to distance the reader from the soldiers. The reader sees them as if they were in a movie, moving slowly across an unfamiliar landscape, carrying their various burdens. The ancient movement of men going to war is juxtaposed with the rough, modern language of the soldiers themselves. They use slang, swear at each other, and try to diffuse the feeling of danger and helplessness by describing death as being “zapped” or “torn up.”
Often dramatic narratives are driven by conflict -- frequently two characters butting heads. A war narrative needs none of these traditional sources of pressure because the war itself provides the conflict. O’Brien describes the atmosphere as tense at all times. The men know they might die at any moment. When the inevitable happens and a soldier is killed, extra tension stems from the fact that Cross knows he is responsible. Guilt becomes the most pervasive emotion of all.
Summary of “Love”
Years after the war, Jimmy Cross goes to visit the narrator, Tim O’Brien, at O’Brien’s home in Massachusetts. They look at pictures, reminisce, drink coffee, and smoke cigarettes. Cross says he has never forgiven himself for Lavender’s death. He worries about how O’Brien might portray him if he ever writes a story about Cross. His former leader asks O’Brien to describe him as a brave and handsome man if he ever decides to put any of their experiences together into writing.
Cross shows O’Brien the photo of Martha playing volleyball. The image is the exact same one that he burned after Lavender’s death (see “The Things They Carried”). O’Brien is surprised to see it, so Cross explains how he came to have another copy. He had run into Martha after the war. She had never married, had trained as a nurse, and gone on Lutheran missions to the Third World. She was unreceptive when Cross confessed that he had always loved her. When the conversation took a slightly sexual turn, she shut her eyes and rocked back and forth, seeming very disturbed. She gave him another copy of the photo of her playing volleyball and told him “not to burn this one.”
The shift from the first story to “Love” is one of the most jarring in the book for the reader who expects a traditional novel or a collection of short stories. In a novel, it is unlikely that there would be a shift in geography (Vietnam to Massachusetts), time (many years) and narrator (third person omniscient to first person) all at once. In a collection of short stories, on the other hand, two stories would not normally share the same characters, themes and events. “The Things They Carried” jars by doing all of these things.
“Love” serves to tie up the narrative strings of “The Things They Carried,” but also to call into question the whole process of storytelling. The Things They Carried is as much about why one would tell stories at all as it is about war. This preoccupation of fiction with its own role is often called “meta-fiction.” Meta-fiction consciously points to its own status as fiction and anxiously asks what purpose fiction might serve. In “Love,” when Cross asks that he be portrayed as a hero, there is an emotional content in the request: the reader feels Cross’ hurt and sorrow that he has not acted as a hero. But the reader is also forced to wonder: Has O’Brien acceded to his character/friend’s demand? Or is the fiction in some other way warped or untrue?