The Ambiguity of the Term “Carry” and Its Multiple Meanings Essay

Many successful authors use a particular writing style technique in which certain words are chosen to enhance and draw the reader into the story and play on their raw emotions. Some of these words are ambiguous in nature and have an “inexplicable or inexactness in meaning, and are capable of being understood in two or more possible senses or ways” (“Ambiguous”). Multiple meanings of the word, “carry,” are used to successfully accomplish this goal throughout chapter one by the author, Tim O’Brien, in his novel, The Things They Carried. The novel revolves around the Vietnam War. By introducing both the physical and emotional components of the word “carry,” O’Brien enables the themes of chaos and uncertainty in war, as well as imagination and memory to unfold through the use of storytelling.

The Vietnam War was one that lacked purpose and encountered “widespread disillusionment” according to many historians (“History.com/topics/Vietnam-war-protests”). The lack of resolution, as well as the negative public opinion for this war, was used to fuel the author’s ability to discuss survivor guilt and post- traumatic stress disorder of the soldiers of this era. By using multiple levels of ambiguity with the term “carry,” Tim O’Brien successfully introduces subjects and themes in his novel, The Things They Carried. The main themes of this novel are imagination, memory and storytelling. The soldiers found themselves using a strong coping mechanism, called imagination to survive the daily horrors of life during the Vietnam War. Lieutenant Cross carries a photo of Martha, his imaginary love interest and uses it to escape realism, calm his fears and control his emotions, thus coping to survive. The theme of imagination is also introduced in chapter one of O’Brien’s book. Besides Martha’s photo, Lieutenant Cross carries the heavy routine gear that the Vietnam soldiers were issued.

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These items included a heavy rifle, ammunition, food rations, water, grenades, boots, rain gear, and so much more (O’Brien 5-9). The sheer weight of the gear Cross is expected to carry around with him is unimaginable to the reader, and because of the author’s descriptive word choices, the reader is able to share “the heaviness of the gear” also. The themes of memory and storytelling help to embed certain experiences through the use of details that the author will again reveal to readers throughout the book. In addition, the characters in O’Brien’s novel and the “things they carry,” elicit an emotional response causing the readers to feel empathy for the characters. Not only do the characters seem realistic, but O’Brien talks about each character’s history and how they fit into the platoon. In doing this, he has actually embedded small details of the makeup of each character. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is the main character in chapter one. A twenty four year old kid, Cross is also the storyteller in this chapter. In the passage, “He would imagine romantic camping trips into the White Mountains of New Hampshire,” O’Brien shows how Cross can use his imagination to escape from the everyday chores of combat duty and imagine what the future might hold for Martha and him. “More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her,” (O’Brien 1) further reinforces the ability of the author to make the reader experience empathy and visualize another meaning of the word, “carry.” Other platoon members also have to deal with various emotional issues.

Rat Riley, the medic of Alpha Company, uses his imagination to fabricate stories. In the end, Rat’s imagination gets the best of him and he shoots himself to finally be free of the combat zone and gruesome horrors he experienced in the war. A platoon member who always carried extra rations with him was Dobbins. He is a soldier that symbolizes the “real American soldier.” Respectful of others, but quick to anger, Dobbins has a soft heart. Ted Lavender has a different method to coping mechanism. This soldier uses drugs to escape from the reality of war and as a result of this poor decision, his life ends tragically. Jensen, who always carried ear plugs, is another soldier that O’Brien uses to show the ambiguity of the emotional bonds that men share and “carry” with them. Jensen and Lavender have a pact which each other which was not to allow one of them to continue to live if either obtains a debilitating injury or condition. And finally, Kiowa, a Native American Baptist who tragically loses his life in a “field of human waste,” is introduced. Kiowa carried a copy of the Old Testament with him as his talisman. This character helps to share another “thing carried,” and show how wasteful war is and further develop the themes of imagination and storytelling. O’Brien later goes back to the scene of his friend’s death and brings his young daughter, Kathleen with him, going full circle to entwine the central themes by sharing memories with his young daughter and using storytelling to accomplish it. Whether the “things they carry,” are psychological and emotional baggage or actual physical objects, each item introduced by the author is a burden and has multiple levels of meaning to each soldier in the novel. Tim O’Brien often uses burdens and ambiguity as embedded details throughout the book to further develop his characters and examine and explore the novel’s themes. “To carry something was to hump it, as when Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamp.” ( O’Brien 3). The definition of the word hump is to carry something and walk around with that baggage or physical object. “In its intransitive form, to hump…implied burdens far beyond the intransitive,” the author reveals ( O’Brien 3).

The hump was emptiness, and a “dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility,” O’Brien insists. Whether the things that were carried were due to officer rank or field specialty, carried because of superstition, or carried because a complicated mission required certain specialized equipment, all the objects were a necessary evil and served a purpose. The soldiers carried each other. They carried infections, diseases, poise and dignity, and their own lives with them. They carried gravity and enormous pressures as well as the reality of death (O’Brien 14-16, 20). “For all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry” (O’Brien 2). The soldiers carried emotional baggage entwined with love, terror, grief, longing and their reputations with them. Masks of composure were worn as they carried the heavy burdens that being a soldier in Vietnam required. When men carried so many things deep inside and did things that they felt they had to do, even though they knew they might not really be right, the result was a sad situation. Confusion and obligation were carried by soldiers, but in the end, the soldier had to just “carry on,” regardless of the lack of “public support, or the lack thereof, for the war,” (Wyatt 218). The public as well as the soldier did not know what to believe or trust.

These negative “attitudes lead to cynicism, and worse, apathy,” (Wyatt 219) all reinforcing the ambiguity of the Vietnam War. Whether it was the physical things or the mental confusion and anguish that the soldiers carried with them about the reasons for fighting this war, it was the uncertainty that was the underlying connection. By using multiple levels of ambiguity with the term “carry,” Tim O’Brien successfully introduces realistic characters, subjects and central themes of memory and storytelling in his novel, The Things They Carried, while quietly embedding the social issues of the era.

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