Symbols: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - Symbolism

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The Lake / Field

In ‘Speaking Of Courage’, the lake reminds Norman of the shit field, which serves as a metaphor for the power to kill. As Norman circles the lake in his hometown, he thinks about everything that had been taken away from him. His ability to communicate with his friends and parents. His relationship with his hometown. His ambition, or motivation to succeed. His best friend Max. It is as if Norman is a satellite. Unable to break free from the magnetic pull of the lake, he is doomed to constantly revolve around it. When he enters the water at the end of the chapter, Norman is signaling his desire for the lake to take him as well. This foreshadows his later suicide.

In the story ‘Field Trip’, O’Brien approaches the field with the same sentiments, but the outcome is much different. Returning to the site of Kiowa’s death over twenty years later, he is almost surprised to see the field at peace. Even more surprising is the lack of emotion he feels when confronted with the place that has symbolized everything vulgar and violent from his past. The field took away his friend, his innocence, self-worth, and hope. But when O’Brien enters into the field, it is as a baptism designed to cleanse himself from the ugliness of the war. He re-emerges with a new outlook, finally having freed himself from the shackles of bitterness.

Mary Anne Bell

Mark Fossie’s girlfriend symbolizes everything good about the United State of America. With her pink sweater and culottes, she is the All-American girl. The chapter “Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong” examines the transformation that occurs when this innocent girl is lifted out of the Cleveland suburbs and plunked down in the mountains of Vietnam. The events of the war and the eerie silence of the mountain jungles have a hypnotic effect on the young teenager. As she learns how to clamp off arteries and assemble an automatic rifle, she starts to lose the innocence that Mark loves so much about her. She begins to dress differently and wear less makeup. Eventually, she sheds her youthful dreams of getting married immediately after Mark’s return. Finally she separates from him completely.

The jungle has an even more radical effect on her character. After going out on ambush with the Green Berets, she develops a more violent and deadly disposition. She wears a necklace of human tongues and hangs out in the surreal world of the greenie hootch. She develops an appetite for the country of Vietnam, telling Mark she wants to eat the countryside, to have it all inside her. In the end, she disappears into the jungle and holds her own individual ambush night after night. The entire anecdote is a metaphor for how the war takes American youth and purity and corrupts it, leaving a series of teenage killing machines.


O’Brien’s nine year old girlfriend who died from a brain tumor. Like Mary Anne, Linda symbolizes a form of youthful innocence. Or more specifically, she represents the desire to remember things as they once existed, before they were scarred by catastrophe. When O’Brien dreams of her, the white scalp and scars and bandages are gone. Writing involves the power to dream something and have the world dream along with you.

The Man I Killed

The episode where O’Brien stands staring at a dead Viet Cong soldier on the trail expresses his bitterness at being placed in a situation where he must either be killed, or kill people like himself. He feels there was nothing brave about ending this person’s life, and wonders if he could have simply let the Viet Cong soldier continue down the path He imagines the soldier to be exactly like himself. A scholar who would rather study than fight. A boy who is afraid of the war, but more afraid of looking weak in front of his friends or relatives. A boy who listened to tales of a previous war almost from the day he was born. As O’Brien stands there looking at the soldier he feels like he is looking at himself. This is one reason the incident has such as paralyzing effect on him.

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