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Elroy Berdahl Research Papers on Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried

A literature essay on the character of Elroy Berdahl in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried brings to view the fact that Elroy Berdahl is a surprising physical representation of an angel. The man is “eighty-one years old, skinny and shrunken and mostly bald”.  At the same time, O’Brien gives the character an otherworldly quality almost immediately: “His eyes had the bluish gray color of a razor blade […] and as he peered up at me, I felt a strange sharpness, almost painful, a cutting sensation, as if his gaze were somehow slicing me open” (Things They Carried, 48).  This characterization of the old man Elroy knowing O’Brien’s inner most thoughts and conflicts is only the first of many that can be recognized as metaphorical to the attributes of an angel.

Elroy's angelic characteristics include:

  • Bluish-Gray Eyes
  • Lived in an abandoned lodge
  • Amazing self-control
  • Polite
Elroy Berdahl

Elroy Berdahl

Another veiled angelic attribute exhibited by Elroy is his appearance in the first place.  O’Brien points out that the lodge where he finally arrived in his attempt to run to Canada was actually closed for the season and showed no other signs of life.  Although it is reasonable that Elroy could have been there simply as the lodge’s caretaker off season, O’Brien himself suggests that his being there had mystical implications. For example, every physical indication of the place suggested that no one would find the place usable or comfortable for any length of time: “The place was in sorry shape. There was a dangerous wooden dock, an old minnow tank, a flimsy tar paper boathouse along the shore”.

The Things They Carried

It is perhaps the descriptions of Elroy himself as well as his behaviors that offer the most obvious parallels to the attributes of the angel: “The man’s self-control was amazing. [..] Simple politeness was a part of it […] but even more than that I think, the man understood that words were insufficient.  For emphasis and what may be the author’s attempt to provide even greater imagery to Elroy’s divine origins, O’Brien reveals the following comment made by the old man upon seeing an owl circling in the night sky above them: “Hey, O’Brien. There’s Jesus”.

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