The Changing World vs. The Self


Many things can change within a given amount of time, throughout life there are many situations where you have to adapt to get through to the next task, to the next day. The individual has to change themselves in a positive or negative way to be able to get through the pressing situation in their lives,and the changing world evolves based on past mistakes. The changing world and “the self” are related through a mutual bond of pain and adaptation.  Generally the bond of pain has to do with loss or negative issues within the world, and the adaptation is how the world and individual change within themselves.

Throughout the book, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, the characters change based on the unfortunate things that happen to them. One of the best examples of this is at the beginning of the book, while O’Brien is still introducing the characters, saying their names and what they carry. In this moment the author is talking about a soldier named Jimmy Cross and how he deals with having to be in the war while the love of his life is elsewhere. “They were called legs or grunts. To carry something was to hump it, as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps.” (Pg 3)

The soldiers have to learn to adapt to the new weight of their equipment, which obviously puts new weight on their backs plus the strain of being in a new place. This causes them physical pain (at least a little). And they have to learn to deal with the pain/strain and move on. They must trudge on through the new environment they are in and adapt to everything they go through to stay alive so they can get home. The changing world is were they actually are (in the field aka Vietnam), and the self is exactly that (inside all their heads/how they feel). This is really personified throughout this quote, even though it is pretty short, just by Jimmy deciding to focus more on ‘humping’ his weight and the job he has to do rather than Matha at home. He’s adapting to his situation by blocking out the part of his life that is causing the biggest problem; Martha is making his service difficult, so he decided to block her out and think more about what he has to do, rather than what he misses. And the over all changing world just goes on through the war it is already in, which is the personification of pain for the world. The fact that its getting destroyed over territory and politics etc.

Tim's explanations of what the men have to deal with show more examples of how the men adapt He makes their characters seem more human so can connect with them and sort of feel their pain.(Pg 21) “They were tough. They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing- these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had terrible weight.”Again the soldiers have to deal with all the different issues/situations they go through in the war, and everything that also doesn’t happen. Like all the men that don’t survive, all the people they can’t see everyday, all the battles they don’t win etc. They also have to deal with everything bad that may or may not have happened to them before they even went into the service. The changing world in this situation is again where they are, but more specifically being in the military (U.S Army). The self is also within the subject, more exactly, were the individual is in their mind. Mostly involving their acceptance of past events (Emotional stability). Just generally meaning that the world changes its scenery and location, while the individual changes as a person to adapt to changes around them.

While in the war a soldier named Rat Kiley writes a letter to the sister of his best friend, who was just killed in battle. He does this because they were so close during their service and he thought it would be better than her just getting the Killed In Action notice. After he sends the letter out she never writes back, and this is Rat’s reaction to her lack of a response, “Listen to Rat Kiley. Cooze, he says. He does not say bitch. He certainly does not say woman, or girl. He says cooze. Then he spits and stares. He’s nineteen years old- it’s too much for him- so he looks at you with those big sad gentle killer eyes and says cooze, because his friend is dead, and because it’s incredibly sad and true: she never wrote back.”(Pg 69)

This proves the point that the changing world and “the self” are related through a mutual bond of pain and adaptation. It illustrates that the ‘characters’ or soldiers in the real world will adapt each other’s stories for one another and tell them as their own. Effectively this makes their coping go over easier. Although they still feel the need to tell the stories, which is a way of expressing the emotions they felt in order to adapt. In most situations the emotions they’re expressing, his pain from past war experiences.

Even throughout different interviews with the author of “The Things They Carried” Tim O’Brien alludes to the issues he and his fellow soldiers had during the war that he touches on in the books, even though most of the characters in the book are fictional they are based off real people he met.

''We all wondered why the place was so hostile. We did not know there had been a massacre there a year earlier. The news about that only came out later, while we were there, and then we knew. There is a monument in My Lai now and I want to see it.''

This is probably the most obvious and literal quote that could be found. The changing world having to go through a massacre, a large loss of life in a certain area, then having that area be physically changed into a memorial for those who lost their lives during that tragedy. The individual being the people that were affected, the killed, their families, the community members. Then those individuals somehow having to adapt in order to cope with all the changes caused by the massacre itself.

During this same interview with New York Times, O’Brien was speaking to the interviewer about how he felt getting drafted, the shock he felt and what he did after receiving the notice himself.

“His reaction to the draft notice still surprises him. ''I went to my room in the basement and started pounding the typewriter,'' he recalled. ''I did it all summer. It was the most terrible summer of my life, worse than being in the war. My conscience kept telling me not to go, but my whole upbringing told me I had to. That horrible summer made me a writer. I don't know what I wrote. I've still got it, reams of it, but I'm not willing to look at it. It was just stuff - bitter, bitter stuff, and it's probably full of self-pity. But that was the beginning.''”

Tim openly admits to how he felt as his life changed around him. The war becoming worse to the point where the military needed more bodies to the point where more men were drafted into service. He changed in himself, based on the fear and shock he felt at having to go into a situation that could possibly lead to his death.

O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction. New York: Broadway, 1998. Print.

Bruckner, D.J. "A Storyteller For the War That Won't End." New York Times Online. The New York Times. April 3, 1990. Web. October 20, 2009.


Most of my family is involved with the Military, and even those who aren’t work for the government. My father was in the Army, My uncle was in the Marine Core, My aunt in the Navy, and my mother, grandmother, great-aunt, and uncle, all work for the IRS. Reading Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” was very helpful in putting everything they had to go through into perspective.

More so my uncle Ray honestly. He came home about four years ago, but he was flown overseas and served in Iraq. Dropped into an unfamiliar place, fresh outta high school and dead set on bringing the family honor. Although thats not really what happened. He doesn’t suffer from PTSD or any other of the myriad of psychological issues he very well could from being in the war.

Although if you go through his phone you’ll see pictures of what its like, and he has buried many friends while he was in the war. Which is touched on very often throughout the book and also in interviews with the author himself. “The Things They Carried”, shows how the soldiers felt doing what they were ordered, and how they reacted to all the death and destruction around them.

That was always something I wanted to better understand, because I knew that my uncle had seen dead bodies, and buildings crumble. Seeing those things can completely change a person and their point of view on life, so I wondered how that affected Ray. I could never actually ask him though, because even if it tore him apart inside he would put on a brave face and act like it didn't phase him in the slightest.

Tim opened my eyes to the fact, that sometimes people in the service just can’t talk about those things, that I can’t just expect anyone to pour out everything they ever saw in the field to me. That sometimes its better not to ask, and just let your imagination assume the worst, and try to be as kind as you can. Just show them all the love you have, so they don’t forget its there when they need it. Just always be happy when they make it home, and try to be the best family you can when they do. Give them support. Everything you can, but not too much so you don’t overwhelm them into thinking there is something wrong with them. Just in general, take everything in stride and don’t think about it too hard, just love the person that comes back as much as you loved them before they were deployed.

Comments (1)

Heaven Mendez (Student 2016)
Heaven Mendez

This is different, which is good. We always hear stories about how people come back from war, and are totally distraught. And while you said that your uncle put on a brave act, it does hurt them to bring up that many bad memories. I love how you included how you saw things versus how he saw/witnessed it.