Imagery in The Things They Carried

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

Imagery is an example of a literary device that authors use to make their writing vivid, memorable, and meaningful. In this lesson, we will explore the ways imagery in Tim O'Brien's novel 'The Things They Carried' accomplishes this.


American author Tim O'Brien drew on his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War to write his novel The Things They Carried (1990). He uses imagery, or artful descriptions, to help readers imagine these experiences and appreciate the reality of combat far from home. He writes, ''A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.''

Weight vs. Weightlessness

Have you ever gone hiking in rough terrain and bad weather, or helped someone move furniture to or from a building with a lot of stairs? If so, you were probably preoccupied with how heavy your load felt and when you would be able to set it down. Because The Things They Carried is about soldiers marching through Vietnam with a large amount of gear, as well as the burdens they shoulder during and after the war, some of its most important imagery relates to weight and weightlessness.

Weight is carefully documented in the novel's first chapter and represents the literal and figurative difficulties soldiers face at war in a foreign country. O'Brien lists the exact weight of each object carried by the men in his platoon, whether it is military equipment or a personal item. This helps us to understand how hard it would be to constantly carry these things, even though each item is necessary for survival.

One image associated with weight is legs. In a type of imagery called synecdoche (in which one part of an image is used to symbolize the whole, or vice versa), O'Brien calls the soldiers ''legs.'' Their legs allow them to hike all day and support the immense weight they carry.

Not all weight is literal, however. Throughout the novel, O'Brien portrays the psychological stresses of war, such as the loss of comrade Ted Lavender. First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross feels responsible for his death, and Kiowa cannot stop describing it to his fellow soldiers. Besides grappling with loneliness, boredom, and low morale, the men struggle not to appear cowardly in the face of death, which is ''the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down.'' Each of these things makes the soldiers' daily life difficult to endure.

Evacuation of Wounded American Soldiers
Wounded soldiers

At some point in your life, you have probably had a dream in which you could fly. Images of flying and weightlessness are extremely important to the platoon: they provide mental escape from the various burdens each man must ''hump,'' or carry, each day. The men dream about being carried off by planes that are also real birds. In the dream-flight, ''The weights fell off; there was nothing to bear.''

Sometimes even death brings lightness. Dave Jensen knows that his friend Lee Strunk doesn't want to live out his post-war days with a handicap, so when Strunk dies of his crippling war wound, Jensen is relieved. In ''How to Tell a True War Story,'' Curt Lemon's death by booby trap ''lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms.''

Color Imagery

In The Things They Carried, sunlight (or sunset) is often used to depict scenes that are beautiful despite the ugliness of a war-torn context. Lemon, whose name evokes the color yellow, dies on a bright day under a majestic tree, and O'Brien's memory of his death is characterized by radiant sunshine and white flowers. The attractive Mary Anne has blond hair, and her fashionable culottes are white. For O'Brien, she initially represents American women back home: ''Just a child, blond and innocent, but then weren't they all?''

In contrast, recalling the visual effects of aerial weaponry, he notes the dramatic, if ominous, violets and oranges of napalm strikes. He additionally describes tracer rounds ''unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons.'' After the war, Norman Bowker is reminded of these displays as he watches his home town's Independence Day fireworks in ''Speaking of Courage.''

Napalm Strike

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