Tim O.Briens, the Things They Carried Critical Essay
Dan Gaumer Gaumer 1 Prof Montgomery English 104 10/22/12
Hard Times of Norman Bowker Have you ever found yourself carrying something heavy for a long period of time? Do you remember feeling pain, or wanting to drop the object because it was too much to bear? Tim O’brien’s novel, The Things They Carried, is about men in the middle of the Vietnam War just trying to survive. These men, like all soldiers, carried many things ranging from the physical items of war to the emotional and mental weight that comes along with the horrors of war. They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried. ”(O’brien,7) I believe in this novel, O’brien gives many great and detailed examples of PTSD, even in his own life. This novel is more than just about the Vietnam War. It is about what a solider goes through on and off the battlefield. It’s about the art of a real war story. Most importantly it’s about what soldiers carried, physically, mentally, and emotionally; during, before, and after the war.
The soldiers that made it back home suffered from many mental issues, mainly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping for a while. But with time and taking care of yourself, Gaumer 2 such traumatic reactions usually get better.
In some cases, though, the symptoms can get worse or last for months or even years. (Staff, Mayo Clinic,”Definition”) Thoughts of sorrow and loss overwhelm the Vietnam veterans upon their return back home. Crushed from the horror of war, they come back to even bigger disappointments and sadness. Instead of the mellow lives they lead before they left for war and the presence of warm and caring everyday life, most of them encounter empty beds, cold family ambiance and overall loss.
Already physically and emotionally defeated, they can’t seem to pick up their lives where they left off. Even in instances of supportive partners, the inevitable horrors of the war haunt them in sleep or come back to them in daydreaming. They all came back with multiple disorders, PTSD with the common symptoms. “The war was over and there was no place in particular to go” (131). Various examples of this disorder are found in a few chapters such as “Speaking of Courage” and “The Man I Killed. ” For Vietnam veterans, nothing could replenish the zest for life they had before the war.
According to O’Brien’s text, upon their arrival home the veterans imagine, even hallucinate, what things would have been like if they had not suffered through the war. Examples of such occurrences exist in the stories “Speaking of Courage” and “The Man I Killed. ” Norman Bowker in “Speaking of Courage” daydreams of talking to his ex-girlfriend, now married to another guy, and of his dead childhood friend, Max Arnold. He lives out over and over his unfulfilled dream of having his Sally beside him and of having manly conversations with Max.
He cannot stop day dreaming and dwelling in the past. Gaumer 3 Unemployed and overwhelmed by inferiority and disappointment, Bowker lacks a motivating force for life. Emotionally stricken, he only finds satisfaction in driving slowly and repeatedly in circles around his old neighborhood in his father’s big Chevy, “feeling safe,” and remembering how things used to be when there wasn’t a war. These recurring events also spring memories of the beautiful lake where Norman used to spend a lot of time with his now married ex-girlfriend Sally Kramer and his high school friends.
The lake invokes nostalgic and sentimental memories both of his girlfriend and his long gone – drowned – best friend, Max Arnold. However, now for Norman the past seems an idea, or like Max would say, that everything exists as a “possible… idea, even necessary as an idea, a final cause in the whole structure of causation” (133). Thus, his ex girlfriend, his friends, the lake, the gatherings, his father and all the rest exist as ideas in Norman’s head now that all of his past exists only as flickering thoughts in a big jumbled chaos in his head.
All of this has symptoms of PDST all over it. He only possesses the solitary capability of bragging about the medals he won or he should have won. Even that does not bring him comfort since he imagines talking to Sally: ” ‘How’s it being married? ‘ he might ask, and he’d nod at whatever she answered with, and he would not say a word about how he’d almost won the Silver Star for valor” (134). Nothing fulfills Norman Bowker anymore. Instead, a terrible confusion has taken over his mind in the form of blur and chaos. He desperately needs someone to talk to: “If Sally had not been
Gaumer 4 married, or if his father were not such a baseball fan, it would have been a good time to talk” (134). Unfortunately, he keeps questioning and answering himself in order to justify and compensate the loss and to make some sort of sense out of the entire situation. He loans to impress Sally with some dumb tricks of telling the exact time without even looking at a watch, just as much as he wishes for a father-son conversation. So that he can make his father proud, if nothing else, that his son won seven medals during the war.
He does not have anybody to comfort him in moments of self-blame, for example when he cannot forgive himself for not winning the Silver Star because he “couldn’t take the goddamn awful smell” (136). He evokes the “shit experience” from his war days. He goes on to comfort himself, by pretending what considerate thoughts his father might have: “If you don’t want to say anymore -,” to which immediately Norman answers himself: “I do want to”(136). He tries to maintain calm and balance-minded while thinking of being camped in the shit field.
He cannot stop thinking of the cruel war incidents that he witnessed, and therefore, he cannot forget the death of his friend Kiowa, who died in an explosion in the shit field: “There was a knee. There was an arm… There were bubbles where Kiowa’s head should’ve been… He was folded in with the war; he was part of the waste” (142,143, 147). Not only can Norman not stop thinking about the cruelties, but he also cannot forgive himself for letting go of Kiowa because he blames himself for not being able to save his Gaumer 5 friend’s life, of which as a consequence Norman did not win the Silver Star.
It seems like Norman carries the shit experience with him for life. Other characteristics of PTSD in this story are Norman’s inhibited social skills. Instead of placing a fast-food order through the drive-through intercom he honks at the waitress and once he gets his order, he does not move away until after he eats his hamburger and then presses the intercom again to inform the waiters that he finished his hamburger. From this novel I’ve come to figure out the realism of the true things soldiers carry during and after the war.
There is the weight of the physical items, than there are the weight of the mental issues that come along with fighting in war. Issues like PTSD, which the story of Norman Bowker gives various good examples of. And the proving the very real pain that goes along with it by him eventually committing suicide. In my opinion, in this novel, O’brien gives many examples of PTSD, even in his own life. The results of the trauma suffered in the war together with the emotional baggage: grief, terror, love, and longing, proves how PTSD can affect a soldier.