Climax through Characterization

[an analysis by Zach Molnar]

In the story, “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien tells the story of a single platoon in Vietnam. With his own experience as a guide, O’Brien seeks to convey the misery and fear that characterizes the average infantryman’s life. The story concentrates on the physical and emotional burdens the soldiers must carry. It follows Lieutenant Cross, the platoon’s leader, as the emotional center of the story. The rest of the platoon, at least those worthy of being named, are largely defined by the objects they choose to carry. It is important to note there are those things they must carry, and there are things each individual chooses to carry. For example, the average soldier is required “[to carry] a standard M-16 gas-operated assault rifle,” though Lieutenant Cross also chooses to carry a woman’s letters at the bottom of his pack. In this way, O’Brien uses detail to portray each soldier as an individual and part of the inclusive “they.”

I was drawn to “The Things They Carried” by O’Brien’s non-linear format. Instead of the steady rise of action that leads to a necessary climax, O’Brien displays his characters through particular attention to detail. The death of Ted Lavender has the potential to be a natural climax for the story, as well as providing an unexpected event to shock the reader and inform the larger purpose of the piece. O’Brien’s casual reference to Lavender’s death immediately dilutes the potency of the event. It is first mentioned in passing: “Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.” Lavender’s death is mentioned no less than five more times in “The Things They Carried” before O’Brien actually plays out the scene for the reader. This preference for character over plot allows the author to tell a familiar story in a nuanced way.

And they dreamed of freedom birds. At night, on guard, staring into the dark, they were carried away by jumbo jets. They felt the rush of takeoff. Gone! they yelled. And then velocity-wings and engines-a smiling stewardess-but it was more than a plane, it was a real bird, a big sleek silver bird with feathers and talons and high screeching.

If O’Brien did format the plot of “The Things They Carried” in a linear fashion, the characterization in this story would not progresses as it does. In the beginning of the piece, O’Brien places great emphasis on the objects the men carry and their actual weight. As the story progresses, O’Brien shifts the focus of his detailed lists to the emotional burdens the men carry and how it effects them. The death of Lavender marks that shift, when O’Brien concentrates on the hardness of their language, the grim trophies they have collected, and the guilt Lieutenant Cross feels over the loss of his soldier. The characterization climax of the story occurs when these elements have reached a fevered height and the men are at their most cynical. While they scoff at weakness and wear hardened masks to impress each other, O’Brien reveals that their greatest wish is to step aboard the “freedom bird” that will take them home. In the darkness of the night’s watch, each man dreams of the moment they are “light and free,” no longer subject to the great burdens they are forced to carry.

Tim O’Brien’s decision to emphasize character over plot has created a story that is both powerful and unique. This is important, since O’Brien is attempting to portray the Vietnam War in a way that is accessible to the average reader. By placing character above plot, he has freed himself of the latter’s confines. We see the burdens each man must carry, as it transcends the physical weight and becomes an emotional load. Despite the promise of the “freedom bird,” it seems unlikely theirs is a load that will be easily laid aside.

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