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The Things They Carried - Themes

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In Tim O'Brien's novel, The Things They Carried, numerous themes are illustrated by the author. Through the portrayal of a number of characters, Tim O'Brien suggests that to adapt to Vietnam is not always more difficult than to revert back to the lives they once knew. Correspondingly the theme of change is omnipresent throughout the novel, specifically in the depiction of numerous characters.

Tim O'Brien is drafted one month after graduating from Macalester College to fight a war he hated. Tim O'Brien believed he was above the war, and as a result pursued the alternative of escaping across the border to Canada. This understandable act is what Tim O'Brien considers an embarrassment to himself, and to others. When Tim O'Brien finds accommodation on the border to Canada, he meets Elroy Berdahl who eventually influences Tim O'Brien, to change. Elroy Berdahl acts as a mentor to Tim, a figure that remains detached in the sense that he must provide enough support and understanding without being attached to the results.

At the rear of the boat Elroy Berdahl pretended not to notice...I realized that Canada had become a pitiful fantasy. Silly and hopeless. It was no longer a possibility. Right then, with the shore so close, I understood That I would not do what I should do. I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life. I would not be brave. That old image of myself as a hero, as a man of conscience and courage, all that was just a threadbare pipe dream. (O'Brien 59,60)

Tim O'Brien's epiphany so close to the Canadian shore, represents the change he went through in the 6 days he was with Elroy Berdahl. Tim O'Brien's whole life appeared before him and out of cowardice, he went to war.

Rat Kiley is the platoon medic who eventually loses his mind in the field. Rat Kiley's metamorphosis occurs when the platoon switches to a routine of night movement

for 2 weeks. Rat is unable to adjust to this night life, and begins to act eccentric towards the surrounding environment. Rat Kiley's hallucinations eventually leads to his demise when he shoots himself in the foot to escape the war.

He shot himself... Nobody blamed him. Before the chopper came, there was time for goodbyes. Lieutenant Cross went over and said he'd vouch that it was an accident... Everyone stood in a little circle, feeling bad about it, trying to cheer him up with bullshit about the great night life in Japan. (O'Brien 251)

Rat Kiley's company understood what happened, and no one could impugn his reason for doing so. All the troops had their own demons to take care of, Rat Kiley just dealt with his in a different way.

Mary Anne, The sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, experiences perhaps the most radical form of change in the novel. Marry Anne, the innocent, curious, typical-American girl notorious for her pink sweater, comes over to Vietnam to visit her boyfriend Mark Fossie and is delivered to the medical outpost by way of a supply chopper. Initially Mark Fossie and Mary Anne are inseparable, spending days and nights by each other's side. However, surrounded by masculinity, Mary Anne quickly changes. It is this contrast of masculinity and femininity which illustrates how war can change anyone. Mary Anne begins to change from her outgoing, innocent self to a more withdrawn individual.

What happened to her, Rat said, was what happened

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