This lesson introduces and analyzes several important motifs in Tim O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried. A motif is a recurrent image, idea, or symbol, which reinforces underlying themes.
Overview of the Motifs
In his 1990 novel, The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien uses various motifs, which are recurring ideas, images or symbols, which reinforce important themes in a work of art or literature.
Some of the motifs used are the haze, the jungle, the muck, and the darkness of night.
Vapors and Haze
Throughout the stories, the narrator repeatedly describes the vapors and haze that settle over the landscape. For instance, the narrator describes the ‘wet and swirly and tangled up’ haze that obscures the jungle. The vapors spook the soldiers, making them feel tense, as if something or someone is haunting them. As it’s said at one point in the story, when there is haze, ‘you can’t see jack, you can’t find your own pecker to piss with.’ In one scene, the narrator wades through fog and thinks about his dead comrade, Ted Lavender.
This is because the vapor has such an eerie effect on his psyche. The haze reinforces the feelings of irk and haunt that all of the men experience.A motif closely related to the vapor and haze is ghosts. The narrator observes that all the men carry ghosts with them, since they have killed others and witnessed men die. The ghosts, like the fog, reinforce how the soldiers are haunted by their conscience. The narrator is haunted by the ghosts of fallen soldiers, as well as of Linda, his childhood love, who died of a brain tumor.
He regrets that he was not kinder to her before she died.
Another important motif is the jungle. The narrator describes scenes in which his platoon struggled to find their way in a thick tangle of woods. The jungle motif reinforces the convolutedness of their mission, and the complexities of the conflict between the American soldiers and the native Vietnamese. Just as the soldiers labor to find their way in the juggle, they also labor to determine the purpose and meaning of their mission in the War.
The muck is another significant motif in the narrative. The soldiers encounter muck everywhere, as much of their combat takes place in the swamps and marshes of Vietnam. The narrator describes the muck as an overpowering filth. One character–Norman Bowker–is so overcome by the muck and its stench that he abandons his comrade, Kiowa.
Norman can not stand the stink, and so he lets go of his friend’s boot. Kiowa sinks down into the mud. The muck reinforces the moral filth that the men feel, having been exposed to the gruesome realities of war. Many of the soldiers cannot bear the psychological weight of killing, believing that they have totally lost all sense of innocence and goodness.
The darkness also reinforces the moral depravity of the war. The soldiers often wait until dark to move across the fields to their different ambush coordinates. They spend many nights awake, staring into the black abyss.
The darkness represents the terror of the unknown, since it’s clear that each man fears for his own life and those of his comrades. The darkness also represents the gruesome reality of the war. In the dark, one of the soldiers begins to hear voices whispering his name. The darkness contributes to his psychological deterioration amidst the trauma of war.
Tim O’Brien uses various important motifs (or recurring ideas, images or symbols, which reinforce important themes in a work of art or literature) in his novel, The Things They Carried to reinforce the themes related to the soldiers’ moral depravity, loss of innocence, and unclear purpose.
The themes of the novel include vapor and haze, which settle over the landscape and represent the feelings of haunting and fear the men experience as they move through the jungle, and the related theme of ghosts, which represent the horrors of war that the men carry with them through the jungle. And speaking of the jungle, that particular theme represents the convoluted nature of their mission and the war itself. The other themes include muck (representing the moral filth that the men feel about themselves, shown when Kiowa sinks into the muck) and darkness (representing the moral depravity of war and fear of the unknown).