Notes on Characters from The Things They Carried

Tim O'Brien
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The Things They Carried Major Characters

Jimmy Cross: A sensitive, dreamy Lieutenant, Cross must lead his men through the rice paddies of Vietnam. He would rather be back in New Jersey with Martha, a girl he loves who does not love him back. He knows she never will, and this tortures him, and distracts him from his work. When a man dies and Cross thinks he could have prevented it if he hadn't been thinking about Martha, he abruptly decides that he has to learn to think only of his job in the field. He never forgives himself for forgetting his responsibility to his men. Still, after the war he continues to love Martha, who never marries and remains mysterious and distant.

Kiowa: A devout Baptist, and an American Indian. The other men tease him about both these things often, but Kiowa does not respond. He is kind to everyone and tries to have appropriate moral reactions to the war--he wants to feel bad about Ted Lavender's death, for example. He tries to comfort Tim after Tim kills a man, something no one else in the company might think to do. His death is one of the worst events of the war for his entire company: they all loved him and knew he was a good person, and his death seems pointless.

Norman Bowker: A quiet, polite soldier who hates the pressure of trying to be brave. When Kiowa dies, Bowker feels he died with him. When he returns to his hometown, Bowker no longer feels he can talk to people there: no one understands what he went through. He is intelligent and his parents support him, but he cannot find any meaning in a job or in school. He tries to pretend nothing is really wrong, but he desperately wants to tell his story and asks Tim to write it for him. The story is a failure, and he eventually kills himself.

Rat Kiley: A nineteen year old medic. Tim admires him because he has a sense of humor, is kind, and is brave. Rat takes care of Tim when he gets shot, and as Tim goes off to the hospital, Rat almost hugs him. Rat is a good medic and he takes care of the other men even when he is frightened for his own life. However, he gradually loses his mind. He believes that bugs are trying to kill him. He sees everyone, including himself, as a collection of organs. He finally shoots himself in the foot because he can't take being in Vietnam anymore. The men, who all like him, understand that he is not a coward, and they wish him well.

Tim: The narrator. The writer of The Things They Carried is also, of course, named Tim O'Brien, and there are other similarities between the author and the narrator. The line between the two of them is blurred. The narrator is a thoughtful, guilt-ridden man. He knew that Vietnam was an unethical war, but he fought anyway, because he couldn't tell his family he wasn't going. Twenty years later, he is still writing about this mistake, and all the horrible things he saw and did. He believes that stories help him work through these things: they give meaning to who he is now, by linking him to the past. They also bring the dead back to life, allowing him to talk to people he loves even though they are gone.

Minor Characters

Martha: The girl that Jimmy Cross loves. She is quiet and somber, and though she has boyfriends, he is almost sure she is a virgin. An English major in college, she tells him about the authors she loves. She is kind to him, but she does not love him, and she never gets married. Even years later when he tells her he still loves her, she has nothing to say.

Henry Dobbins: A kind and gentle man, but not very bright. He is superstitious, wearing his girlfriend's pantyhose around his neck, believing they will protect him. He tries to be moral, and he has simplistic ideas about what should or should not be done: he prevents Azar from making fun of a grieving Vietnamese girl, and he is friendly with Vietnamese monks.

Ted Lavender: The first man to die in their company. He was afraid, and took drugs to calm his nerves, until he was so high that he hardly even knew he was at war. He was killed suddenly and without warning: one moment he was walking toward the group, and the next he was on the ground.

Dave Jensen: A young, naïve and paranoid soldier. He desperately tries to keep clean in the field, even stealing soap from hotel rooms when he gets vacation time. After he breaks Strunk's nose, he breaks his own, so that Strunk will know that they are even. He seems to have a skewed idea of justice---even Strunk knows he deserved to have his nose broken, so there was no reason for Jensen to hurt himself too.

Mitchell Sanders: A literate and funny man who has strong convictions about stories. He often gets angry when other soldiers tell stories too slowly, or with too much detail. He looks for morals in real life, even when the other men think he is being naïve. He enjoys elaborate and clever jokes, like mailing his lice to his draft board.

Lee Strunk: Steals Jensen's jackknife, then is surprised when Jensen tries to apologize for beating him up over it. He knows he was wrong to steal, so he doesn't understand why Jensen would feel guilty. He thinks he is brave at the beginning of the war, but when he gets injured, he is terrified of death.

Azar: A very young man who does not understand compassion or kindness. He ridicules a young girl whose family has been killed. He blows up a puppy. He takes great joy in torturing Jorgenson, the medic. He seems to love pranks more than anything else, and he has no sense of the gravity of death and murder.

Curt Lemon: Rat Kiley's best friend. He steps on a mine one day when they are playing catch together. Tim understands Rat's grief, but he never liked Curt: he was too caught up in trying to be brave, and most of the time he was just a silly daredevil.

Kathleen : Tim's young daughter. She asks him questions about the war, and he takes her to the place where Kiowa died, but she does not seem to understand much of what she is asking about. She does not realize how complicated his answers are, and he tells her almost nothing, though he would like for her to understand.

Elroy Berdahl: Owner of the Tip Top Lodge in northern Minnesota. He understands Tim's dilemma, and tries to help him: he gives him money, asks no questions, and takes him out on the lake far enough that he could easily swim to Canada. He even ignores Tim's tears when Tim realizes he can't bring himself to run away. He is silent, kind and serious, and Tim appreciates it.

Green Berets: A group of soldiers who set themselves apart from the others. Silent and sinister, they are almost like animals, who live to hunt. The other soldiers are afraid of them, because they seem to live by a different code: they are soldiers for life.

Mark Fossie: A young naïve boy who brings his girlfriend to Vietnam. They had always planned to marry young and have three beautiful children, so when she grows apart from him, more and more interested in life in Vietnam, he is very disturbed. But soon she disappears for good, and there is nothing he can do. She has become part of the jungle, and is lost to him.

Mary Anne Bell: She arrives a seventeen-year-old girl from middle America, but she quickly becomes part of Vietnam. She learns how to hunt from the Green Berets, but soon she moves beyond even them, and disappears into the jungle. She loves the way Vietnam makes her feel: as if she is all there, and can never lose herself. When her boyfriend last sees her, she is wearing a necklace of human tongues.

Dead man: The man Tim killed--or didn't kill--with a grenade one early morning. Tim imagines, based on his appearance, that the young man would have been a scholar, not a fighter. He would have been afraid of war and hopeful that the war would end soon.

Bobby Jorgenson : The medic who replaces Rat Kiley. When Tim gets shot, Bobby hesitates before running over to care of him, because he is afraid of getting shot himself. Tim almost dies. This infuriates him, even though Bobby apologizes repeatedly and the other soldiers later tell Tim that Bobby has matured and become a better soldier. Tim is only satisfied after he has pretended to be the enemy and frightened Bobby half to death. He then feels they are even--though he also hates himself for being so cruel.

Linda: The first girl Tim ever loved. They go on a date when they are only nine. Their love is unspoken, simple, awkward and pure. Linda is dignified, graceful, happy and understanding. She has a brain tumor, and she dies a few months after their date. Tim writes stories about her to try to bring her back, and he feels that he partially succeeds. However, she is also the reason he is so terrified of death.

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