Ted Lavender “The Things they Carried” – a Character Analysis

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Ted Lavender “The Things they Carried” – a Character Analysis

This essay will analyze the character of Ted Lavender in Tim O’Brien’s novel “The Things They Carried.” It will explore Lavender’s role in the narrative and his significance as a symbol of the impact of the Vietnam War on young soldiers. The piece will discuss how Lavender’s character reflects themes of fear, mortality, and the psychological burdens carried by soldiers. It will also consider Lavender’s influence on the other characters and the overall message of the novel. Also at PapersOwl you can find more free essay examples related to The Things They Carried.

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Biography and Introduction: Tim O’Brien and “The Things They Carried”

Tim O’Brien was born on October 1, 1946, in Austin, Minnesota. He attended Macalester College and earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Science in 1968. During his college years, he was part of anti-war demonstrations; after graduating, he received a draft notice from the Army. Unhappy about being drafted, he feared embarrassment and ridicule if he ducked the draft as he saw everyone joining, and both of his parents had served in WWII.

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He published “The Things They Carried” in 1990, 20 years after his service in Vietnam. It’s been 43 years since the war, and he still remains tainted by it, and he states, “I carry the memories of the ghosts of a place called Vietnam—the people of Vietnam, my fellow soldiers” Part of his soul was lost in war and rebuilt on terror and horror.

He also mentions in an interview with the “Veterans History Project” that “I carry the weight of responsibility and a sense of abiding guilt.” When he wrote his story, he created many aspects of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross with which he personally could identify himself. He is a young soldier, drafted into war like others, and carries out his orders of surviving the war. It is as O’Brien projects some of their personal traits into the main protagonist of the story. Ted Lavender is a young scared soldier in Alpha Company led by Cross. He is significant primarily for his death. He is the first character to die and inherently marks a change in Alpha Company. Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” illustrates Jimmy Cross’ transformation from a naïve and scared young man into a focused leader; Lavender’s death is a catalyst that changes his focus from fantasy back to the harsh reality of war.

The Emotional Burden: Ted Lavender and the Things They Carried

The story’s dialogue reveals that the things the men carry physically represent their emotional burden which is brought about by the war and lingers within them through the rest of their tour. The “things” that the soldiers carry are both literal and figurative and “largely determined by necessity. Among necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water”. They carry these “essentials” to make life more enjoyable amidst the brutality of war. He goes on with a list of characters in which he mentions the items they carry with them and how they represent a part of them, and how they remind them of home. For example, “Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations,” The story focuses on the most prevalent of these emotions: guilt, terror, fear, and shame:

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles, but the intangibles had mass and gravity, which it created a tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice, barely restrained, the impulse to run or panic or hide, and in many respects, this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down; it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.

Cross refers back that shame was a tool to motivate soldiers, as at that time during the war, many young men enlisted into the war as they feared more the backlash of society than going to war. All the men had a common emotion of unweighted fear: “They were afraid of dying, but they were even more afraid to show it.” The soldiers did not want to appear weak and vulnerable in the presence of a gunfight. They all act in a certain way, as it was Part of the script. Some of the soldiers would tell jokes; others would assume a “tough guy” role as a way to hide their fear and sadness.

The Illusion of Love: Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and Martha

Martha symbolizes a normal life, memories of home, hopes, and familiarity, and she also serves as an escape from the reality of war. A cross is deeply in love and filled with hope for Martha as he imagines a future with her, and the idea settles inside his mind, “…but then he would slip away into daydreams, just pretending, walking barefoot along the Jersey shore, with Martha, carrying nothing. He would feel himself rising. Sun and waves and gentle winds, all love and lightness”. It symbolizes Lieutenant Cross’s love for Martha, although, in any of the letters she has written, she has never mentioned that she loves him. He imagines that she does. He creates a fantasy of made-up love, which propels him to go through with war: “He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there.” The use of imagery by the author illustrates that Lieutenant Cross’s constant use of Martha’s letters was a reminder to him that someone was waiting for him back home. He carried within himself hope “he wants Martha to love him as he loves her” The constant daydreaming kept him off the war, which was a much-needed distraction from the responsibilities he wished not to carry.

Tragedy and Transformation: Ted Lavender’s Impact on Jimmy Cross

Ted Lavender’s death is a catalyst to Lieutenant Cross, as it is a wake-up call from his daydreaming and fantasies. The Cross is vigilant for one of the soldiers that went into a hole, worried that the cave might collapse on top of him, and as he waits for the soldier to come back, he falls back into the poisonous dreams of Martha ignoring and looking out for his soldier “He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence, Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war.” Cross is consumed by Martha, a girl he loves, one who shows no interest in him, he loses focus, and he cannot bring himself to worry about matters of security. He feels responsible for the death of his soldier, he tries not to cry, he feels shame, and he hates himself and realizes that she has distracted him with his entrenching tool.

He starts to dig a hole in the earth: “On the morning after Ted Lavender died, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha’s letters. Then he burned the two photographs”. He tries to burn the blame as it has now made him aware that the letters have made him become negligent of his work, causing the death of a fellow soldier: Lavender’s death makes Cross lose his faith in everything he thought was good; he hopes that Martha loves him and he also wants to believe that she is still a virgin and represents innocence. After the tragic death, Cross concludes that Martha is not in love with him and starts to have a hateful manner of love towards her, and as his faith in what he thought was good is now broken, he burns the letters as an act of doubt and scorn.

As Lieutenant Cross progresses through the war, he is forced to grow up after a traumatic event involving the death of one of his soldiers, which becomes a turning point in his life and pushes him to concentrate. “It wouldn’t help Lavender, he knew that, but from this point on, he would comport himself as an officer” he also came to terms with his guilt and accepted the responsibility. Jimmy Cross’s character represents the responsibility for the effects it has on those who are too childish to handle it. He never cared about the war and, furthermore, had no desire to be a leader. As a result, when he leads his men into battle, he is unsure of everything he does. Cross’s guilt is visible when one of his men dies. The biggest case he has is of Ted Lavender. Right before Lavender is killed, Cross allows himself to be distracted by the thoughts of his beloved Martha, who sends him photographs and writes letters. His daydream is interrupted by Lavender’s death, and Cross’s only conclusion is that he loves this faraway girl more than he loves his men. Cross confesses, years later, that he has never forgiven himself for Lavender’s death and carries feelings of guilt.


  1. O’Brien, Tim. (1990). The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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Ted Lavender "The Things They Carried" - A Character Analysis. (2023, Aug 02). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/ted-lavender-the-things-they-carried-a-character-analysis/