Motifs in The Things They Carried

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson introduces and analyzes several important motifs in Tim O'Brien's novel, The Things They Carried. A motif is a recurrent image, idea, or symbol, which reinforces underlying themes.

Overview of the Motifs

In his 1990 novel, The Things They Carried Tim O'Brien uses various motifs, which are recurring ideas, images or symbols, which reinforce important themes in a work of art or literature. Some of the motifs used are the haze, the jungle, the muck, and the darkness of night.

Vapors and Haze

Throughout the stories, the narrator repeatedly describes the vapors and haze that settle over the landscape. For instance, the narrator describes the 'wet and swirly and tangled up' haze that obscures the jungle. The vapors spook the soldiers, making them feel tense, as if something or someone is haunting them. As it's said at one point in the story, when there is haze, 'you can't see jack, you can't find your own pecker to piss with.' In one scene, the narrator wades through fog and thinks about his dead comrade, Ted Lavender. This is because the vapor has such an eerie effect on his psyche. The haze reinforces the feelings of irk and haunt that all of the men experience.

A motif closely related to the vapor and haze is ghosts. The narrator observes that all the men carry ghosts with them, since they have killed others and witnessed men die. The ghosts, like the fog, reinforce how the soldiers are haunted by their conscience. The narrator is haunted by the ghosts of fallen soldiers, as well as of Linda, his childhood love, who died of a brain tumor. He regrets that he was not kinder to her before she died.


Another important motif is the jungle. The narrator describes scenes in which his platoon struggled to find their way in a thick tangle of woods. The jungle motif reinforces the convolutedness of their mission, and the complexities of the conflict between the American soldiers and the native Vietnamese. Just as the soldiers labor to find their way in the juggle, they also labor to determine the purpose and meaning of their mission in the War.


The muck is another significant motif in the narrative. The soldiers encounter muck everywhere, as much of their combat takes place in the swamps and marshes of Vietnam. The narrator describes the muck as an overpowering filth. One character--Norman Bowker--is so overcome by the muck and its stench that he abandons his comrade, Kiowa. Norman can not stand the stink, and so he lets go of his friend's boot. Kiowa sinks down into the mud. The muck reinforces the moral filth that the men feel, having been exposed to the gruesome realities of war. Many of the soldiers cannot bear the psychological weight of killing, believing that they have totally lost all sense of innocence and goodness.

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