Carrying a Heavy Load The word carry means to hold, contain, or support something and to take that something you are holding or supporting to another place. In many cases when people talk about carrying things they speak about physically carrying an object with some amount of weight from one place to another. Many times however people carry things with them throughout life that have no physical weight, weighing themselves down with the “heavy” burdens that life brings.
Both Wideman and Obrien’s short stories exemplify a common theme of persevering through struggles and relieving oneself of the weight of life’s struggles. The soldiers in O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried” carry heavy physical loads necessary for them to survive out in war, but they also carry heavy emotional loads which will be with them for the rest of their lives if they are unable to let them go. Some things the men carry are universal, like a compress in case of fatal injuries and a two-pound poncho that can be used as a raincoat, groundsheet, or tent.
Most of the men are common, low-ranking soldiers and carry a standard M-16 assault rifle and several magazines of ammunition. Several men carry grenade launchers. All men carry the figurative weight of memory and the literal weight of one another. They carry Vietnam itself, in the heavy weather and the dusty soil. The things they carry are also determined by their rank or specialty. Each mans physical burden consisted of weapons, cigarettes, C rations, and packets of Kool-Aid, and the more intangible things, such as fear and silent awe, that weigh these soldiers down.
As leader, for example, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries the maps, the compasses, and the responsibility for his men’s lives. The medic, Rat Kiley, carries morphine, malaria tablets, and supplies for serious wounds, and the responsibility to save lives. The things they carry depend on several factors, including the men’s priorities and their constitutions. Because the machine gunner Henry Dobbins is exceptionally large, for example, he carries extra rations; because he is superstitious, he carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck.
Nervous Ted Lavender carries marijuana and tranquilizers to calm himself down, and the religious Kiowa carries an illustrated New Testament, a gift from his father. With the amount of space that the author gives to enumerating the weight of these objects, one might assume that these objects are what are really important to these soldiers, but in reality it is the incalculable weight of their burdens that truly weigh them down. The “things” of the title that O’Brien’s characters carry are both literal and figurative.
While they all carry heavy physical loads, they also all carry heavy emotional loads, composed of grief, terror, love, and longing. Each man’s physical burden underscores his emotional burden. Henry Dobbins, for example, carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose and, with them, the longing for love and comfort. Similarly, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, of the Alpha Company, carries various reminders of his love for Martha, a girl from his college in New Jersey. Cross carries her letters in his backpack and her good-luck pebble in his mouth.
He carries her photographs, including one of her playing volleyball, but closer to his heart still are his memories. Lavender, one of the soldiers in the story, gets shot on his way back from going to the bathroom. That night the soldiers sit in the darkness discussing the short p between life and death in an attempt to make sense of the situation. The morning after Lavender’s death, in the steady rain, Cross crouches in his foxhole and burns Martha’s letters and two photographs.
By burning the physical reminders of Martha Cross believes that he will be able to forget about his past with her, and stop fantasizing about their future. O’Brien wrote “Besides, the letters were in his head. And even now, without photographs, Lieutenant Cross could see Martha playing volleyball in her white gym shorts and yellow T-shirt. He could see her moving in the rain. ” Even without the pictures and the letters he was still carrying Martha. These emotional burdens are the heaviest because they are intangibles and therefore cannot be disposed of.
Physical burdens are no more than that; if necessary they can be discarded. Emotional burdens, on the other hand, must be endured. O’Brien, speaking of cowardice in particular, says, “in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down. ” The soldiers know there is no easy way to rid themselves of their fears because of their abstract nature, but they dream escapist dreams of flying away in a plane and “falling higher and higher,” free of weight.
Jimmy Cross tries to rid himself of intangible burdens by disposing of tangible ones that, to him, represent intangible qualities. He does this by burning his letters from Martha. He knows, though, that this simple act cannot rid him of his memories. “He realized it was only a gesture… Besides, the letters were in his head. ” His love for Martha is also represented by the small pebble, which she gave him, but the easily disposable pebble, which weighs merely an ounce, represents a much heavier emotional burden that he cannot rid himself of.
Though in Wideman’s short story “Newborn Thrown in Trash and Dies” a tiny baby is cast down a rubbish chute with no tools to survive, no physical load except for her own weight, she carries a heavy emotional load and reflects on what her life might have been had she lived on each floor of the tenement building where her 19-year-old mother lives. In the first paragraph of the story Wideman quickly expresses the theme of carrying burdens. Wideman writes, “Your life rolled into a ball so dense, so super heavy it would drag the universe down to hell if this tiny tiny lump of whatever didn’t dissipate as quickly as its formed.
Quicker. The weight of it is what you recall some infinitesimal fraction of when you stumble and crawl through your worst days on earth. ” Here the newborn speaks about burdens and mishaps that come about in life. She explains to the reader that she will not be able to receive much of a life but that people would have nothing to live for if they did not forget about the struggles and problems that were flashed before their eyes before they were born into this world. The rest of the short story tells a complete play-by-play of the flash of life she had before she was brought into the world.
Each floor represents another stage or point in her short life. The floors of this story disguise the days of life, and the newborn that will have no chance to experience them explains the days of life perfectly in these words; “I believe all floors are not equally interesting. Less reason to notice some then others. Equality would become boring, predictable. Though we may slight some and rattle on about others, that does not change the fact that each floor exists and the life on it is real, whether we pause to notice or not. ”
People cannot have a good day everyday or everyday would become boring and predictable. In many instances of life people are put into situations such as the war that the soldiers in “The Things They Carried”, that they have no control over, and that they could not even begin to explain to people for the mere fact that the situation that they are in no one should ever have to think about let alone experience. On the other end of the spectrum good days and good experiences are most often remembered and reminisced about for the rest of peoples lives, which they should be.
The thing that people don’t realize is that very often people carry around the burdens of their pasts and the bad days that they have had which make the rest of their lives less enjoyable. After the war, the psychological burdens the men carried during the war will continue to define them. Those who survive will carry guilt, grief, and confusion, although the heavy backpack filled with tools to survive will be gone. In both stories the characters carried emotional burdens, the soldiers carried fear and hope as well as the newborn baby.
The soldiers hoped to see another day, and were scared that the opportunity might not come. They had lived lives before the war and feared that they might never get the opportunity to live happily with their loved ones again so they carried belongings of their loved ones physically trying to keep their loved ones close and not forgotten. The same holds true with the newborn girl. She never gets the opportunity to experience her family, or to even establish a connection with anyone before she dies. Still she fantasizes about what it might have been like, what might have happen.
The emotional burdens of fear of death seem to be unbearable for the soldiers mainly because they know that they are losing the opportunity of life. The newborn however doesn’t seem bitter about dying, she feels sympathy for the mother who put her in the trash and accepts her life as being “how it is,” as she doesn’t know any better. All in all the characters of both the stories carry their emotional loads till death, or until they go back home which even then the psychological affects of the war will still haunt them until they learn to let them go.
So as the newborn surrenders to her death she lets go of her emotional burdens floor by floor never looking back, so to should the soldiers realize that their days are numbered and tomorrow is never promised so just as Wideman wrote at the end of his second paragraphs about how people try to forget the flash of their life that occurs before they are born people should also try to forget the bad days and the burdens of life as they happen and, “live your life as if it hasn’t happened before, as if the tape has not been punched full of holes, the die cast. ”
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