Loss of Innocence in The Things They Carried

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Virginia has a Master's degree in Curriculum and Development and a Ph.D. in English

'The Things They Carried' by Tim O'Brien is a fictionalized account of his experiences fighting in Vietnam. The loss of innocence is one important theme in the novel.

Defining the Loss of Innocence

We tend to think of children as innocent, until they grow older and experience adult things. Some of these experiences are positive, and some are negative. Sometimes, children lose their innocence early because of child abuse, illness, or war. Though the author of The Things they Carried was not a child, he and many of his fellow soldiers felt unprepared for war in several ways. That is why loss of innocence is an important theme in the book. Let's take a closer look at how this theme is demonstrated in The Things they Carried.

Facing Up to Responsibility

Tim O'Brien, the author of The Things They Carried, was drafted to fight in Vietnam in 1968, only a month after graduating from college. He was unprepared to fight, both literally and emotionally, thinking that the problems of killing and dying were something distant from his secure world.

Imagine being young and intelligent, a peaceful person at heart, and having no choice about going to a foreign country to fight a war. O'Brien describes a brief period that he thought about running away to Canada, which some young men did. But the young O'Brien found that he had to go to Vietnam - his own honor would not let him run away. Taking on adult responsibility is one frightening way we lose our innocence.

Experiencing Death

Some of the things that the members of O'Brien's Alpha Company carried were physical objects from home: Kiowa's Bible and moccasins, Jensen's rabbit's foot charm, Cross' picture of Martha. These items carried more than their surface value; in a place where life might end in an instant, they were symbols of life. As most of us do who live in safe and ordinary places, O'Brien and his fellow soldiers had previously thought death to be distant from their personal reality. The shock of living with sudden injury or death changed them from innocent boys to sometimes cold and often cynical young men.

Killing Another Human

The members of Alpha Company carried many kinds of weapons and had to learn to use them. Using guns and explosives to kill another human represents a loss of innocence. Many had never shot a gun before and certainly not with intent to kill another human being. Think about how you might feel watching someone you know blow up right in front of you or seeing a person you fired at crumple and die on a dusty unknown road.

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