October 17, 2011

The Things They Carried

The first time I read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, I was a freshman enthralled by my recent ascension to higher education. The novel deeply affected me - encouraging me to think about how our country perceives war, freedom, and mandatory service. I read the novel for a second time this month, and this time around the story resonated with me with even more force. I have applied for a Navy scholarship to go to medical school, and to complete my application, I was required to have a military physical. I moved through a series of diagnostic tests and examinations at MEPS- the Military Entrance Processing Station- an enormous, intimidating government building. As I moved from one testing state to another (with my wallet, cell phone, and personal belonging stored in a locker), I carried around one thing - copy of The Things They Carried. While I watched mostly 17-18 year-old young men complete their final steps before heading off to boot camp, I grappled with how our country perceives war, freedom, and our volunteer army.

Moving from a more anecdotal lens to a more analytical perspective, let me discuss the final story in The Things They Carried and my opinion of its significance. I believe the final story, the first story in O’Brien’s life, serves as a strong and unifying ending for the entire novel. As readers, we gain more insight into O’Brien’s long-lasting quest to understand death and what is means to die. Besides the numerous encounters O’Brien has with death and dead loved ones during the war, we learn that he has been grappling with death since his first love, Linda, died when they were just nine years old. I consider it more of an ending than a beginning because to me, it functions as the final curvature of the archetypal story circle. As O’Brien alludes to throughout the novel, this is not simply a war story; it is a story about the emotions of war. And after reading the final story, I believe this is a novel about the emotions of death, and how to cope with loss, grief, embarrassment, and guilt. I believe it is a book to honor those who have died, and way to keep people alive, at least in memory. While the soldiers in the novel “carried” many things (weapons, food, family heirlooms), O’Brien mentions early in the novel that “They all carried ghosts.”  At the end of the novel, we learn that in addition to the war-related ghosts that the character O’Brien carries, he also carries the ghost of Linda, representing the most basic and primal desire to understand death and what it means to die. As I continue on my path to become a Navy physician, I too wonder about death and dying and how such powerful human concepts are viewed in light of war and conflict.

Andrea Wolf

Andrea Wolf is a senior at Indiana University.

Author Tim O'Brien will speak about The Things They Carried on Wednesday, October 19 at 7:30 p.m. in Ballantine 013.

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