Deconstructive Critique of The Things They Carried by Tim ‘O Brien: A Spritual, Buddhist, Zen Insight

Traditionally speaking, every story has a moral at the end. Chaucer was fond of wrapping up his tales with a cute little rhyme, and even today English professors demand students to regurgitate the theme of each literary piece. In Tim O’ Brien’s story “The Things They Carried” there is no moral. A moral must have two things in order to exist: A story and an ending. “The Things They Carried” does not have either of these pre-requisites. According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia’s definition of deconstruction “no ‘text’ can convey a single reliable, consistent, just, or even coherent message to all those who read, hear, or look at it” ( Stories, like life, do not have clear-cut morals and maxims.

“The Things They Carried” is overflowing with stories, so many that a simple moral could never be netted out of this river. Certainly, there is the obvious story, which is privileged by the reader’s perception. This is the story we read, about a unit of men and their time in Vietnam. However, there are many other stories as well. There’s the story of Jimmy Cross’ beloved Martha. O’ Brien barely gives us a glimpse of the story of her world, which is filled, not with weapons and illness, but with “professors and room mates and midterm exams” (706). Furthermore, one can wonder about the stories of her professors or of her mildly hinted at suitors. Then, there’s the boy’s corpse in the trench. Surely he has a story to share; perhaps it would be similar to Ted Lavender’s. There are many background characters briefly alluded to by those characters placed in the forefront of this particular story. Each story is that of a single person, woven with the stories of many others. Keeping that in mind, one could easily see how the entire world exists within this one story. How can a piece containing the stories of the entire world, containing the stories and individual worlds of each person, have something as solid and universal as a simple moral?

In order for a story to have a moral, that story must also have an ending. This calls to mind a wonderful quote from “The Last Unicorn” spoken by Fredric the Magician. He says, “There can be no happy ending because there are no endings” (The Last Unicorn). How can “The Things They Carried,” containing millions of stories and worlds within its ten textual pages, have an ending? Though modern literature critics, and indeed many philosophers, enjoy the idea of a universal “beginning” and “end” to everything, including life itself, stories don’t stop where the words cease. Without an ending, how can one decipher a moral?

That being said, “The Things They Carried” attempts, like all literature, to have a theme. Jimmy Cross learns about shouldering the responsibility of reality, rather than hiding in his daydreams. All the soldiers learn about coping in a pointless war. O’Brien hammers home the irony that these men are all so scared of being cowards that they’re willing to die. Ted Lavender is a perfect example of this irony. Each day he takes his tranquilizers and dope, terrified to die. Yet at any point, the narrator states, these soldiers could go home. They could just “blow off a toe” and be on a jet plane to comfort and security (716). In the end, Ted Lavender’s fear of death is usurped by his fear of seeming cowardly, and he dies, drugged up on opium to suppress his terror. O’Brien makes his desired theme abundantly obvious, but when there are so many stories, how can any one theme be clear?

Many times stories are used as a map, with the moral hidden right beneath the giant “X” spelled out by the author. The reader approaches the story with a “What can I learn from this” mentality. Similarly, the characters in “The Things They Carried” are reaching for a moral, a lesson, anything they can apply to life so they don’t feel as if their time in Vietnam was a waste. Mitchell Sanders recites this idea twice in the story, both times after he is confronted with death: “There’s a moral here” (712).

He simply cannot accept meaningless death. Most of the war, however, is pointless. It is an “endless marchâÂ?¦without purposeâÂ?¦nothing won or lost.” “[The soldiers’] principles,” the narration continues, “were in their feet” (713). Such is the hopelessness and inhumanity of the march that the men’s principles and morals are cast to the ground, lost in the mindless, mundane sea of red Vietnam sand.

O’Brien’s use of language in “The Things They Carried” is also important to consider. His story reads like a Buddhist mantra. “Mantras are sounds – words or phrases – that are used as an object of concentration” ( The narrator lists supplies like a ritual chanting of the word “Om.” Henry Dobbins “carried extra rations.” Dave Jenson “carried a toothbrush, dental floss.” Ted Lavender “carried tranquilizers” and dope (708). The rhythmic, flowing, mindless listing is very similar in nature to meditation techniques used to empty the mind. O’Brien is also methodical and determined in his use of the word “carried.” “Carried” is used to introduce every list of objects, and the focused, unwavering use of that word, the refusal of any synonyms, is even more reminiscent of a ritual meditative mantra. “As an object of concentration – like any other – a mantra can help to still the mind” ( One wonders, then, if perhaps this entire story about “war” is really all taking place in one man’s mind as he meditates and struggles for inner peace.

O’Brien’s use of mantra-like repetition is not the only way he uses language to express the meditative feel of the story. Towards the end of the story, the narrator begins to list seemingly figurative “concepts” the soldiers carry. “They carried the sky,” says the text, “They carried gravity” (713). Every other object listed until this point has been a literal object. When the “sky” and “gravity” are listed, however, the reader assumes these intangibles must be meant as figurative. Why? If through out the entire story every item has been listed literally, why should the meaning switch suddenly to figurative? This question is answered simply if the reader is made aware that the entire story is taking place inside one man’s mind.

One of the basic ideas of Zen Buddhism is that “reality” is created by human perception. Most of what humans call “reality” exists more or less inside their own minds. Dr. Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton emphasizes that “[The Things They Carried] requires readers to balance the physical and metaphysical worlds âÂ?¦ and challenges their definitions of reality” (Piedmont-Marton, 1). From a metaphysical and Zen Buddhist standpoint, O’Brien’s story could be interpreted as occurring only in the mind of a single person and not in reality itself.

The idea that “The Things They Carried” is simply a story about the meditative process of one character’s mind makes sense from a metaphysical standpoint. For example, Ted Lavender was the only “major” character to die. It may be easy to write his death off as classical irony O’Brien implanted into his story for dramatic effect. Instead, however, Ted Lavender’s death can be viewed as mental self-destruction. Every character in the story is struggling constantly against his own fears; in turn, each character’s own fears are battling each other for dominance: Which do I fear more, they question themselves, death or cowardice? The character who’s mind this entire inner dialogue takes place in is obviously meditating, if we follow this course of metaphysical logic, in an attempt to find peace for his own fears. This is where the character of Ted Lavender comes in. “Ted Lavender,” says Dr. Piedmont-Marton, “makes his own fear and therefore everyone’s fear visible” (Piedmont-Marton, 2). It should be obvious, then, that Ted Lavender must die if the inner conflict is ever to be solved through meditation. As the narrator describes the fear-conflict, he also describes freedom: spinning off the edge of the earth and beyond the sun and through the vast, silent vacuum where there were no burdens and where everything weighed exactly nothing (717). This description is not far off from many Buddhist descriptions of nirvana or enlightenment.

If every scene in “The Things They Carried” exists within the mind of one person, who carries everything from weapons to drugs to fear to freedom, surely his mind can carry the sky, gravity, and reality itself. If this is the case, however, how can morals exist if everything one bases morals on is simply a projection of a single mind? Humanity is constantly searching for a moral, and O’Brien attempts to create a theme for his story. However, there is a greater wisdom to be found in simply reading and enjoying a story, not digging for some great truth. “The golden rule for life,” says Osho, a famous Zen mystic, “is that there are no golden rules. There cannot be. Life is so vast, so immense, so strange, mysterious, it cannot be reduced into a rule or a maxim. All maxims fall short”(Your Answers Questioned, 100). If this is the case, perhaps it’s even more accurate to say this: Why dig for great truths or simple morals? There is a greater wisdom to be found in simply living and enjoying life.

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