The Soldier’s Burden: Masculinity in The Things They Carried

Most, if not all of them, were drafted unwillingly. They were asked to leave their families and their homes, their girls or their kids, and they were told to die and kill for reasons unclear. These soldiers marched through swamps and villages with mutilated children and, even after the first time they killed someone or their best friends died, they were told not to cry about it. This is what Tim O’Brien tells us in The Things They Carried, a narrative of how the beast of a war that surrounded his men demanded an indomitable front. If they exposed the weakness in themselves, they exposed it to each other, and such exposure was a reminder that none of them were as strong as they were supposed to be. So they turn to other methods of coping, some of which blur the very line between right and wrong. The crude language and behavior of the soldiers demonstrate that the forced masculinity imposed on them as men and as warriors only serves to add to their trauma.

The crude language of the soldiers appalls Tim O’Brien at first: the seemingly apathetic treatment of a dead child in a ditch, the things they’d say when a fellow soldier is shot in the head. They wouldn’t say dead, or killed: they would be as far from poetic as possible, saying greased or zapped while zipping. He understands eventually, and soon begins to adopt the mentality of the “hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness (19).” The juxtaposition of the words “terrible softness” suggests that the harsh things the soldiers say and do, while alarming and appalling to those not in their position, are nothing compared to the vulnerability of emotion that the soldiers would have faced otherwise. This unhealthy way of dealing with tragedy is brought to a harsh challenge in the chapter “The Man I Killed”, when Tim O’Brien is left staring at the gory corpse of the young soldier he had just killed. He introduces this dead character by bluntly giving the reader an unforgiving portrait of the physical, unavoidable details of the corpse. He finds, suddenly, that he cannot shake off this death—that he cannot bring himself to make any sort of joke nor any sort of offhand euphemism that would lessen the reality of what he had just done. “His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone,” Tim O’Brien narrates, “his one eye was shut, his other was a star-shaped hole” (118). Through these parallel phrases, the reader becomes fixated on the gruesome physicality of the dead human being, just as Tim O’Brien was. Not only do we understand his thought process, we deduce that this fixation reminds him sharply of the humanity of this enemy, which he and his soldiers had previously been so easily shaking off and objectifying. He is therefore unaware of how to deal with his emotions, or his thoughts, and is left only to obsession, his halting thoughts going in circles. Predictably, the only advice he is given is to “stop staring” (122).

The soldiers quickly realize that if they cannot control themselves and their emotions or fate, they must instead control others. This is what they come to as a coping mechanism when they are confronted with intense emotion. When Curt Lemon dies, Rat Kiley brutally murders an innocent baby buffalo. He takes his automatic rifle and shoots up the animal, as a way of dealing with his heavy grief. All of them “stood there watching, feeling all of kinds of things, but there wasn’t a great deal of pity for the baby buffalo” (75). This is the kind of reaction that people, especially men, have been shown to turn to when they are unable to express their “softer” emotions in a healthy way. They turn to control and violence instead, just as the whole platoon burned a village down after Ted Lavender was shot. This is a result not of men’s natural inclinations, but of the forced and damaging rules of masculinity that they all feel as though they are bound to follow.

This code of conduct is not imaginary, and something that is expressed multiple times throughout the book. More disturbing, perhaps, than the gruesome but expected details of gore and death is when Tim O’Brien says plainly that “[the platoon] carried a soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing.” More than the tragedy of a grenade, more than horror of a P.O.W camp, more than death itself, a soldier apparently fears humiliation above all else. Even if it allows you to go home, even if saves an innocent life, even if it’s the difference between crying in the barracks and hanging yourself in your parents’ basement, the embarrassment of showing your misery and your sadness is by far the worst thing you can experience in a war. This is not, as it could seem, a testament to human strength and willpower, but to the ridiculous and unreasonable damage that this inhuman “masculinity” does to a soldier’s psyche. Having fears and phobias and apprehensions as just as human as bravery and willpower, but the soldiers abandon this consideration on the battlefield.

When a dentist comes to treat the teeth of the soldiers, Curt Lemon goes into a near panic attack because of his stunted ability to deal with his anxiety and fears about the dentist, finally fainting before the dentist can even touch him. The embarrassment of this show of fear and anxiety, expected from anyone, goes farther than simply making for a funny war story later on. In fact, this humiliation “[turns] a screw in his head” (84), and causes Curt Lemon to experience a psychosomatic, agonizing toothache. His teeth were fine, but his mind could only translate the embarrassment of his show of weakness into a persistent, “killer” toothache, into an actual pain, one that appeared to give him another chance to show his strength and capability. He snuck down to the dentist’s test that night and insisted that the dentist do something about it. Though the dentist found nothing wrong, he proceeded to yank out the tooth at Curt Lemon’s command. It was a perfectly good tooth, but Curt Lemon gave it up so he could metaphorically win back his masculinity. The effects of this unhealthy way of thinking are lasting, and stay with these soldiers long after the war has ended.

The patriarchal code of men leaves these soldiers emotionally handicapped, and the trauma that inevitably follows them home is never dealt with correctly. Norman Bowker, who hung himself a few years after he returned home, is example of this. In “Speaking of Courage”, he imagines a conversation with his father, and with other people in his sleepy little town, in which he tells the story about how he “almost won the Silver Star” (135), a medal for uncommon bravery. He had apparently been responsible for the death of soldier Kiowa, who drowned in a muck field (full of human waste) during a night attack, and in this way he had lost the Silver Star. The repetition of the Silver Star’s mention reveals a fixation on broken expectations, and an inability to deal with the heavy weight of guilt, grief and depression he faces after the war. He cannot think to himself, cannot get past the circles his mind goes in, just as he drives around and around and around the lake in his town as he thinks. His toxic thought process is a result of his stunted emotional capacity, feeding his trauma and depression. The expectations placed on him by the war and by the platoon’s “masculine” code were beyond most human capability; he had been “braver than he ever thought possible, but…had not been so brave as he wanted to be” (147). He cannot accept the details of his past, but unlike Rat Kiley or Curt Lemon, he feels he has no chance to redeem himself. The war is over, and his friends are gone, and he lives with his father.

During the war, none of O’Brien’s soldiers were ever allowed to be less than impenetrable, and when they were reminded that they were, by death or tragedy or personal failings, they lashed out, because lashing out was the only emotional expression that was allowed. Perhaps it was the only emotional expression that the war encouraged, but one cannot be so removed from humanity forever. Rat Kiley was reminded of mortality, of grief, and could only translate his pain via violence to another innocent life trapped in a war. Tim O’Brien stared at the body of the man he had killed and realized that he could joke until he too died, but nothing they can say and nothing they could ever say would make the man in front of him, with the star-shaped eye, less dead. His repetitive and obsessive thoughts are echoed in Norman Bowker, trapped at home and not at war, without a Silver Star, without his friend Kiowa, and without a final chance to prove himself. None of these men could ever be called weak, and none of them could be called perfect. But the imposing masculine rules that have always governed patriarchal society left no room for the “terrible softness” of emotion, though innate in all humans. It left no room for the gray area between weak and strong, between hero and villain. It certainly left no room for the correct or healthy way of emotional expression, and permanently corrupted the psyche of each man, left a psychological wound that they inflicted on each other, and left that wound without good reason.

Truth and Fiction in The Things They Carried

In Steven Kaplan’s essay “The Things They Carried” published in Columbia: University of South Carolina Press he says, “Almost all Vietnam War writing–fiction and nonfiction–makes clear that the only certain thing during the Vietnam War was that nothing was certain” (Kaplan 169). The manipulation of truth and fiction in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” exists in both the stories told and the characters that are described in each and is used purposely, evoking feelings of confusion and anger from the reader, but also attachment; the reader wants to figure out why O’Brien chooses to blur the line of truth and decipher what is really true and what is not. O’Brien’s style of writing in this collection of short stories is shown through the relatively constant presence of “facts” that are then followed up with statements that bring those “facts” into question. Readers can then question how real the characters and stories are, making the likely frustrated reader as this question: why play with truth and fiction and what does O’Brien accomplish through their manipulation?

From the beginning of the book O’Brien mixes fact and fiction, evident in the dedication and flyleaf of the book when O’Brien claims, “This is a work of fiction. Except a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary.” O’Brien then follows that statement with “This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.” An author will more than likely make the dedication out to real individuals whether it be friends, family, or spouses— especially when the author includes “lovingly” in it; however, O’Brien states his dedication and then the reader finds out in the first few pages of the first story that those mentioned in the dedication are all characters. Following what he said about all characters being imaginary, why would O’Brien dedicate the book to people that are not real—assuming they are not? The reader is then forced to “consider the fictional as real, since the book is dedicated to the characters who appear in it” (Kaplan 184), because of this waver in truth the reader is also provoked to consider that the author is an unreliable source of information. O’Brien insists that he is telling the “full truth” (O’Brien 49) but it is made evident from the beginning that he may not be capable of doing just that. In the opening pages of the first short story, O’Brien tells the story of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and of his pictures and letters that he carried of the girl that he loved. The readers are told that the girl does not love Cross but he constantly was “hoping” and “pretending” (O’Brien 3) “in an effort to turn her imagined love into fact” (Kaplan 185). Cross says “she was a virgin” but then follows that statement with he was “almost sure” (O’Brien 3) of that fact. However, on the next page Cross is even more uncertain, he sits at “night and wonder[s] if Martha was a virgin” (O’Brien 4) and then continues to wonder who took the pictures that he was doting over because “he knew she had boyfriends” (O’Brien 5) but O’Brien does not make it clear how Cross could possibly “know” that. Cross stating a fact and then calling it into question with another statement shortly after is what makes the reader wonder if O’Brien can tell the “full truth” (O’Brien 49) in any of the short stories. The reader is also made to consider that O’Brien’s characters could have been created to mirror “the average soldier’s sense of uncertainty about what happened in Vietnam” (Kaplan 187); just as they could not walk sure-footedly through the jungles, readers cannot go through each story in the collection with confidence that every short story is told truthfully.

O’Brien’s manipulation of truth and his conscious decisions to use fictionality “work to create a sense of presence for the reader … such generous and explicit details function as counter-narrative to the generalized “happening-truth” in history books, which vacates the particular violences of Vietnam” (Silbergleid 131); her statement criticizes his storytelling in that it borderline diminishes the legitimacy of the life-threatening events that took place in Vietnam. If the things that happen in O’Brien’s short stories are fictional, then was Vietnam really that bad? In Robin Silbergleid’s critical essay, published in Contemporary Literary Criticism, she introduces the idea of the development of O’Brien as a character and does not just address him as the author of these stories, therefore creating an angle that seeks to explain why he included the characters of the stories in the dedication. It is this connection of O’Brien as a character that helps readers come to the realization that O’Brien made those characters in the stories human just as he made himself a character, they were so real to him that he included them in the dedication. The development of O’Brien’s character is evident in the moments in the text where he refers to the advice of his daughter who does not actually exist. His attachment to the characters is evident in the “generous and explicit details” (Silbergleid 131) that Silbergleid addressed in her critical essay; O’Brien takes the time to humanize each individual and makes them tangible to the reader as opposed to just telling the truth — whatever the actual truth may be— and making each character a man hardened by war. O’Brien paints a fictitious picture that gives each character depth through the items they literally carry and the emotional burdens they place on their backs. Silbergleid also addressed “the truth” in O’Brien’s writing; his stories are “ ‘statement[s] of actual things’ as a work of ‘truth’” (Silbergleid 129), meaning that every situation may not be completely accurate down to the smallest detail, but it is based on true events and people and is put together in a way that he connects with.

In the story “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien opens by telling the audience “This is true” (O’Brien 64), but then goes on to describe the same story of Curt Lemon dying in multiple ways, constructing and deconstructing and constructing the same story again and again. He makes the only truthful piece of information that Curt Lemon died and that there was nothing left to say, “Except maybe, ‘Oh’” (O’Brien 84). The way he retells the story over and over makes the reader question which rendition is true, but it also highlights the degree of care that O’Brien is taking in terms of telling Lemon’s story just right. This makes the connection to Silbergleid’s idea of O’Brien’s character and the connection between the other characters present in the story; he sees them as real people and takes care to tell aspects of their story correctly and give each of them the “respect” O’Brien thinks they deserve as a character and person. “O’Brien uses various rhetorical strategies in order to create presence, the illusion of the emotional experience of Vietnam. Such strategies include the emphasis on detail found in story-truth and the strategic invocation of autobiography” (Silbergleid 140). The detail found in story-truth is evident in the end of the short story “How to Tell a True War Story” when O’Brien describes the scene when the baby water buffalo is shot repeatedly; he takes care to describe each shot, where it hits on the water buffalo, and how it reacts to each blow and creates a vivid scene that parallels the pain that the soldiers were going through during their tours in Vietnam.

Tim O’Brien mixes the use of fact and fiction in his collection of short stories, The Things They Carried, in an attempt to describe what it was like to be a foot soldier in the war-torn jungles of Vietnam in order to make the readers struggle to find the difference between the truth and the fictitious. What Tim O’Brien achieves through his use of fiction is the parallel between soldier and storyline, the idea that each step the soldier takes could be radically different than the last takes shape through O’Brien’s writing style of leaving readers questioning what is true and what is not and what story O’Brien will tell next. Through his storytelling, O’Brien “takes his readers straight into the middle of the process through which facts and memory are transformed in fiction” (Kaplan 170) evident in the scene where he repeatedly describes the scene in which Curt Lemon is killed. He makes human connections to his characters through the explanation of what each soldier carries from home and the emotional baggage they also struggle to carry so that his audience can relate to the stories on a more realistic level than a history book. O’Brien’s storytelling abilities makes the Vietnam War more tangible than a history book can while providing interesting, however not entirely true down to the tee, stories that paint pictures and allow for a greater understanding of both the war and Tim O’Brien. As well as making each story more tangible, O’Brien’s storytelling also allows for the creation of the “illusion of the emotional experience of Vietnam” (Silbergleid 140) which allows for O’Brien’s readers to better connect with each character on an emotional level, just as he did by creating his own character in the short stories.

Love in The Things They Carried: A Cataclysm of Emotional Warfare and Deterioration

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a collection of essays, all centered on anecdotes of American soldiers during the Vietnam War. The seemingly straightforward recollections slowly reveal dense layers of personal and metaphorical meanings upon closer inspection, with the exploration of the characters’ emotions and the underlying motif of love creating the opportunity to trace how war changes a person in the realm of his emotions. The Vietnam warfare acts as a catalyst for all of the unsettling changes in the soldiers’ minds, raising the question whether the battlefield is actively responsible for this result or merely accelerating the inevitable manifestation of these personal issues, inherent in every person.

In the collection of essays The Things They Carried, the specific selection of the four stories “The Things They Carried,” “The Lives of the Dead,” “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and “Stockings” creates a focus on the ambiguity of the modernist essays, thus conveying the destructive effect of war on people’s minds through the juxtaposition of contrasting interpretations of the popular literary motifs of love and passion. Through the dichotomy of the positive and negative characteristics of the motifs, the anthology asserts the fragmentation of the soldiers’ minds and the feelings of confusion, isolation and unreliability, brought on by war.

Love is portrayed as a major motivation for many of the soldiers in the Vietnam War, with its sweet, innocent intentions often paving the way for a much darker, even sinister reality, in which unrequited emotions or acceptance of routine affection leave men dependent on love unsettled and invalidated, searching for meaning. The first mention of love is in “The Things They Carried,” when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ strong infatuation with Martha is revealed. His attitude seems innocent enough as he “want[s] Martha to love him as he loved her” (1). The reciprocity of this pure emotion, illustrated by the repetition of “love,” is quickly shot down as the officer is portrayed as obsessed with Martha’s rejection of him rather than simply in love. One of the most striking moments that interweaves the violent nature of war with his memories of the girl is presented in his desire to “carr[y] her up the stairs to her room and t[ie] her to the bed and [touch] that left knee all night long” (4). The run-on structure of the sentence conveys the unhealthy excitement of a man who plays this moment over and over again in his mind. In the context of war, such an act does not seem too extreme of harmful, but from a human standpoint it is still unthinkable. The character’s desensitization at the hands of the violence of Vietnam bleeds into his universal judgment of right and wrong, resulting in his reminiscence of Martha’s affections taking on a disquieting tone.

The same motif of reliving past love forms the backbone of “The Lives of the Dead,” in which Tim O’Brien’s recollection of his first love, Linda, is transformed from a sad story about loss to a dark memory that haunts him in the battlefield. In the very beginning of the story, he highlights the strength and purity of the juvenile relationship. “It’s tempting to dismiss it as a crush, an infatuation of childhood, but I know for a fact that what we felt for each other was as deep and rich as love can ever get. It had all the shadings and complexities of mature adult love, and maybe more, because there were not yet words for it, and because it was not yet fixed to comparisons or chronologies or the ways by which adults measure such things” (216). He speaks incredibly fondly of these emotions, creating the feeling of a perfect, noble relationship, but in the context of the war, once again this reminiscence seems out of place and unnatural. O’Brien’s memory of Linda is triggered upon seeing a dead man, illustrated as having “his right arm gone … at his face … flies and gnats” (214). The more and more he delves into the tale of Linda’s death, the more morbid the connection between the war and love becomes. Psychologically, war twists the soldiers’ grasp of the world, often resulting in strange associations like O’Brien “picturing Linda’s face” (215) all day upon seeing the first casualties of Vietnam. In his mind, the connection between these occurrences seems logical, but in the realm of healthy thinking, there is something bizarre between the deaths of a childhood love from cancer and an old villager from simply being shot. Once again, the symbol of love becomes tainted by the way the soldiers, shaken by the violent nature of war, reminisce about their emotions at the most inappropriate moments, often with devastating results. The inherent connection between love and death that is etched in both of the characters in these stories portrays their turmoil through the inability to cope with the tragic war in any way that does not create a disturbing dichotomy with the innocence of love.

The reluctance to let go of these emotions and arrange one’s priorities during wartime is the driving plot point in “The Things They Carried,” but can also be observed in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and “Stockings,” where the recurring theme is the inability of the soldiers to keep the two parts of their lives separate without consequence. Fixed on the idea of bringing his girlfriend over at the battle camp, Mark Fossie changes the balance of his relationship with Mary Anne dramatically but still insists on having things remain the way they were. His disillusionment lies in that he brings out his naïve girlfriend, opens her eyes to the harsh reality of the world, but still expects her to live in the bubble of their child-like relationship. Love is portrayed as an unfortunate circumstance that gives rise to a much bigger problem than expected, the corruption of a young girl by the untapped power of violence. As with the other stories, the instincts and expectations of love are twisted, with Fossie not thinking clearly about protecting his girlfriend in the very beginning of the story, but later trying to stop her from forming her own identity. “When we first got here – all of us – we were real young and innocent, full of romantic bullshit, but we learned pretty damn quick. And so did Mary Anne,” (93) Rat Kiley concludes. This thought presents the fundamental conflict between the romantic comfort of the past and the harsh reality of the war, with the two proving to be immiscible without some sort of consequences, be it death or change of identity. This notion is reiterated throughout the story through the profuse contrasting imagery of Mary Anne’s past and present actions. From a symbol of American wholesomeness and unfamiliarity with the war, exemplified by the mainstream imagery of “seventeen years old, fresh out of Cleveland Heights Senior High [with] long white legs and blue eyes and a complexion like strawberry ice cream” (89) and “white culottes and this sexy pink sweater” (86), she turns into a personification of danger and bloodthirst, of the desire to kill. Vietnam unlocks completely new instincts and yearnings inside her, leaving her with the realization that her personal life cannot coexist with her lust for blood. Mary Anne’s revokes her child-like romance with Fossie and confidently embraces her new persona, the transformation highlighted by the imagery of her “necklace of human tongues … elongated and narrow, like pieces of blackened leather … one tongue overlapping the next, the tips curled upward as if caught in a final shrill syllable” (106). The grotesque, inhumane nature of this accessory, together with the emphasis on “blackened leather,” illustrates the shift from simply helping in the war to actively enjoying the mercenary pursuit and murder. In contrast to her swift dismissal of past love, Mark Fossie’s reaction is that of disbelief and grief. His plan for their life together “in the ordinary flow of their lives … might well have come true,” (90) but in Vietnam, his own actions are to blame for the disturbing events that follow. The battlefield demands of soldiers to prioritize the greater good over their own personal agendas, and Fossie’s inability to do so unlocks the violent monster, inherent in Mary Anne. In their relationship, they are symbolically two sides of the same coin; with the attempts of experiencing love during wartime leaving a person with the harsh reality of having to commit to only one of the two.

Mark Fossie’s frustration and torment in losing grip of past love is also observed in “Stockings” through the story of Henry Dobbins, “drawn towards sentimentality” (111). His method of coping with the present is through a memento of his girlfriend, a pair of nylon stockings. As his good luck charm, the stockings prove to be invaluable to him as they simultaneously act as a reminder of the past, a comfort for the present, and an aspiration for the future. After his separation with the girlfriend, Dobbins is forlorn and troubled, but quickly sticks to his regime of “arranging the nylons around his neck, carefully tying a knot, draping the two leg sections over his left shoulder” (112). This routine action, while not as dark as the other explorations of love, portrays his reluctance of letting go of the past and accepting such a change in his life. With all of the stockings’ symbolism beckoning to a reunion with his girlfriend, it seems strange of him to continue using them despite the improbability of ever being with her again. He actively chooses to continue living in his own reality as it provides the best comfort possible at wartime. These two essays present the confusion and isolation that war brings upon people, often causing them to look for meaning in elements of the past. The inevitable change of this past in turn causes the characters even more turmoil as the only constant thing in their life, love, has been overturned and they are left even more out of center than before. Love is poor coping mechanism, never truly able to mix with the harsh reality of war, leaving each person involved changed, either looking back at the past for comfort or completely revoking it.

The four stories all convey the slippery slope of love in the harsh conditions of the Vietnam War through the contrast between the initial comfort and happiness that love brings and the many ways in which it unravels, leaving the individuals to cope in unpredictable ways. Through the prism of the gruesome battles, love becomes broken down and twisted in strange directions, leaving the soldiers even more confused and unpredictable. They become emotionally lost and isolated as their reminiscence, serving as an anchor, is rendered hopeless due to the rapid deterioration of relationships or as the harsh, carnal nature of war becomes interwoven in their mind with the sweet innocence of love, leaving them incapable of recalling one without the other, with the result being dismay, uneasiness or complete change of identity.

Guilt in The Things They Carried

In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien discusses the physical and emotional burdens that come along with war. The “things” that the soldiers carry are both literal and figurative. They carry sentimental items to remind them of home, food, weapons, survival gear, and even physical wounds. However, they also carry grief, longing, and terror. O’Brien focuses on the most prevalent of these emotions, guilt. O’Brien, who is both the narrator and protagonist of the text, discusses his experiences in the Vietnam War. O’Brien uses his storytelling as comfort for dealing with his painful past and to mourn, “Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story” (246). He allows his fellow soldiers to be remembered by turning his memories into stories. In addition, by telling the stories, Tim overcomes some of his guilt. Tim is a pacifist, who when was first drafted, tries to talk himself out of going based on that fact that he opposed the war in college. He could think of no way to get out of the war as they would not let him go to graduate school and he could not fake an illness. He went to the Canadian border, thought about how “we make our choices or fail to make them” (60) and decided that running across the border was wrong, rationalizing that he had an obligation to his family and country. O’Brien felt guilty about fleeing. He did not want his family to look upon him with shame, and he did not want to be seen as a coward. It felt wrong to him that others had to leave for war and that he could just run away. Tim left for war a scared, young man, and would later return as a guilt-ridden man who is forced to tell stories about Vietnam to cope with the painful memories of war. O’Brien’s main source of guilt comes from killing a young soldier. One night, he saw a soldier in the distance and could make out that he was wearing an ammunition belt. He felt in his stomach what was happening, thinking there could be an attack, and he pulled the pin of his grenade automatically, without thinking. The young soldier died. Tim felt guilty because “he did not hate the young man; he did not see him as the enemy; he did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty” (132). He thought to himself that it was not even a matter of life or death. Tim experiences extreme guilt, thinking that if he had not pulled the pin, the man could have just passed by. It is a difficult question because for one, it is O’Brien’s job as a soldier to fight and to protect. One would argue that it was his duty to throw a grenade at the opposition. Kiowa, a fellow soldier, even reminded Tim that the soldier would have probably died anyway. However, to Tim, it was the wrong move, and he deeply regrets it:Even now I haven’t finished sorting it out. Sometimes I forgive myself, other times I don’t. In the ordinary hours of life I try not to dwell on it, but now and then, when I’m reading a newspaper or just sitting alone in a room, I’ll look up and see the young man coming out of the morning fog. (134)Years after the war, he still cannot get over the guilt and appears to be a little haunted by the experience. Even if he attempts to forgive himself, he will never forget, and will still see the “the young man coming out of the morning fog” (134). He even tries to imagine what the young soldier’s life would have been if he had not killed him. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross also experiences guilt due to his experiences in Vietnam. He is responsible for all of his men on the Alpha Company, but as his soldiers start to die one by one, he begins to feel responsible. First, Ted Lavender died when he was shot in the head leaving the bathroom. Cross is unsure of how to lead his men and feels that is obsession and preoccupation with his love, Martha, caused his death. Instead of focusing on the war, Cross focuses on a girl who he is unsure if she even loves him back. He carries her letters and always thinks of her, wondering if she is a virgin. After Lavender is shot and his body is carried away, Cross sat in a foxhole crying. He knows that it is his lack of attention that caused Ted’s death. The lieutenant “felt shame. He hated himself. 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” (16). He does carry the guilt with him, but unfortunately it is not the only guilt that Lieutenant Cross would leave the Vietnam War with.Lieutenant Cross makes another fatal mistake later in the war. A group of Vietnamese women warm the soldiers not to settle in a field along the river, but Jimmy Cross orders the men to stay there anyway and tells the girls to leave. Once the soldiers set up camp, rounds of mortar fell on the camp, and the field seemed to boil and explode. Then, Kiowa sunk into the muck. He had “lost his weapon, but it did not matter. All he wanted was a bath” (149). Cross thinks of Kiowa and the crime that is his death. He concludes that although the order to camp came from a higher power, he made a mistake letting his men camp on the dangerous riverbank. Jimmy Cross was trained to think of the soldiers as “identical copies of a single soldier, interchangeable units of command” (163). However, he preferred to view his men as human beings. Cross refused to see Kiowa as just another soldier who would die eventually, but as a person whom he feels directly responsible for his death. Jimmy’s guilt was so great, he felt as though he had committed a crime. Just as the soldiers carry burdens, Jimmy Cross carries compasses, maps but also the responsibility for the men in his charge. Jimmy Cross confides in O’Brien that he has never forgiven himself for Ted Lavender’s or Kiowa’s death.Tn The Things They Carried, O’Brien discusses the physical and emotional burdens that come along with war including the most prevalent, guilt. After the war, the psychological burdens the men carry during the war continue to define them. Two people, soldier O’Brien and Lieutenant Jimmy Cross walk away from the Vietnam War guilt-ridden. Tim struggles with the circumstances of killing a young soldier. It was his job to defend and fight, but he believes that the soldier would have just walked away and that he could have spared a life. He did not have anything against the soldier, and feels that he took an innocent life. On the other hand, Lieutenant Cross feels guilty for not leading his soldiers well. He feels responsible for the deaths of two of his men, Ted Lavender and Kiowa. Ted died at his expense because he was too busy focusing on his love Martha, rather than his men. Kiowa died because he made a bad judgment call. All in all, these men had to deal with their guilt post-war. However, through The Things They Carried, O’Brien shows that is possible for people to deal with their grief and overcome their guilt.

Turning Over a New Leaf: Facing the Pressures of Society

It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power.–Alan CohenThough often perceived as terrifying and tragic, war also has the unforeseen potential to transform the delicate face of human nature. The characters Mary Anne, Tim, and Lt. Cross of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried all demonstrate how the Vietnam War allowed them to better handle the pressures of society, ultimately gaining a deeper sense of control over their lives. When suddenly drafted, O’Brien is doubtful he can be the fearless, heroic soldier that his community expects him to be, but he soon learns to cope at war through the grace of storytelling. Similarly, Lt. Jimmy Cross is also abruptly thrown into the war, and suffers major qualms about his ability to successfully lead a platoon of army men. Then there is the quiet and docile Mary Anne, consistently relying upon her lover for identity when all it would finally take is the exploration of a foreign land to ultimately rediscover her true inner self.Unsure if he can indeed rise up to community expectations, O’Brien is unreadily catapulted into the deathly terrifying world of war, and he survives only through his use of imagination and storytelling. Upon receiving the draft notice, the young and scholarly O’Brien is unwilling to abandon his bright future in academics; at the same time, he fears the shame that would ensue from his small-town community if he fled from the duty of service. Struggling under the weight of his reputation, he eventually reaches Vietnam and has trouble dealing with the warfare and corpses. Instead of abusing tranquilizers and smoking marijuana like fellow soldier Ted Lavender, his coping mechanism of choice is storytelling; this derives from his first real experience with death, the demise of his beloved childhood friend Linda. O’Brien delves deep into his imagination once again to effectively handle the intense trauma that war inevitably causes. For example, upon encountering his first dead body at war, O’Brien responds with, “that poor old man, he reminds me of… this girl I used to know” (228), referring to Linda. By recounting old war stories to bring his guilt into perspective, O’Brien can alleviate the trauma he carries from war, even when living back home in the States as a 43-year-old writer. In a much larger sense, the Vietnam War allows O’Brien to reevaluate his own life purpose and eventually become the writer that he is today. This ongoing practice of assuaging one’s guilt is often held by longtime war veterans, particularly Lt. Jimmy Cross.Distracted by his unrequited love for a girl named Martha, Lt. Jimmy Cross often questions his arguable leadership qualities, but he finally realizes that he must sacrifice his own comforts for the betterment of his men. Having been enlisted without the proper training required to successfully lead a platoon, Lt. Cross suffers from carrying tremendous burdens of guilt when two of his men, Kiowa and Ted Lavender, die under his faulty command: “He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead” (16). Cross is well-aware of his duties to his title as Lieutenant, and so he decides to step it up as a leader. Because his senseless love for Martha had cost him the lives of two men, he commits himself to becoming the model leading man of society; “now determined to perform his duties firmly and without negligence… he would show strength… Lt. Jimmy Cross reminded himself that his obligation was not to be loved but to lead” (26). Cross’s disastrous slip-ups at war teach him to actively take responsibility, which he validates by burning his beloved picture of Martha. Although he still loves her, Cross knows that this love can never be fulfilled; he feels the pressures of society pushing him toward self-improvement and therefore takes it upon himself to better serve his men. The Vietnam War experience develops in Cross an awareness of the necessity of discipline, and he is willing to devote his energy to improving his leadership skills.Unlike O’Brien and Lt. Cross, who both give in and live up to societal standards, Mary Anne defies traditional domestic expectations and embraces all that is Vietnam, eventually becoming liberated in the process. Initially brought over to serve as a comfort toy for her boyfriend, Mark Fossie, Mary Anne is the typical naïve, fresh-faced cheerleader type; she has long blonde hair and tan, lean legs that easily win her appreciation from all of the men. As O’Brien himself quotes, “she was good for morale… it was the sort of show a girl will sometimes put on for her boyfriend’s entertainment” (95). The early Mary Anne succumbs to her gender role, epitomizing the stereotypical woman; since her identity is based mainly on appearance, she is solely dependent on Fossie and the rest of the Greenies for her base survival in Vietnam. However, the knowledge that is hidden in the vast foreign land would provide the perfect opportunity for her liberation. Immediately the open-minded Mary Anne immerses herself into the land, picking up the customs and culture of the Vietnamese people. Her vanishing acts are met with apprehension from her lover, who reacts in panic by further tightening his stronghold over her: “If Mary Anne happened to move a few steps away from him, he’d tighten up” (104). But Mary Anne soon finds the power to resist by realizing she need not rely upon her lover, or any other man, for her basic existence. In her own words, “When I’m out there at night, I feel close to my own body… it doesn’t matter because I know exactly who I am” (111). As she becomes stronger and more free-wheeling, Fossie grows weaker and, consequently, more insecure. He sees his aptitude matched by Mary Anne’s own blossoming persona as a tough soldier, and he realizes that he is not her world anymore. With her intelligence surpassing his, Mary Anne is able to ease away from his restrictive control and thus escape the defined female roles of conventional society. The Vietnam experience serves as the catalyst that is so crucial for the stunning transformation of her character. It opens up a new world, allowing her to form her own unique identity and finally gain her independence.Although the idea of war may conjure up nothing but negative images, the Vietnam War became an irrevocably life-changing event for these three characters, delivering the perfect opportunity for personal enrichment of their lives. For author Tim O’Brien, the Vietnam War gives him the chance to reflect upon childhood memories of Linda and develop the seedlings of his storytelling, which he comes to use as an emotional aid during difficult times of battle. The unique war experiences of Lt. Jimmy Cross open up his eyes to the duties of a selfless leader, and thus he started to utilize the standards of society as crucial building blocks toward self-improvement. As for Mary Anne, the experience becomes her own personal path to freedom and liberation from the unyielding societal pressures to remain naïve and docile, particularly toward the men in her society. O’Brien’s The Things They Carried truly teaches us that even in the times of extreme wartime stress, human beings have long proved that they can indeed flourish through it all.

Let’s Communicate: It’s Not About War

“How to Tell a True War Story,” in Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, has almost nothing to do with war. Rather, it has to do with the difficulties of a speaker to communicate their feelings—which are conveyed through stories—as well as the listeners’ failure to understand them. “How to Tell a True War Story” includes several accounts of events that occurred in the main characters’ lives during Vietnam. One of which concerns the character Bob Kiley, or Rat as most people call him. A week after his friend dies, Rat decides to write a letter to his friend’s sister telling her about the good times they had, how great of a guy he was, and how much he loved him. Although Rat mails the letter, even after two months, the sister never replies back. In response, Rat complains, “’I write this beautiful fuckin’ letter, I slave over it, and what happens? The dumb cooze never writes back’” (69). The letter, which is both the recollections of his experiences with and his true and honest feelings for his best friend, is Rat Kiley’s story. And it is a story that the listener, in this case the sister, does not understand—she could not get that the letter “wasn’t a war story” but that “It was a love story” (85). The use of the word “dumb cooze” then illustrates the frustration Rat Kiley suffers, for he is unable to successfully describe the love he has for his best friend.Similarly, “Field Trip” is also about the listener’s inability to comprehend the emotions behind and the point of the speaker’s story; but more importantly, “Field Trip” is about the speaker’s incapability to voice his own stories. In “Field Trip,” the narrator, Tim, goes back to Vietnam and takes along his ten-year-old daughter Kathleen. A major reason Tim brings his daughter is to show her the world, and to offer her “a small piece of her father’s history” (182). In a sense, because he cannot verbally say it, this is Tim’s way of showing his story and having Kathleen attempt to walk in his shoes. The issues in understanding are presented when Kathleen asks, “‘how come you were even here in the first place?’” and Tim replies, “‘I don’t know…because I had to be’” (183). Even though Kathleen repeats her question, “‘But why?’” all Tim can do is try “to find something to tell her,” eventually shrug and say that ‘”It’s a mystery, I guess. I don’t know’” (183). This demonstrates both the daughter’s failure to grasp the significance and meaning behind this whole trip, as well as the father’s inability to convey it. In addition, even when Tim goes swimming in a marshland to carry out his attempt to wash away his own guilt, and to honor the memory of the dead soldier Kiowa (which are his main reasons for going back), his daughter, who watches him, is nervous and nearly grossed-out. She says what Tim is doing “‘is stupid,’” and what he is about to swim in is “‘not even water, it’s like mush or something’” (186). Kathleen’s attitude towards the events of this trip to Vietnam reveals her lack of understanding of Tim’s past experiences, and thus current actions. However, Kathleen’s lack of understanding is due mostly, in a larger sense, to Tim’s failure to communicate. If Tim could have told Kathleen why he even went to Vietnam in the first place, then maybe his daughter would have had a better idea of why he did, what he did. Evidently, both of these short stories lean towards a more fundamental, underlying issue: the speakers’ failure to communicate. So why, then, is it so hard for speakers to do such a seemingly uncomplicated task? In Rat Kiley’s case, he became frustrated because he could not properly convey his affections towards his best friend, and even his anger towards the sister (another reason he called her a “dumb cooze”). Additionally, later on in “How to Tell a True War Story,” there is a sad and disturbing scene of Rat Kiley repeatedly shooting at a helpless, innocent baby buffalo. Rat’s actions reveal how he is unable to put into words his worries, sadness, rage, and other emotions, and therefore takes it all out on the baby buffalo. He even “tried to say something, but then cradled his rifle and went off by himself”(79). Consequently, Kiley’s decision to go off by himself shows that he could not, or was still trying to, figure everything out (his feelings, for instance). Likewise, in “Field Trip,” Tim himself does not truly know why he went to Vietnam (in the first place). This is exemplified by when he goes swimming in the marshland. As it becomes obvious, this marshland is not clear and pure like water; in fact this “water” is dirty and full of bugs and tiny bubbles and probably all kinds of other jumbled up matter, or, as Kathleen puts it, this water is “like mush” (186). Conceivably, this was Tim also trying to figure things out for himself, which explains when he “tried to think of something decent to say, something meaningful and right,” in the end, “nothing came” to mind (186). This uncertainty is also similar to “How to Tell a True War Story” when the narrator starts talking about what the war feels like for the common soldiers. What is important is not the war itself, but the fact that “[t]here is no clarity” (82)—exactly like the “water” Tim was swimming in. So perhaps the reason why Rat Kiley, Tim, the common soldier, and maybe even the common person, has difficulty conveying their feelings is because they have yet to figure and work out their own emotions and their own stories. For these people, it is as if they are swimming back and forth and thinking, “what’s the point”—as if they are trying to “get at the real truth,” trying to figure out and get at their true feelings (82, 85). There is, however, one conviction that stands true for both the listener and the speaker, and that is their “overwhelming ambiguity” (82).

Role of Kathleen and Linda in The Things They Carried

Throughout The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien often alludes to Kathleen, his daughter, and Linda, his childhood friend with cancer. However, Kathleen and Linda do not exist. O’Brien includes them in his story because they allow him to interact with the reader within the text without actually interacting with the reader personally. Kathleen represents the reader in the text, one who can interact with Tim O’Brien and alter the things he says. Linda, on the other hand, represents the way storytelling and memory can alleviate the pain in any traumatic situation in the past. Kathleen appears in O’Brien’s stories many times, most notably in “Field Trip” where O’Brien takes Kathleen, his daughter to Vietnam on vacation. The difficulty of explaining his experiences in Vietnam to Kathleen is evident in the frustration of his tone when he says, “At the same time, however, she’d seemed a bit puzzled. The war was as remote to her as dinosaurs and cavemen.” (183) If Kathleen represents the reader, this suggests that O’Brien believes we are similarly out of touch, requiring explanation for everything he says and does. This idea of Kathleen as the reader is evident in this exchange: “Kathleen sighed. ‘Well I don’t get it. I mean, how come you were even here in the first place?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘Because I had to be.’ ‘But why?’”(183) Her misunderstanding and need for explanation are apparent, and it is equivalent to the reaction of a reader to the text. But what is also on display here is O’Brien’s almost disinterest with the explanation. “Because I had to be” is never an adequate response to a child’s curious nature. O’Brien’s disinterest suggests that he does not care if the reader does not understand or like what he is saying, or not know why he is saying it. He is simply writing to alleviate the pressures on his mind. Writing serves many purposes for him, first and foremost as a method of catharsis, a way in which to alleviate such traumatic memories of what happened in Vietnam. It is also possible that in the dialogue quoted above, Kathleen takes the form of O’Brien’s inner conscience, a conscience perhaps still confused about the purpose of the war, and his role in the war. In “On the Rainy River”, O’Brien describes his doubts and fears about going to the war after getting the request of his presence in Vietnam. Perhaps, as mentioned above, Kathleen is a representation of those questions that still remain, a literal figure to ask them without O’Brien having to leave character in the story. Linda is portrayed in “The Lives of the Dead” as Timmy’s nine year old friend and his first true love. It is revealed later that she has a brain tumor, and she subsequently dies, much to the dismay of a young Tim. O’Brien include her in the story to illustrate the healing power of imagination, and also to foreshadow events. O’Brien’s immortalization of her is similar to his immortalization of Kiowa later; through writing, he make those meaningful people in his life eternal through stories. While Linda does not exist, she provides a way for O’Brien to describe a truth without breaking character. O’Brien tries to explain his methods with a quote on page 230 when he says, “The things about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.” (230) He is revealing that the origin of stories is dreams, and that the origin of his storytelling career started with his dreams about Linda: “Lying in bed at night, I made up elaborate stories to bring Linda alive in my sleep. I invented my own dreams.” (243) Linda and Kathleen are included in this book for separate reasons. Kathleen is the materialization of the reader in the text, who, to O’Brien, seems childish and naïve when it comes to Vietnam. Linda is O’Brien’s way of demonstrating his theory on story-telling: its purposes and origins. The inclusion of the two characters into the story effectively demonstrate O’Brien’s desire to stay in character while explaining the truths of his experience.

Feminist and New Historical Approach to The Things They Carried

By applying the Feminist and New Historical criticisms to a work, the reader is presented with a deeper understanding of a story and a clearer analysis of the text than other traditional approaches. Unlike other literary theories, the feminist literary criticism argues the importance of female authors and characters throughout a work. The feminist critic claims that women are not accurately depicted by male writers and that their experiences can be better defined by female authors. In contrast, New Historical criticism focuses on the historical context of a story, rather than specific characters in the work. New Historical critics argue the importance of not only the historical background but the biography of the author as well. When applying these theories to “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, the reader gets a well rounded interpretation of this short story. Centered around the male-dominated setting of the Vietnam War, O’Brien’s story presents many issues that both criticisms seek to analyze. While the feminist critic focuses primarily on O’Brien’s lack of female representation throughout the story, the New Historical critic would seek to interpret the motives behind the writing of the story and the setting in which it is placed. Both criticisms take a different approach to analyzing literature that creates an in-depth understanding of the author’s portrayal of the characters and the setting. As applied to “The Things They Carried,” these two approaches present a better understanding of Tim O’Brien’s purpose behind writing the story, as well as his portrayal of female characters referenced throughout the work.

Building upon the ideals of feminism, beginning with the suffrage movement in the early nineteenth century, the feminist literary criticism attempts to uncover the ways in which literature contributes to or opposes the oppression of women. Applied to society, the feminist critic seeks to unravel and expose the patriarchal traditions that influence decisions of the household and of the state (Brizee). Initially, this idea centered around the exclusion of female authors from the male-dominated profession of writing. In recent years, however, it has evolved into a concept that encompasses far greater issues, not only dealing with the struggles of discrimination against women but also towards other minority groups as well. The emergence of feminism can be viewed in three waves, each more influential than the last, especially in regards to the importance placed on female literature (Goel). The first wave occurred in the years preceding the Civil War, in which women fought for abolition as well as the right to vote. The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, led by such leaders as Susan B. Anthony and Victoria Woodhull, greatly contributed to the suffrage movement. In 1920, this movement culminated in the Nineteenth Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote (Goel). Expanding on the growing equality granted to women in the work force after World War II, the second wave of feminism sought to grant women more rights apart from political freedoms. Finally, the third wave emphasized equality for all groups, not only those involved with the feminist movement (Goel). With each wave of feminism, women’s rights expanded in society as well as in literary circles, which became more open to the emergence of works written by female authors.

The feminist literary critic argues the significance of female literature in the context of historical, philosophical, and biographical importance. The traditionally male-dominated practice of writing, excluded many talented female authors from prominent literary standing in past centuries. Because of this overwhelming dominance of male literary works in society, many feminists argue that their ideas and experiences are not adequately represented. In writing about the exploits of female protagonists, male authors fall short of fully encompassing the feminine identity. Shilpi Goel describes the feminist literary criticism as “the rebellion of the female consciousness against the male images of female identity and experience.” The preconceived ideas surrounding women in society proved inadequate in defining the female condition.

Authors like Virginia Woolf, a prominent proponent of feminism, resented the lack of importance placed on female literature (Kowaleski-Wallace 431). Woolf thought the differences in societal interests were not fairly represented, as the male bias dominated all forms of literature. She believed that women’s literature lost credibility with male readers because it was not focuses around the specific things they wanted to read. For instance, Woolf acknowledged the fact that men were primarily concerned with literature about the war and had little desire to read anything else. In ridiculing these differences in twentieth century literature, Woolf said, “This is an important book…because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room (Donovan 10).” With the rise of female literature, came the push for more representation of women in literary circles. It was believed that women, more so than men, were capable of studying and interpreting female literature. Therefore, with the increase in the importance of female literature, the movement started by feminist literary critics introduced more women into the predominately male society of literature.

In regards to other theories, feminist literary criticism takes a closer look into the experiences of female authors and the representation of female characters in literature. While women are able to study and apply these other theories, it is a predominately male practice, like the art of writing itself (Eagleton 5). Because of these inherently patriarchal traditions, feminist literary critics question the practices of other theories. However, some argue that theory is too disinterested and distant for feminist thinkers altogether. Mary Eagleton expands on this by saying, “theory is impersonal, public, objective, male; experience is personal, private, subjective, female” (6). “Gynocriticism”, or the study of female writers in the past, explores the historical challenges confronted by female authors (Kowaleski-Wallace 287). This approach gives the reader a clearer representation of the feminist criticism, as well as the ideals of feminism introduced in the past century.

In viewing Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” through the lens of a feminist literary critic, it is obvious that the story presents a bias toward the male protagonists in the work. Women are not represented in the story, except in the memories of the soldiers, who primarily view them for their physical attributes and sexuality. Historically, women played little part in the conflict of the war, though the feminist literary critic would argue against O’Brien’s objectification of women in the story.

The devastation of the Vietnam War takes a secondary role in the story, as the account centers around Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ inner conflict. Cross struggles to focus on the war as his thoughts continually wander to the woman he loves back home. Although women are not directly represented in Tim O’Brien’s “How To Tell a War Story”, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ adoration of Martha constitutes a majority of the story and plays a pivotal role in the soldiers’ experiences in the war. Martha, an English student at Mount Sebastian, constantly sends letters to Lieutenant Cross, and he longs for her affection. He spends hours at a time looking at her pictures and reading her letters, fantasizing about the life that they could have together. However, most of these fantasies center around her sexuality, especially in questioning her virginity. In one instance, Cross remembers touching her knee during a movie and later kissing her goodnight. In recalling this event O’Brien writes, “he should’ve carried her up the stairs to her room and tied her to the bed and touched that left knee all night long” (369). These and other thoughts throughout the work, distract the protagonist and objectify the women in the story by merely focusing on their physical attractiveness.

In analyzing this work, the feminist literary critic would argue against O’Brien’s central presentation of this historical event, which gives a one-sided account of the Vietnam War. Women in the story are given no physical manifestation and are represented merely by their tokens of affection: a picture, a letter, some pantyhose. Despite this lack of representation, Cross attempts to blame Martha’s distraction as the cause of Lavender’s death. In the end of the story he burns her pictures and letters, resenting her memory for bringing emotional affliction on himself and physical harm to his men. O’Brien summarizes this drastic change in emotion by saying, “He hated her. Love, too, but it was a hard, hating kind of love” (383). The feminist would argue against this conclusion, as the woman is blamed for the hardship faced by the protagonist, even though she plays no part in the story itself.

In the beginning of O’Brien’s story, Martha is introduced as an English student who loved the works of Virginia Woolf. By referencing this prominent feminist writer, the gender differences presented by O’Brien throughout the rest of the story are even more obvious, as male characters predominately overshadow the females. Woolf argued against the patriarchal stories of past generations, claiming literature written by men did not adequately portray the experiences of women. This short story, centering around the male-dominated war effort, leaves little room for female protagonists or the input of female characters. In the end, Martha is viewed as an unnecessary burden that must be left behind, similar to the other supplies carried by the soldiers.

Unlike traditional theories of the past century, New Historical criticism puts great emphasis on the background of a work, focusing on the social, political, and economic features of the time in which a story was written, rather than the specific information in the text. According to the New Historicist, the ideological and cultural motivations that affected the author’s writing must be taken into account when analyzing a particular work of literature (Delahoyde). New Historical criticism primarily relies on the cultural response to the reading, as well as the writing of a story. Much of its focus is on disenfranchised, isolated groups, as well as groups that practice unusual traditions and behaviors (Brewton). New Historicism presents a unique interpretation of a work of literature by not only emphasizing the author’s written words but also a culture’s response to the particular work, both in the time it was written and in the present era.

New Historicism began in the late twentieth century with the work of Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespearean critic who wanted to delve into the social and political aspects of the stories he read. Greenblatt began by studying the works of Shakespeare in relation to Renaissance theatre and the performances of the plays he wrote during this period (“New Historicism”). He later coined the term “New Historicism” for this particular school of criticism. Building off of Greenblatt’s work, Michel Foucault furthered the study of New Historicism by collecting several works of literature and applying his analysis of these works to the particular time period. By interpreting a literary text through the lens of society, Foucault set the precedent for further work in this field of thought.

The past few decades have seen an increase in the importance of Historical Criticism as it applies to literature. New Criticism, the idea that the author should not be considered when reading a work, primarily dominated the literary circles of past centuries (Brewton). However, more critics are beginning to realize the importance of historical context in the analysis of a story. New Criticism, or Formalism, gives a singular interpretation of a story that does not extend beyond the written page, while Historical criticism gives the reader a clear representation of the background of the text. “The Things They Carried”, a short story set in the conflict of the Vietnam War, gives a glimpse into the lives of several young soldiers who struggle with both physical and emotional baggage they are forced to carry. Through the lens of Historical Criticism, the war itself would be studied, as well as the response of the American culture to the conflict overseas. The New Historical critic would go so far as to analyze the objects carried by the men, referenced throughout the story. For example, in one scene of the story, O’Brien writes, “They all carried ghosts” (372). This statement shows that despite the physical burden of the objects they carried, they also suffered under the weight of emotional and mental strains. Through this analysis and research into the background of the Vietnam War, the reader would be able to fully comprehend the implications of the work and the time period. The Vietnam War presents a deeply traumatic and tragic conflict not only in the history of America but throughout the world. In the wake of North Vietnamese aggression toward South Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson and the American people pledged to step in to prevent the spread of communist hostility (“The Big Read”). The average age of American soldiers in Vietnam was nineteen, making the young men who fought, dangerously susceptible to physical and emotional trauma. Most of these young men were also extremely unexperienced when it came to combat and the senseless killing that accompanies a life of war. O’Brien greatly emphasizes this aspect of the war in his story, by writing about the emotional strains on the men and the onset of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that followed their time in Vietnam (Fowler). When compared to the war itself, O’Brien’s story gives a glimpse into the lives of young men trying to rationalize the chaos unfolding around them, especially in regards to the death of their friends. O’Brien describes this by saying, “They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing — these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight” (381). Each of the men attempted to find a means of escape from the war, which generally centered around senseless fantasies. In describing Lieutenant Cross’s distraction with Martha’s memory, O’Brien writes, “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” (377). Each scene in O’Brien’s story describes the chaos and emotional strain placed on the young men in the war. Jimmy Cross and his men were forced to push ahead, even after losing men like Ted Lavender. In describing the war, O’Brien writes, “They shared the weight of memory. They took what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak” (376). This and other images described by O’Brien create a setting of death and despair for the characters in his story.

Also important to the story, is the author’s personal background and his motivations for writing the work. Historical Criticism argues that the author’s writing must have been influenced in some way by the cultural or political ideologies of the time in which it was written. Tim O’Brien, the author of “The Things They Carried”, fought in the Vietnam War himself, giving the story an underlying autobiographical tone, especially since O’Brien uses his own name for the protagonist in some of his literature. He even dedicated the story to the characters, giving the reader the impression that they were based off of real people. In an interview about the book, O’Brien later stated, “The stories in the book are for the most part invented but they are launched out of a world I once knew” (O’Brien). By writing about an event that he experienced, the literary critic would argue that O’Brien had a better understanding and deeper motive for putting his thoughts on paper.

Both Feminist and New Historical criticism give a broader understanding of a particular work of fiction, by creating a clear interpretation of an author’s voluntary and involuntary motives behind writing a story. In analyzing O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”, both approaches work together to create a meaning beyond the reader’s initial interpretation. The Feminist literary criticism goes beyond the explicit writing of the text, seeking to identify a bias in the author’s presentation of the characters. In “The Things They Carried”, this bias can be seen in O’Brien’s one-sided approach to the war effort and the lack of representation given to women in the story. The feminist critic would view O’Brien’s depiction of Martha as demeaning, especially since Lieutenant Cross’s fantasies focus solely on her sexuality and the question of her virginity. However, of the things that Jimmy Cross carries throughout the war, his memory of Martha is by far the most important and influential. The Historical Criticism put a greater emphasis on the history of the time period and the author’s personal association with the Vietnam War. By understanding this connection between O’Brien and the war effort, the story is given more credibility, as an autobiographical tone is seen in this work of fiction. The setting, characters, and objects described in the story are also enhanced by an understanding of the story’s historical background.

The Feminist and Historical criticisms do not only create meaning separately but also present a profound meaning when viewed together. Because the feminist goals and ideals changed over time, literature interpreted in the later twentieth century would be viewed differently than literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The historical context of O’Brien’s story, when viewed through the lens of a Feminist critic, shows the bias of the Vietnam War that generally focused on the roles of men in combat, and gave little credibility to the women back home. The Feminist literary critic would argue that “The Things They Carried” presents a great representation of this historical bias, whether the author’s intent was voluntary or involuntary.

As I read and interpreted the story through the lens of Historical and Feminist literary criticisms, I gained a deeper understanding of the work as a whole, as well as the author and his characters. My research enhanced my understanding of the story by presenting me with a different interpretation of a work that I initially only viewed as a simple story about the Vietnam War. The feminist approach gave me a better understanding of the roles that male and female characters play throughout a work of fiction, depending on the time in which it is set. I now know the importance of the background of a literary work, including the author’s motives and the underlying implications of his writing. My understanding of these criticisms allowed me to not only view the characters and setting of O’Brien’s work but also the implications of his underlying ideas concerning women of the time and the historical context.

Works Cited

Brewton, Vince. “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Brizee, Allen, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, and Elizabeth Boyle. “Welcome to the Purdue OWL.” Purdue OWL: Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Delahoyde, Michael. “New Historical Criticism.” Introduction to Literature. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Donovan, Josephine. Feminist Literary Criticism: Explorations in Theory. Lexington: U of Kentucky, 1975. Print.

Eagleton, Mary. Feminist Literary Criticism. London: Longman, 1991. Print.

Goel, Shilpi. “Feminist Literary Criticism.” Galileo. Language in India, Apr. 2010. Web.

Kowalewski-Wallace, Elizabeth. Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory. New York: Garland, 1997. Print. “New Historicism.” – New World Encyclopedia. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction. New York: Broadway, 1998. Print.

O’Brien, Tim. “Looking Back at the Vietnam War with Author, Veteran Tim O’Brien.” Interview by PBS. 28 Apr. 2010. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.

“The Big Read.” The Things They Carried. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.

Physical and Psychological Burdens

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a highly unique work, a compilation of many stories carried home by veterans of the Vietnam War. The length of the stories in the 22 chapters varies dramatically, a technique that “demonstrates well the impossibility of knowing reality of the war in absolute terms” (Calloway 1). The reader – like the soldier – never knows how the day will turn out. O’Brien even adds stories whose veracity is challenged later on, thus allowing the reader to understand that the stories are not the most important thing. Stories are used only to provide insight into the emotions of war; from these stories, O’Brien effectively teases out the psychological burdens carried by Vietnam veterans. Initially the soldiers, new to the field of course, carry personal effects, physical burdens, that serve as a reminder of the friendly reality of home while in a hostile and foreign place; however, as the soldiers stay in “Nam” longer, these physical burdens are replaced by psychological burdens that alter the perspective of reality for returning soldiers. “Home” becomes an alien place, serving as a constant reminder of Vietnam and its horrors. In Chapter One, O’Brien outlines the items that individual soldiers carry that differentiate each from the other; these items serve as symbols of home. Each item alludes to what soldiers want to remember from their “old life,” the comforting and recognizable one. For example, “In his wallet, Lieutenant Cross carried two photographs of Martha” (4). Constantly dwelling on past times spent alone with the girl of his dreams, Jimmy Cross is representative of all the men who are living hundreds of miles away from Vietnam in their mind even while being very much present in the war in body. Still concerned with his life back home, Jimmy Cross would rather reminisce about life at home than accept his role as a leader in the war. “Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma” (3). Before the war Kiowa was devoted to religion, so in order to make his new situation more forgiving, he tries to integrate his old ways into Vietnam life. Wanting to continually recall his life symbolizes the fact that he still is attempting to hold onto something he will eventually have to let go of: his reality. “Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose wrapped around his neck as a comforter,” a simple act that epitomizes the feelings of longing for home a soldier experiences (10). A new reality has not yet set in for these men; they feel that their charms from home will both protect them and help them return to normalcy once the war ends. The items and the memories reveal the men’s longing for love and familiarity of home. As physical representations of the men’s yearning to hold onto the life they are used to, the items symbolize their only lifeline to the United States. The desire to carry something familiar into an unfamiliar land shows that the men still want to live in the innocent world and maintain a hopeful, naive mindset. The physical burdens carried by the men embody the superficiality of war, allowing them the illusion that they can simply return to their prior lives. The first to encounter a change in mentality is Jimmy Cross, when Ted Lavender was shot. Feeling personally responsible for his death, the Lieutenant becomes “determined to perform his duties firmly and without negligence” (25). Furthermore, “from this point on, he will comport himself as an officer. He would dispose of his good luck pebble…impose strict field discipline…send out flank security…confiscate the remainder of Lavender’s dope” (25) This is the point where his character steps into the shoes of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, and into a much more complex and mature reality. Cross rids himself of physical burdens as a much more powerful burden of guilt encompasses his conscience and ultimately drives him to shoulder his responsibility as an officer in order to ensure that more tenacious feelings of guilt are not bred. Out of fear for his personal stability – not courage – Cross finds the reality of Vietnam. Giving up his personal items represents his loss of innocence and gaining of maturity, as well as the severing of his ties to the world he used to know. Never again will he be able to live in the world he did when he was a boy. Never again can he think of Martha without images of Ted Lavender’s limp body popping into the picture, along with a tidal wave of grief and guilt over Martha and his fellow soldiers. “The Man I Killed” describes the body of a young Vietnamese soldier that O’Brien has just launched a grenade at, and the incredible feelings of guilt that O’Brien experiences. With images such as “the man he killed was born in 1946 and…his parents were farmers,” O’Brien reveals his inability to move on and his obsession with death (125). Kiowa urges him to rationalize the situation: it was either the Vietnamese kid, or O’Brien. Yet this event is imbedded in his conscience forever; the body of the boy continues to haunt his memory for years to come. He will always think “what if?” He will always be forced to confront the realities of war, death, and guilt on a regular basis. He will always wonder whether he was right, and will always be uncertain as to the answer. The only certain thing will be that he will think of the incident day in and day out for the rest of his life. Grabbing Kiowa by the boot, Norman Bowker attempts to pull his friend from the clutches of the enclosing mud, but he “felt himself going too.” When faced with a choice between his life and Kiowa’s, he allowed his friend to sink to his death (149). He cannot help but think that it was his lack of courage that resulted in Kiowa’s death; however, although he watched his friend sink beneath the “shit field”, he did attempt to save him – the end was simply inevitable. War, it seems, forces men to assume the blame and guilt for the deaths of friends and enemies alike. This guilt is taken home with the soldiers, and makes them feel like outsiders in their old lives. Isolated from the rest of humanity, Bowker “followed the tar road on its seven-mile loop around the lake, then he started over again, driving slowly” (137). This circular drive is like his life nowadays; the same thoughts of Vietnam just repeat themselves over and over inside his head. His obsession with Kiowa is revealed when Bowker wades into the lake, which is a physical manifestation of Bowker’s wish to return to past and alter it. He is confused about why he has become a bystander in a life he once actively participated in. Once again, it boils down to the war and the characters’ inability to escape the effects of Vietnam, much like the images of the sewage field and the lake in “Speaking of Courage.” Soldiers have seen so much that the general public is not privy to, and these experiences set them on a level of maturity high above everyone else. Their outlook on life becomes a complex web of intricate emotions and images, deadly events, distrust, silence, fear, and animalistic tendencies. No one but they can say they subscribe to such a dark and striking way of thinking. When, in “Ghost Stories”, Tim O’Brien plans revenge on the medic, Bobby Jorgenson, for his incompetent treatment of O’Brien’s gunshot wound, he knows that he is acting irrationally in accordance with the values endorsed back at home; in Vietnam, however, this type of comportment just seems right. Before the war, he was a “quiet, thoughtful sort of person, a college grad, a Phi Betta Kappa, summa cum laude – all of the necessary credentials – “however, after participating in war for seven months, he knows he changed…the high, civilized trappings had somehow been crushed under the weight of the simple daily realities” (200). For better or worse, he turns mean inside. The war has taken its toll on him: he now holds grudges towards those who hurt him, and the only way for him to deal with his pain is to hurt in return. All of his qualifications, memories, education, and civility mean nothing at this point. In his new reality, he is reborn a savage in a place where diplomas and accolades mean very little. Vietnam is a whole new world, a reality where survival is everything and anything else is luxury. O’Brien’s character knows he is capable of evil, which unfortunately stems from war’s ability to inspire irrational behavior. Not only do soldiers have to worry about the enemy, they must deal with peer cruelty and violence as well. This evokes distrust towards each other that is carried back home and, for some, becomes the deciding factor in whom they confide in. Norman Bowker sums it up when he says, “It’s almost like I got killed over in Nam” (156). Although he is physically okay, psychologically he is ripped apart, like every other soldier returning from war. The weight of the intangible items overcomes the weight of tangible items, and unlike the physical burdens that can be discarded, the psychological wounds are encased in a soldier’s mind for all eternity, circulating through their every thought. It is thus practically impossible to function in society without some form of release, for the psychological burdens cripple the men as they attempt to rejoin a world that cannot identify with what they have been through. Just like the silence in Vietnam that will make a man go crazy, the silence and isolation at home will reap the same outcome. Those in war succumb to a complete mental makeover, concealing beneath the skin of everyday life hideous images of war, guilt, confusion, and fear. All these typical consequences of battle elevate a man’s maturity level, causing him to view life with a rejuvenated respect, for he has seen death and he has seen how death treats its onlookers. A man who has looked death in the eye becomes a robot that either overheats when thrown back into the regular proceedings of life, like Norman Bowker, or who becomes “fully functional” through the exhausting of its toxic fumes, like Tim O’Brien, who wrote his way out of the hole.

The Loss of Innocence in a Time of War

Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, said that the “most enduring Vietnam stories are those that are between the absolutely unbelievable and the mundane” (O’Brien 151). Such is the story of Mark Fossie – retold in the “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” chapter of the book – a soldier in Vietnam who brings his teenage girlfriend Mary Anne Bell to the seemingly safe and isolated war zone. But after a short period of relative normalcy, things don’t go as planned for the couple. Mary Anne becomes deeply involved in the war effort, helping tend to the wounded soldiers, cooking, and learning how to speak a little Vietnamese. She also stops being some fussy and cuts her hair short. When he notices how drastically Mary Anne is changing, Fossie starts to talk to her about heading home to the States. She refuses and becomes increasingly withdrawn before eventually disappearing for a while. When she returns to camp, she doesn’t stop at Fossie’s bunk, instead heading over the special forces tent. When Fossie learns of this, he goes to see her, but she looks different. She is wearing the same sexy and feminine outfit she arrived in, this time wearing a necklace with human tongues. Above all, in the “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” Tim O’Brien effectively examines the unfortunate loss of Vietnam war soldiers’ innocence through the use of juxtaposition, symbolism, and simile.

O’Brien juxtaposes Mary Anne’s appearance and demeanor at various points of the story. When readers are first introduced to Mary Anne, they learn that, “She’s got on culottes. White culottes and this sexy pink sweater” (O’Brien 90). From this, we learn that she is concerned with style and more importantly, incredibly naïve and innocent. She thinks that her trip to Vietnam is like visiting her boyfriend at his work, not what it really is: an unprecedented trip by a civilian to a violent war zone. Later, after her adventure, Fossie finds Mary Anne in the Special Forces tent, who sees a “necklace of human tongues” at her throat (O’Brien 110). The juxtaposition between Mary Anne’s dress when she first arrives and after she experiences Vietnam is powerful because it shows how damaging war can be to any human being innocent and unprepared for what it really is, much less to a girl who arrived to it unsuitable clothing. In that sense, O’Brien appeals to readers’ by making them feel sorry for the girl and the situation she is in. They are also meant to feel sorry for the soldiers in Vietnam, many of whom put there against their will. Like Mary Anne, many will enter Vietnam innocent and fresh-faced and leave violent and hardened, not the innocent person they once were. O’Brien similarly juxtaposes Mary Anne’s personality and outfit at a few points in the story to reveal how she – and by proxy the soldiers sent to Vietnam – have lost their innocence. A little earlier in the story, she is said to be incredibly talkative, bubbly, and full of life. No longer. After spending a bit of time in Vietnam, it is said that “[Mary Anne] wore a white blouse, a navy-blue skirt, [and] a pair of plain black flats” (O’Brien 103). O’Brien later says that “[Mary Anne] would not speak,” a sharp contrast to her once-bubbly personality (O’Brien 104). This juxtaposition shows how although Mary Anne looks the same as she once was on the surface level, she experienced a deep change within. This is a reflection of the war on soldiers. They still seemed similar to who they were before the war, but the emotional trauma they went through changed their state of mind deep down. This juxtaposition serves not only to advance the narrative, but to appeals to audiences’ logic. If war can transform someone’s personality and get rid of someone’s innocence in such a short amount of time, should it be fought at all?

In the story, Mary Anne and her transformation as a person is a very powerful symbol. When she first arrives to the camp, a soldier remarks, “This seventeen-year-old doll in her goddamn culottes, perky and fresh-faced” (O’Brien 96). Mary Anne is symbolic of innocence that eventually will be destroyed by war. She clearly had no place in a war zone made for people with rocket launchers and attack helicopters. But she doesn’t think this. Based on how she dressed, she thinks it will be like a day trip to visit her boyfriend at work. This illuminates how naïve and innocent Mary Anne is; she clearly thinks her trip isn’t a big deal. It is, though. Towards the end of the story, O’Brien describes how Mary Anne has changed, writing that “At this girls neck was a necklace of human tongues” (O’Brien 110). This tongue necklace is symbolic of how Vietnam has swallowed Mary Anne and who she once was. She is no longer that girl that is too wide in the shoulders. She loves Vietnam and the war and will stay in the brutalized country as long as she is able. This puts an emphasis on how transformative war can be for those involved in it and appeals to the audience’s pathos. Here is a woman that was at first seemingly lovely but was so totally transformed by her gruesome experiences that she is unrecognizable. The audience is meant to simultaneously feel sorry for Mary Anne and wonder if a war is truly worth it if it means sacrificing innocence and humanity to fight (and eventually lose) a war that many viewed as unjust and without purpose.

Similarly, O’Brien uses revealing simile to illuminate Mary Anne’s transformation and loss of innocence. At first, we hear someone comment on her, saying “[Mary Anne is] like a cheerleader visiting the opposing team’s locker room” (O’Brien 96). This shows how out of her depths, innocent, naïve, and unassuming Mary Anne is. In her world, what would be wrong with arriving in a war zone looking fashionable or going into an opposing team’s locker room? Nevertheless, after Mary Anne returns to the camp and Mark confronts her, she observes that it “Feels like I’m full of electricity and I’m glowing in the dark… I know exactly who I am” (O’Brien 111). This simile is effective because it reveals Mary Anne’s stark change from fresh-faced cheerleader to hardened, self-confident warrior. It also appeals to the audience’s emotions. The audience is left feeling sympathetic for how misguided Mary Anne is and scared for her safety and mental health. At the end of the day, had she ventured out into the jungles of Vietnam when she first arrived at the camp, she would have likely been killed; later, she would presumably handle herself very well. She was innocent at the start of the story; at the end of it, she was anything but innocent from her experiences in the hellish war. O’Brien makes the case that the same thing happens to many of the soldiers that are sent to the Vietnamese jungles.

While this story is neither mundane, it brilliantly shows how transformative war is and how easy it is to lose innocence after experiencing it for a short amount of time. Like many male soldiers, Mary Anne arrives in Vietnam with an incredibly energetic and bubbly personality. But like many of the boys sent to Vietnam, Mary Anne changes so quickly and dramatically that she becomes unrecognizable to one of the people she loves the most – her boyfriend, Mark Fossie. In conclusion, O’Brien, through the use of juxtaposition, symbolism, and simile, makes the case that Vietnam swallowed the soldiers that went there and caused them to lose their innocence.