An unnamed narrator explains in third individual the thoughts and actions of Jimmy Cross, the lieutenant of an Army system on active battle task in the Vietnam War. Lt. Cross is preoccupied by thoughts of Martha, a young woman he dated before he joined the Army. He considers letters she wrote him; he thinks of whether or not she is a virgin; he thinks about just how much he enjoys her and desires her to enjoy him. Her letters do not indicate that she feels the same way.
The storyteller notes things that the soldiers bring with them, both concrete and intangible, such as Lt. Cross’s photo of and sensations for Martha. Other members of the system are presented through descriptions of the things they bring, such as Henry Dobbins who brings additional food, Ted Lavender who carries tranquilizer tablets, and Kiowa who brings a hunting hatchet. O’Brien presents readers to the book’s primary characters by explaining the posts that the soldiers bring.
The level of detail O’Brien uses about the characters is broadened upon and illuminated in the chapters that follow, though O’Brien distills the essence of each characters’ personality through the symbolic items each carries.
Henry Dobbins carries a machine gun and his girlfriend’s pantyhose. Dave Jensen carries soap, floss, foot powder, and vitamins. Mitchell Sanders brings prophylactics, brass knuckles, and the unit’s radio. Norman Bowker carries a journal. Kiowa brings a volume of the New Testament and moccasins. Rat Kiley brings his medical set, brandy, comics, and M&M’s sweet. The narrator offers additional detail about picked items; for example, the poncho Ted Lavender brings will later be used by his fellow soldiers to bring his dead body.
This device is an example of the author and narrator embedding small details in the text that will be additional explained later on in the book. It is very important to keep in mind, too, how the information are selective; they are recalled by a character, the unnamed narrator of the chapter. The information of what each guy brings are funneled through the memory of this storyteller.
O’Brien details at excellent length what all the guys bring: basic equipment, weapons, tear gas, dynamites, ammos, entrenching tools, starlight scopes, grenades, flak jackets, boots, provisions, and the Army newsletter. They also bring their grief, horror, love, and longing, with grace and self-respect. O’Brien’s prolonged brochure of products develops a photo in the reader’s mind that grows incrementally. O’Brien’s technique also enables each character to be presented with a history and a distinct place within the group of men.
Lt. Cross is singled out from the group, and O’Brien offers the most information about his interior feelings and ideas. A lot of these soldiers “bulge,” or bring, photos, and Lieutenant Cross has an action shot of Martha playing volley ball. He also brings memories of their date and is sorry for that he did not attempt to satisfy his desire to become intimate with her by connecting her up and touching her knee. O’Brien stresses that Lt. Cross carries all these things, but in addition carries the lives of his men.
Even as O’Brien opens The important things They Carried, he sets forth the novel’s main themes of memory and creativity and the chance for psychological escape that these powers provide. For example, as Lt. Cross moves through the rigorous daily movements of battle duty, his mind harp on Martha. Notably, as he considers Martha, he does not simply recall memories of her; instead he imagines what may be, such as “romantic camping trips” into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. O’Brien describes these yearnings of Lt. Cross as “pretending.” Pretending is a type of storytelling, that is, informing stories to oneself. O’Brien highlights the importance of Lt. Cross’s actions by emphasizing the artifacts– Martha’s letters and photograph– and defines Lt. Cross as the provider of these possessions as well as of his love for Martha.
O’Brien moves from employing the literary strategy of explaining the soldiers’ physical artifacts to introducing the book’s main characters. The minute information he offers about items that people bring is telling, and specific attention must be paid to these information because they foreshadow the core stories that consist of the novel. This method of cataloging the important things the soldiers carry likewise operates to create fuller composites of the characters, and by extension make the characters appear more real to readers.
This visual of assisting readers get in touch with his characters is O’Brien’s main goal in the unique, to make readers feel the story he provides as much as is physically and emotionally possible, as if it were genuine. Though the minutiae that O’Brien includes– for example the weight of a weapon, the weight of a radio, the weight of a grenade in ounces– appears unnecessary, it is supposed to be accretive in his readers’ imaginations so that they can begin to feel the physical weight of the problems of war, along with, eventually, the mental and psychological burdens (so much as it is possible for a non-witness to war to perceive). O’Brien’s attention to sensory information also supports this primary objective of evoking a real action in the reader.
With Lavender’s death, O’Brien develops a stress in between the “truth” of Lt. Cross’s involvement in battle and his interior, thought of dreams that provide him haven. In burning Martha’s letters and accepting blame for Lavender’s death, Cross’s conflicting trains of idea signal the reader to be cautious when deciding what is truth or fantasy and when assigning meaning to these stories. While he ruined the physical accoutrements, the keepsakes of Martha, Lt. Cross continues to carry the memory of her with him. To that memory is also added the concern of grief and guilt. Despite this psychological problem, O’Brien, as he continues in the following chapter, begins to highlight the central concern of the book: Why people bring the things they do?
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