The Theme Of Embarrassment In The Things They Carried By Tim O’Brien
“All external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure- these things just fall away in the face of death.” This quote by Steve Jobs parallels the ideas depicted by Tim O’Brien about embarrassment in his novel. Not only do most literary characters struggle with a fear of embarrassment, but most nonfictional people battle this same fear. In his novel, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien utilizes symbolism, imagery, and irony to prove that a fear of embarrassment is an imperative underlying factor in decision making. O’Brien portrays this theme in his descriptions of the emotions of battle, his decision to go to war, and his role in Kiowa’s death.
To begin, O’Brien uses descriptions of the emotions of warfare to accurately depict the relationship between a soldier’s fear of death and their greater fear of embarrassment. In the novel’s first chapter titled “The Things They Carried,” he analyzes the soldiers’ cowardice when under fire compared to their cavalier attitudes afterwards with his narration: For the most part they carried themselves with a poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn’t, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop… Afterward, when the firing ended, they would blink and peek up. They would touch their bodies, feeling shame, then quickly hiding it. This quote illustrates the theme that a soldier’s greatest fear is embarrassment. O’Brien uses powerful imagery to evoke emotions within the reader of terror immediately followed by shame. Being seen as a coward or less than heroic is a more frightening prospect to these soldiers than being killed. Following this he goes on to say, “They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it”. In this, he is using irony because the men are afraid of people knowing they are afraid of death, or they are afraid of being afraid. This further insinuates the point that death is the not the primary fear in a situation such as warfare, but instead, their primary fear is embarrassment.
Additionally, O’Brien adds to this same theme by describing how his own decision to go to war was impacted by fear of embarrassment. In a later story “On the Rainy River,” he tells the story of how he intended to flee to Canada instead of going to war but cannot: “All those eyes on me the town, the whole universe and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment… It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that’s all it was”. This statement gives some more personal insight into the ongoing theme that embarrassment is a paramount factor in decision making. To further develop this point he emphasizes his own fear of embarrassment being the sole factor in the biggest decision of his life, to go to war, by saying it had absolutely nothing to do with courage or anything other than his own fear of embarrassment. The symbolism of the border is cowardice. If he were to cross the border it would be courageous but if he was weak and stay on the US side, then he would be a coward in his own eyes. O’Brien also utilizes irony throughout statements like, “I was a coward. I went to the war”. Everyone in his hometown, his parents, and friends would all think fleeing and not going to the war was the cowardly option. However, he believes the opposite. O’Brien uses this irony and symbolism to clearly depict the fact that his decision to go to war was solely based on this fear of embarrassment emphasized on throughout the novel.
Lastly, O’Brien retells his involvement in the death of Kiowa to hone in on his specific beliefs about courage, shame, and embarrassment. O’Brien tells the story of his part in Kiowa’s death from the point of view from Norman Bowker to ease his own shame while writing, though he later clarifies the correct point of view. “Kiowa, after all, had been a close friend, and for years I had avoided thinking about his death and my own complicity in it. Even here, it’s not easy”. In this quote, O’Brien makes the reader aware of the exceptional difficulty he found when writing this story due to the embarrassment and guilt he feels about what happened to Kiowa. He begins, in this section, to focus in on his ideas on courage and how it relates to embarrassment. He believes courage is not clear or easily discernible, and therefore he still faces guilt due to his supposed lack of courage when Kiowa died. He believes courage can be in many forms and various situations and emotions the soldiers endured. “Courage was not always a matter of yes or no. Sometimes it came in degrees, like the cold; sometimes you were very brave up to a point and then beyond that point you were not so brave”. Courage could be in the soldiers enduring cold temperatures, Norman Bowker talking about his experiences at war, or O’Brien facing his embarrassment. To conclude, Tim O’Brien draws on irony, symbolism, and imagery to manifest that a fear of embarrassment is a critical factor in decision making. In a circumstance like war, there are real dangers as perilous as death and embarrassment should not be a pressing concern. Decisions in a situation such as this are salient and possible matters of life or death that should not be clouded for fear of showing weakness. This fear of embarrassment exceeds all others because human social interaction is complex and can be unforgiving. If people were able to accept their embarrassment and shame as well as be understanding of that of others, then this irrational fear of embarrassment could be discarded and decisions made based off logic and discernable fears.
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