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The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried

by Tim O'Brien

Weakness Theme

The soldiers in The Things They Carried talk a lot about courage, but mostly as an antidote to physical and moral weakness. Characters obsess about weakness. Not going to the war when drafted is seen as weak, but so is going to the war when your entire moral system is telling you to run away to Canada. No matter how strong and courageous you think the soldiers are, it never seems as if they'll be courageous enough; weakness will always prevail. And yet, the characters continue to blame themselves for it.

Questions About Weakness

  1. How does O'Brien use the soldiers' obsession with courage to emphasize their fear of moral weakness?
  2. Why are the soldiers so terrified of weakness? What does weakness mean to them? Be specific.
  3. How is O'Brien's version of cowardice different from the conventional definition? What points in the novel best exemplify this?
  4. Think about what Norman says in "Speaking of Courage" about the thin line between bravery and cowardice, and how even if you're very brave, if you're not brave enough, you're still a coward. (It's over in "Quotes: Weakness.") What are the implications of this? Do you agree or disagree? Why?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

When the soldiers in The Things They Carried speak of courage, they're really referring to its opposite, weakness. All their strength is a reaction against the fear of weakness.

The true cowardice in The Things They Carried is not the fear of death or pain, as the soldiers believe it to be. It's the fear of cowardice itself, which drives men to perform acts that their consciences wouldn't otherwise allow.

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