In the short story “The Things They Carried”, O’Brien, the narrator, recites the common items soldiers carried in the jungles of Vietnam: “P-39 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellant, 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” (2). The list is long, varied, and includes items specific to the military, such as Military Payment Certificates and C rations and items specific to the jungle environment the soldiers under Lt. Cross find themselves in—salt tablets and mosquito repellant. O’Brien starts to immerse the reader into the world of jungle warfare from the foot soldier’s point of view by reciting specific lists of items the men must carry. What really makes this list effective is the specific detail.
The soldiers also carry mental weight; the members of Alpha Company “carried the all the emotional baggage of men who might die” (20). O’Brien adds another layer to his characters by delving into the psyches and revealing his characters inner burdens. By being specific, O’Brien is able to take what should be intangibles and give them their “own mass and specific gravity”; i.e. “tangible weight” (20). Some of the intangibles given weight are “shameful memories…common secret of cowardice barely restrained, their reputations…and the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing” (20). O’Brien brings the reader into his characters’ minds and their mental weights shift to the reader.
Flannery O’Connor states in Mystery and Manners that a fiction writer “appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions” (67). In O’Brien’s writing, he appeals to the senses with concrete details and draws the reader into the terror that was Vietnam.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: First Mariner Books 2009. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus, &Giroux 1969. Print.