Emotional Burden in O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” Essay (Critical Writing)

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Nov 20th, 2020


The Things They Carried is a fictional chef-d’oeuvre by Tim O’Brien, which catalogs among other things, the different things that soldiers carried to the Vietnam War. These soldiers carried emotional and physical burdens viz. guilt, fear, love, pocketknives, M-16 rifles among other things. O’Brien explores the theme of emotional burdens artistically and at some point, comically. Obrien notes, “They carried the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing-these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories…cowardice…they carried the soldier’s fear (20). Even though the things they carried were meant to help them fight the enemy, in the end, the intangible things (emotional burdens) turned out to fight the soldiers, killing them from within.

The things they carried

The emotional burdens as explored by O’Brien came in different forms and each soldier had a special burden that underscored his woes. The emotional burden of guilt surfaces immediately after the story starts. Jimmy Cross, a lieutenant enlisted to take care of the other soldiers is the victim of the guilt burden. Jimmy witnessed as a bullet broke open Lavender’s skull, an incident that plunged him into emotional turmoil. Given the fact that he was the one in charge of the other soldiers’ well-being, he felt he could have done something to prevent Lavender’s death. Unfortunately, he could do nothing at that point; Lavender was dead and gone for good. Jimmy became emotionally troubled because instead of concentrating on the security and well-being of fellow soldiers he could only think of Martha. Consequently, Lavender died due to his lack of concentration or so he thought. A person charged with the responsibility of taking care of his fellow soldiers should be focused to achieve his objective. Unfortunately, Jimmy could not live up to this duty and when Lavender died before his eyes, he realized how careless he had been in executing his duties. All these feelings culminated into guilt feelings, an emotional burden that he had to bear so long as the war continued. What a terrible emotional baggage for one to carry! To cover his guilt, Jimmy embarked on a journey to become the best lieutenant. However, for this to happen, he had to sacrifice some emotions like love for Martha, his college crush. The issue of Jimmy’s love for Martha ushers in the next emotional burden viz. love.

Cross sincerely loved Martha and no matter how hard he tried to subdue these feelings, they resurfaced with time. This emotional burden weighed so heavily on him that at times he lost focus on the war. O’Brien observes, “He loved her so much…though painful, he wondered who had been with her that afternoon” (8). Time and space stood between Jimmy and the love of her life. If only he could roll time back, he would spend some quality time by her side. Unfortunately, these were only fantasies and as the adage asserts, fantasy never mimics reality. The death of Lavender unveiled this truth to Jimmy and he had to shed this emotional baggage at whatever cost. Though painful, Jimmy decided to forget Martha completely, and focus on the war. As a way of tearing down this emotional baggage, he resolved to burn all love letters, photographs, and anything else that reminded him of Martha. Forgetting a lover is not an easy task, it takes more than a willing heart, it takes absolute resolve and this comes with its emotional upheavals. Emotionally, Cross was a torn person, full of sorrows and heavy laden with emotional burdens. To release his feelings, he could only cry throughout the night under the cover of the darkness. Just like any other person, soldiers have emotions; they crave for love, acceptance, and warmth. Regrettably, war robs them of these elemental things in a human’s life. O’Brien deliberately explores Jimmy’s case to show the emotional burdens that the soldiers brought along together with the things they carried (Kaplan 63). Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is not alone in this predicament, as aforementioned, every soldier had his fair share of emotional baggage, as shown by the few soldiers O’Brien chose to use in The Things They Carried.

Family ties are usually very strong and separating someone from his/her family amounts to emotional torture; something that the soldiers had to live with. For instance, Kiowa, “…carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father…” (O’Brien 3). Nothing could remind Kiowa of his dad like that treasured bible; every time he saw the bible, he would remember his beloved father. Apart from this, Kiowa carried the memories of his grandfather by preserving that ‘old hunting tomahawk.’ Even though physically burdened by things like the M-16 rifle, these treasured assortments carried memories of Kiowa’s family, memories of his almost lost family, something that burdened him emotionally. Henry Dobbins on his part carried a pair of pantyhose and he would poke his noses into the paper containing the panties from time to time. Not that Henry Dobbins loved his girlfriend’s panties; no, he missed her and this burdened him emotionally. Regrettably, the closest he would come to his girlfriend was through feeling the smell of her panties, a pathetic way to find warmth and love. Apart from emotions of love and loneliness, fear was part of these soldiers.

On the battlefield, anyone could die and this inevitable fact burdened the soldiers emotionally. Just like Lavender and others who died in the course of the war, anybody else would die at any time and this uncertainty amounted to emotional torture. O’Brien posits, “Imagination was a killer” (10), to emphasize the burden of fear that these soldiers carried around. The imagination of being the next victim to die emotionally burdened these soldiers. To cope with these torturing emotions, they had to dehumanize every human trait in them. Unfortunately, psychologically they became changed forever. O’Brien concludes, “you start clean and you get dirty and then afterward it is never the same” (114). Even to date, the majority of the surviving soldiers have exhibited some psychological disorders at one point in their lives. The psychological rip off that these soldiers underwent narrows down to emotional baggage; baggage, which they knew not, the day of its relief.


In conclusion, the soldiers that went to the Vietnam War carried burdens that were more than the physical burdens; they carried emotional burdens of memories of their families coupled with the fear of not knowing when death would strike. For sure, the intangible things that they carried had real weight, to some extent, heavier than the physical burdens. Jimmy Cross carried the guilt of letting Lavender die while engrossed in thoughts of his ever-elusive lover, Martha. Kiowa carried the emotional burden of his father and grandfather and the possibility of not seeing them once again weighed heavily on him. Collectively, these soldiers experienced different forms of emotional torture, which boiled down to emotional burdens as O’Brien explores in his fictional masterpiece, The Things They Carried.

Works Cited

Kaplan, Steven. Understanding Tim O’Brien. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Print.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Print.

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