The Things They Carried Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

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Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in The Things They Carried


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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes to Look For and Discuss

The Burdens We All Carry

The primary theme in the novel The Things They Carried is the burdens we all carry. The first chapter of the novel is dedicated to the physical and emotional burdens the men carried with them as they marched: the guns, the gear, the photos, the letters, the hope, the fear, the memories, and the guilt. Some of these things create a physical burden that must be borne; for some men, the emotional burdens weigh more than the gear. For instance, Lieutenant Cross feels responsible for thinking about his love for Martha rather than ensuring his men's’ safety; when Ted Lavender is killed by a sniper, Lieutenant Cross carries that guilt with him, and rips up and burns all of Martha’s letters.

Story-Truth vs. Happening-Truth

Another important theme is the exploration of the relationship between story-truth and happening-truth. O’Brien analyzes the different facets of a true war story in his chapter, “How To Tell A True War Story”. A true war story “cannot be believed… Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.” O’Brien’s stories often present one story, or linear idea, and then he’ll contradict it later. He’ll change names and places, but he’ll also combine experiences and admit that sometimes the “pictures get jumbled.” This does not make the story any less true, however; a true story is not always about memory. It’s about emotion. Emotional truth is truer than memory. O’Brien’s stories may not always stick to the details, but they convey the same feeling and the same themes, which is a higher truth to him and other soldiers. He writes, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”


There’s the obvious guilt that the men carry from their mistakes, the people they’ve killed, from chances not taken, and opportunities squandered. There’s also another kind of guilt, which Norman Bowker writes about in a letter to O’Brien. Bowker expresses his frustration that he shouldn’t have anything to complain about: he lived, he made it home, he’s in safety and security again. Yet, he can’t hold a job, he doesn’t feel normal, and he can’t understand it. Many soldiers return home and suddenly find themselves wishing they were back at war, where life is actually much more simple. After reading his letter, O’Brien feels guilt that he never experienced the haunting ghosts that debilitated Bowker and others, but then realizes that he found a sort of catharsis through his writing. His writing allows him to express his guilt about his mistakes and choices, and the things he had seen.


Another theme that the novel examines is acceptance. O’Brien uses his writing to accept his own experiences, and to explore the different kinds of truth that he knows exist. Throughout the novel, the men come to accept the realities of their situation: the duties they must perform; the deaths of Kiowa, Curt Lemon, and Ted Lavender; the acceptance of their roles in the unit; the acceptance of the fight; the acceptance that even in war, there is beauty, too. Rat Kiley comes to accept his best friend Curt Lemon’s death by shooting a baby buffalo, and then is unable to accept the war anymore and shoots himself in the foot. When they return home, Bowker is unable to accept his new role as a civilian and hangs himself; Ted Lavender accepts his realities by taking tranquilizers until he is shot. The men all cope and accept their new situations in different ways. O’Brien’s stories attempt to bring acceptance to their war story, the collective story-truths that also includes the happening-truths and exist in one, cohesive universe in their minds.

Motifs, Imagery & Symbols


An important recurring motif in The Things They Carried is O’Brien’s discussion about the purpose of stories. He talks about how telling his stories is not necessarily therapy for him, but it is cathartic. He says that telling war stories makes them come out from the past and into the present, and their purpose is to join the past to the future. He analyzes his penchant for continually telling stories so many years after the war as a 43-year-old man, when his daughter Kathleen calls him on it. He supposes that he should probably write about something else, but at the same time, he sees the importance of the stories - it keeps his memories, his friends, and even his mistakes alive.

The Man I Killed

An important recurring symbol is the young Vietnamese man that O’Brien may or may not have killed. This fits with O’Brien’s musings that every soldier carries a burden from war. For O’Brien, this man seems to be one of the bigger things that he still carries. O’Brien describes the man in grotesque detail after he killed him, but then he speculates about who the man was before, and some of the biographical details seem to line up with O’Brien’s own life. He makes a connection with the man, even though he is unclear as to whether or not he did kill him. Regardless, the man is a ghost in the stories that O’Brien is clearly still struggling to cope with.

The Field Where Kiowa Dies

Another important symbol is the field where Kiowa dies. In the most pleasant of terms, it is a field full of swampy waste: “the village toilet”. The men settle in near it and the field is attacked during the night. Norman Bowker tells about going towards a screaming Kiowa, but when he gets to him, he’s already underneath the muck. He sinks into it and Bowker lets go of his boot, because he can feel himself sliding under, too. Bowker says that he could have won the Silver Star if it hadn’t been for the smell. Later, O’Brien reveals that it wasn’t Bowker who lost his nerve and the Silver Star that night; it was him. Later, O’Brien goes to visit the field with his daughter, Kathleen. It is clear that Kiowa’s death still weighs on him.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in The Things They Carried. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.

  1. Click "Start Assignment".
  2. Identify the theme(s) from The Things They Carried you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for examples that represent this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.

Template: Theme


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