Symbols in The Things They Carried

Symbols in The Things They Carried
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  • 0:04 Overview of Symbols
  • 0:28 Stockings
  • 1:07 Puppy and Water Buffalo
  • 1:52 Baggage and Excrement
  • 3:25 Water and Fog
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Audrey Farley

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

This lesson introduces and analyzes the significance of six important symbols in Tim O'Brien's 1990 novel, ''The Things They Carried,'' which recounts the author's experiences as a soldier fighting in Vietnam.

Overview of Symbols

The Things They Carried is full of rich imagery and symbols which reinforce the novel's central themes, such as the uncertainty of life, isolation from familiar comforts, and the bizarre ways in which a human deals with severe psychological strain. O'Brien primarily uses symbols to convey the psychological effects of the Vietnam War, as well as the soldiers' loss of innocence.


One of the characters Henry Dobbins wears a pair of nylon stockings around his neck. They are a good luck charm from his girlfriend back home. Henry claims that the pantyhose bring him good memories. He sleeps with them like a security blanket, and they 'keep him safe.'

While the stockings suggest female intimacy, which the soldiers no longer experience, they also suggest mystery. O'Brien and the other soldiers are bewildered about the effects the garment has on Henry. They conclude that the stockings are magic. The stockings thus convey the mystique of the female sex, which has become increasingly foreign to the men in the platoon.

Puppy and Water Buffalo

The puppy and baby water buffalo symbolize innocence and purity. In the beginning, O'Brien recalls when a fellow soldier, Azar, strapped a puppy to a mine and squeezed the firing device. Azar rejoices in the animal's violent death because it gives him a sense of control over his own circumstances.

Later, Rat Kiley shoots a water buffalo to avenge the death of their friend, Curt Lemon. O'Brien narrates how the animal is completely helpless against Rat's aggression. This scene reinforces how the soldiers in the platoon have lost their sense of humanity after witnessing the brutal horrors of war. The animals remind the men of their childhood innocence, which they can never recover.

Baggage and Excrement

One of the most important symbols in the narrative is baggage. O'Brien names his book The Things They Carried after the objects that the soldiers in his platoon have to carry on their backs. They carry pocket knives, can openers, wristwatches, lighters, matches, gum, mosquito repellant, dog tags, salt tablets, stamps, letters, and good luck charms. O'Brien reflects that their identities are reduced to what they carry. But O'Brien also describes the emotional baggage that the soldiers carry - grief, terror, longing, confusion, and hatred. The items on their backs thus symbolize the psychological weight of the war.

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