The Symbolism of Weight in The Things They Carried
In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, the first chapter presents the concept of weight in two opposing forms, that of the physical weight of the items they carry, and also the emotional weight of their past experiences. These messages imbue the pages with a striking solemness, that of which is shared between readers and characters alike, allowing O’Brien to enhance the themes of teamwork, human nature, and opposition to war.
The development of the physical weight of emotions is portrayed by two dominant characters in the chapter. The first is Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, whose main focus during the chapter is on his love interest back home, Martha. The conflict first presents itself though the letters from her that he is reading. In the physical sense, they weigh practically nothing, probably not noticed in the grand scheme of the items he must carry while marching through villages. He is not physically affected by the letter, yet the empty, weightless words of her “Love”s, similar to the weightlessness of the letter itself, yield a tremendous amount of emotional strain on the Lieutenant. As his obsession with Martha physically develops across the chapter, through the introduction of her photographs and the pebble, he becomes increasingly distracted by his love and loses focus for the troop he is sworn to protect, lead, and fight along. As each item of physical value and weight is added to the story, another element of personal, emotional weight is added to his shoulders. This contrast between the physical and emotional is highlighted again when he discusses her knee in the photograph. The photograph itself weighs little, but while looking at it, he is able to imagine once touching her and seeing her physical form of 117 pounds. This additional contrast between what once was real and is now distant, a person themselves and a photograph, begins to weigh Cross down even further, imposing 117 pounds of regret onto him for not choosing to express his feelings for her when he had the chance. At this point, along with his photographs, letters, and pebble, Jimmy Cross carries increasingly immense amounts of distraction in the form of longing and regret.
The second prominent source of this physical to figurative development is through the likes of Ted Lavender, who is early-on revealed to have been killed. The implications of his death are explored throughout the chapter, regarding the manner in which he died, how it affected the other soldiers in the present, and then again in the future as they reflect on him. Ted Lavender is represented as a soldier who lives in constant fear. His own fear of the death and violence that comes along with being a soldier in a war zone is ultimately, and ironically, what results in his death. His constant anxiety and anxiousness manifested itself physically in the abnormal amount of additional weight that he forced himself to carry. Perhaps he found comfort in this immense amount of weight extra weight he burdened himself with. As others typically carried 25 rounds of ammunition, he carried 34, as well as numerous other extraneous items, he carried an extra 20 pounds of physical fear with him. For this, he is described as dead weight. In fact, when he was shot, he fell to the ground like a bag of sand, quickly, with a thud. The physical weight of his fear sent him straight to the ground after death, emphasizing the suddenness of death itself and the unneeded desire to carry the extra burden of living in constant fear. But, still on the discussion of Ted Lavender and the development of weight, after his death, the weight of his apprehension was placed on the backs of his platoon in the form of grief, just as they picked up his items off his dead body to use for themselves, sharing fractions of his physical weight as well. Kiowa, after witnessing his unceremonious death, and the emotional outburst of crying by his superior, Cross, discusses his uneasiness and appreciation to being alive with Norman Bowker, who, at first, silences him and ignores the topic. The weight of Ted Lavender’s death begins to be shared by many, as Bowker gives in and allows Kiowa to confide in him. Ted Lavender depicts the struggles of carrying weight in both the physical and emotional sense, and similarly represents the platoon as a whole as they pick up the weight of his death.
As a reader, these messages, unironically, carry a lot of weight.In O’Brien’s work, he hides themes of teamwork, human nature, and the atrocities of war.These resonate strongly with me because he is able to provide them with a relatable symbol of physical weight, a sensation every reader is accustomed to and has no struggle visualizing to sympathize with the characters.The importance of teamwork and human connection is emphasized in the aforementioned shared weight of Ted Lavender’s death, but again when they must trade the burden of carrying the mine detector.It’s described as uncomfortable, painful for the lower-back, weighing a significant 28 pounds that they must endure carrying.Yet, it proves as a symbol of their collective efforts to protect each other, highlighting the importance of the platoon and their safety through sharing the strenuous task of carrying the device and traveling in safety.I feel almost inspired by this element to the novel, comforted that these soldiers are able to rely on each other for support while in the darkest times of their lives, able to deafen the fear of death and pain with the loudness of their teamwork and emotions.
Weight is used again to depict the nature of humans themselves, particularly the diversity in our personalities and how they affect our physical lives as well.Platoon leader Cross carries letters, Lavender carries tranquilizers, Dr. Kiley carried M&M’s.These all hold a particular individual sentiment to them, and represent their dispositions and unique personalities among the troop they travel in.They all must carry boots that weight 2.1 pounds to travel across the war zone, yet some subject themselves to carrying a 26 pounds radio in addition to their required load.This variety of importance and value to the soldiers is a physical representation of their inner self, a message to readers that what we, ourselves, carry is a manifestation of ourselves too.This provides an ability to revel in our differences, as we all carry something similar, such as the mandatory boots, but are legitimate in our desires to have multiple, unique aspects of ourselves, such as the weight excess ammunition or love letters.This offers a positive message to an otherwise poignant collection of war stories, making it “worth” reading by the audience.
Thirdly, through the lens of the reader, the symbols of weight allow me to share O’Brien’s disapproval of war as he depicts the atrocities of violence. By writing the images of headshot soldiers, burned villages, and self-harming soldiers, O’Brien is able to provide a particular negative view on war and its actualities that can’t help but be shared by the reader as we sympathize with our characters. I’m almost weighed down myself as I read their constant stories of fear, despair, and pain, which is, no doubt, the full intention of O’Brien in his anti-war views. This gives a meaning to the fictional violence itself in that these characters are not dying and struggling in the vain of just reading material, but also the real, historical violence for which the book was written about. O’Brien is able to use fiction to bring the horrors of our reality to the foreground, creating a connection between the fictional stories and real ones, as well as fictional characters and ourselves.
In retrospect, the intricacies in development of symbolic weight offer the first chapter of The Things They Carried a unique quality of relatability for readers. Through having experienced physical and emotional weight ourselves, the stories of characters in its page serve to allow a conjoined experience of the fictional and real circumstances of teamwork, human nature, and war. O’Brien’s work invites commentary of the world around us through making observations in the novel to their context in our world, and provides means of readers to find value in their reading experience.
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In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, the first chapter presents the concept of weight in two opposing forms, that of the physical weight of the items they carry, and […]