On the Rainy River- Literary Theory: Postcolonial
The short story “On the Rainy River” written by Tim O’Brien, is a short story about his life experience when he was a young boy who just finished graduating college and had big dreams to accomplish. He talks about the experience of living with shame of events, which occured during the sumer of 1968. This story is a great insight which represents the time in 1968 where many men were forced and recruited into war with the mentality that the society enforced on all males to be both afraid to show fear or emotion, or make them ashamed of making themselves softer. This enforces them to sexist ideals and mindlessly submissive to the male-dominated war by demeaning them to the level of a ‘woman’. This non-fiction story addresses the problems and concequences of the decolonization in the US of the events due to war.
At the beginning of the short story, we can see that his life is being defined by being part in fighting in war, the American war in Vietnam, and his social expectations as a male in a dominant-male environment. This is seen when he says “This is one story I’ve never told before. Not to anyone. Not to my parents, not to my brother or sister, not even to my wife.” This quote shows his level of pride as a man, in that he feels the need to keep his story from his loved ones. The war to him seemed wrong, causing unnecessary causes and effects, and not having an explanation of why he was drafted to war, which leads for his mind to go crazy.
He thought he was too good to fight in a war, but his community pressured him to go, making his mentality about attending war or fleeing the country to escape. As the author is told he is recruited to fight in the war, he becomes increasingly upset. He certainly does not want to be part of it. His initial dialogue is “-I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything. It couldn’t happen. I was above it.” This clearly displayed his passion for the war, and how much he did not feel aligned with it emotionally or morally. Which leads his to be agiants the war in Vietnam, he prints protest posteers editorial and make apperances in a few political meetings. He is convinced that war is wrong, but he admits that it all seems so abstract. The 1960’s were a time of social upheaval, with the feminist and civil right movements taking place as well, as the country was divided between those who supported the war and those who disagreed with the U.S.’s involvement.
“In the evenings I’d sometimes borrow my father’s car and drive aimlessly around the town, feeling sorry for myself, thinking about the war and the pig factory and how my life seemed to be collapsing toward slaughter. I felt paralyzed. All around me the options seemed to be narrowing as if I were hurtling down a huge black funnel, the whole word squeezing in tight. There was no happy way out”(O’Brien). All young men had no option to put their lives in the line for war, they had their society thinking all men must fight in the war, and if you did n’t, it would make you softer and not to the standards of a woman. This quote explains the imagery behind the huge black funnel representing war and the whole world squeezing in tight representing the society forcing men to go to war to do the “right thing” which was fighting for their country.
“At night, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d sometimes carry on fierce arguments with those people. I’d be screaming at them, telling them how much I detested their bling, thoughtless, automatic acquiescence to it all, their simples minded patriotism, their prideful ignorance, their love-it-or-leave-it-platitudes, how they were sending me off to fight a war they didn’t understand and didn’t want to understand.”(O’Brien) Tim’s community did not understand his point of view on war, his civil rights and the postcolonial in the government effects.
How to Choose a Path: on the Rainy River Novel
An Application of the Archetype of the Hero’s Journey to Tim O’Brien’s “On the Rainy River”
Tim O’Brien is known for his realistic fiction, often involving a character similar to himself. One such character is the narrator in “On the Rainy River”. This narrator, who is also known as Tim O’Brien, encounters a moral dilemma and has to engage in a process of making a decision that could affect him for the rest of his life. Although this is not a typical story that details the birth of a hero, elements of the hero’s journey do apply. As this is highly realistic fiction, not all elements of the archetype are present within the story. “On the Rainy River” presents a modified, out of order version of the first half of hero’s journey with a fork in the road leading to two different journeys, forcing him to choose one.
The first stage of the hero’s journey is not represented in “On the Rainy River”. Divergent to a traditionally chaotic or otherwise unfavorable situation, O’Brien’s story begins with a protagonist who is fairly content with his life. He has a less-than-stellar job but it pays the bills. He is enjoying last summer before heading to college with a scholarship from Harvard for graduate studies (O’Brien 41). He has nothing to dread and nothing is threatening his future.
Suddenly, O’Brien receives a draft notice. This is in line with the stage of a call to adventure. Young men were being drafted to fight in the war. Some accepted the notice and were willing to travel abroad to fight for their country, or at least what they were told their country wanted them to fight for. Others rejected their drafting and went as far as burning their draft cards to symbolize their disdain for the war and the administration that supported it. O’Brien takes neither of these extremes. However, in unison with most heroes who are called to action, initially rejects the call. O’Brien wants no part in the Vietnam War. He considers himself to be a pacifist and would only support a war in the case of an extreme evil (O’Brien 44). As for the War, there is no extreme evil. There is barely a cohesive enemy, with the goal of the war not only to eliminate the Viet Cong but also inhibit the spread of an idea – Communism. O’Brien summarizes his thoughts by writing, “The American war in Vietnam seemed to me wrong. Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons. I saw no unity of purpose, no consensus on matters of philosophy or history or law” (O’Brien 40).
Lacking the ability to gather his thoughts and form a plan, he does as many other heroes do and simply decides to wait (O’Brien 42). He continues his previously pleasant summer life, made unpleasant by the sheer weight of the impending doom. He does not believe that he will fare well in the war, and argues that he is uneasy even at the sight of blood (O’Brien 41). This is clearly not the case due to his employment at the meat packing plant, but it shows his mental suffering in the face of the draft. He is so consumed with fear and worry that he is fabricating new facts about himself.
After ruminating on the concept of being drafted for somewhere between weeks and months, O’Brien snaps. He walks out of work, gathers some of his things, and drives towards the border for Canada (O’Brien 46). This represents an even stronger rejection to the call than before. He intends to flee the country to escape the draft, and in his mind, escape death. He will also be escaping a nation whose leadership supported an immoral war. However, even while motoring towards a sense of freedom, he is unable to be free and escape from his own thoughts.
Archetypical heroes often face negative forces, represented by enemies or monsters. While O’Brien processes his decision to either stay stateside and face the war or desert to Canada, he also faces enemies in his own head. He did not live somewhere that it was acceptable to object from the war. In a Southern town where people supported a war against Communism, young men drafted into the war were expected to serve their country unconditionally, in actions as well as spirit. In the mind of the conflicted young man, their expectations battled his fear of the war. He describes how the opinions of the community drag on his mind:
A moral split. I couldn’t make up my mind. I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile. I was afraid of walking away from my own life, my friends and my family, my whole history, everything chat mattered to me. I feared losing the respect of my parents. I feared the law. I feared ridicule and censure. My hometown was a conservative little spot on the prairie, a place where tradition counted, and it was easy to imagine people sitting around a table down at the old Gobbler Cafe on Main Street, coffee cups poised, the conversation slowly zeroing in on the young O’Brien kid, how the damned sissy had taken off for Canada. (O’Brien 44-45)
O’Brien’s enemies are not entities that he encounters and must physically fight. His enemies are his own thoughts. Trapped between the mental monster of being conscripted to fight in an unjust war and the thoughts of being ridiculed by the community for fleeing, he is forced to choose a single option. While he must contend with both of these evils, the enemy of his enemy is still not his friend. Both evils he faces are on the same side – the side that wants him to fight.
Backtracking slightly, O’Brien actually is facing a fork in the road between two different potential hero’s journeys. The first of which is easily understood. O’Brien’s call to action arrives in the form of a draft notice and his refusal of the call takes the form of his initial escape towards the border. From this point on, it will be known as the Path of War. The other, more obscure option for a journey is the path O’Brien has an inclination towards. For this journey, his call to action is the impulsive force leading him towards the border. This represents a separate journey because of the bipolar nature of the choices ahead. He either faces what he assumes will be death in the war, or a more positive life ahead of him in Canada. Regardless of which path he chooses, he will face a set of new challenges and experiences that will permanently change his outlook on life. This journey will be referred to as the Path of Freedom. He initially refuses this call, just as he did in the Path of War. Concerns of how the community will react to his perceived cowardice prevent him from fleeing earlier, but he inverts his refusal and drives away from home. Either of these paths will lead to a separate journey, and the main conflict in the story is the trials involved with making the decision.
O’Brien’s decision is not made without help. While he his wishes are set against the wishes of his country and community, “On the Rainy River” also includes the stage of the hero’s journey where the hero meets a mentor. However, this mentor does not entirely fit the mold of someone who gives advice to guide the hero. O’Brien meets his mentor by the name of Elroy Berdahl when he stays at the Tip Top Lodge (O’Brien 48). He describes the role of Elroy by writing, “The man who opened the door that day is the hero of my life. How do I say this without sounding sappy? Blurt it out – the man saved me. He offered exactly what I needed, without questions, without any words at all. He took me in. He was there at the critical time – a silent, watchful presence” (O’Brien 48). Elroy represents a different kind of mentor. Rather than telling the hero what to do, he instead presents himself as an unbiased, understanding worldly man. He welcomes O’Brien with open arms and seems to have a complete understanding of the young man’s internal conflict. Over a period of six days, Elroy never asks him a prying question, but is constantly thinking about his predicament. Rather than a mentor who provides knowledge, Elroy acts more like a mirror and reflects O’Brien’s thoughts back towards him. Calm, meticulous, and experienced, Elroy reassures O’Brien without words. Elroy somehow knew what the young man’s decision would be. He chose the Path of War. The mentor’s understanding of this is clear when he insists the young man take money for his labor at the Lodge and says, “Pick it up. Get yourself a haircut” (O’Brien 54), showing his knowledge that O’Brien made the decision not to desert his country, and that his hair would need to be cut prior to war. Afterwards, he gave O’Brien the final test. If he was really going to flee to Canada and accept the Path to Freedom, he would have done so by the final day of his stay at the Tip Top Lodge, when Elroy brings him within swimming distance of the border. O’Brien puts it best as he says, “The man knew” (O’Brien 54).
The protagonist finally chose his journey. Rejecting the Path to Freedom, he takes the Path to War, also avoiding the ridicule from his community. He speaks about his rejection of the Path to Freedom while he stared at the border when he writes, “It was no longer a possibility. Right then, with the shore so close, I understood that I would not do what I should do. I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life. I would not be brave” (O’Brien 57).
O’Brien describes his struggle with the potential ridicule, “All those eyes on me – the town, the whole universe – and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! they yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn’t tolerate it” (O’Brien 59). Explaining his reasoning for his choice to the reader, he feels defeated. He gave up the journey he had begun less than a week earlier due to fear of judgement from others. In doing so, he finally overcomes the stage of refusal to the Path of War. O’Brien will go to Vietnam. He will submit to the wishes of his community and his country. He summarizes his dejected feelings about this choice by writing, “I was a coward. I went to the war” (O’Brien 61). In doing so, he crosses the threshold to the Path of War and is able to turn back from that point.
“On The Rainy River” presents a story with a realistic take on the hero’s journey. In life, few things are cut and dry. O’Brien’s decision between the Path of War and the Path of Freedom is a muddy decision that embodies the first half of the hero’s journey. As a preface to The Things They Carried, this is understandable. It explores the conflict of a young man expected by his country and community to agree to lay down his life in a military action against his will. Presented with two possible journeys, Tim O’Brien takes what he considers to be the cowardly action because he sacrifices his own values to accept those of others. Especially applicable to young people seeking individuality, this story embodies the variability of human morals. Neither option is a clear right or wrong, but both lead to a different life for a young adult. Denied the obligation to choose one specific path, he only has the faintest idea of what to expect from either choice. O’Brien happened to choose the one with less cultural friction. Having struggled through the task of deciding his life’s path, the young man was finally able to choose a path that sacrifices his own personal values to meet the wishes of his nation. He went to war.
A Theme of Guilt in the Man I Killed by Tim O’brien
In Tim O’Brien’s “The Man I killed” guilt is a strong theme within the work. The narrator, Tim, is struggling with his whirlwind of emotions so much so that his own presence disappears within the story as he begins to focus more on the victim he killed. By giving the man a life, O’Brien is attempting to exonerate the guilt of taking the man’s life. The list of physical attributes and characteristics of the man are strong forms of imagery. The theme of guilt reverberates in forms of repetition and imagery, creating a life for the fallen man, and the consolations of the fellow soldiers.
Repetition was the strongest form of guilt written within the work. By repeating the descriptions of the man, losing some imagery and adding some, O’Brien is torturing himself. The repetition of certain phrases such as the “his jaw was in his throat” and “his one eye was shut” and most importantly, the “star-shaped hole” shows that O’Brien is having trouble grappling with the idea of killing a man. The passage of time also signals to the readers how long O’Brien has been staring at the body, which indicates unbridled guilt. Kiowa references O’Brien’s guilt as well when he says “You feel terrible, I know that. ” O’Brien has stared at the body so long that his fellow soldiers become unsettled. The repetition is both imprinted into O’Brien’s mind as well as the readers. He’s constantly describing the man as a “slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole”. The death is still haunting O’Brien, by using descriptive words such as “dainty” and “star-shaped hole, ” O’Brien is also trying to establish a feeling of gracefulness from the horrific death of the soldier.
The description of the butterfly and how it travels along the face of the man also tugs at the readers heartstrings because it adds an element of innocence into a devastating scene. By creating a life for the young man, O’Brien is grappling with the idea of his own mortality. He sees himself in the young man by drawing similarities between the two. The man is described to be a student who was drawn into patriotic duty. By imagining the man being in the prime of his life, O’Brien is feeding into his own guilt. Identifying with the victim is another way O’Brien tries to console himself. The life of the man becomes complex as O’Brien continues the repetition of the fallen soldier’s dead features. When O’Brien points out that the man “had no stomach for violence”, he’s drawing a parallel to himself.
O’Brien, with how torn up he is about the death of his victim, also reveals that he also doesn’t have a stomach for violence. By giving the man life, O’Brien is hoping he’ll be able to exonerate his guilt. The man, as O’Brien describes, felt obligated to be courageous and fight, even if it goes against his scholarly nature. O’Brien, to his fellow soldiers, is humanizing a “weapon. ” Looking into the similarities between O’Brien and the dead soldier, society plays a large role in the choices each man makes. The expectations of both societies, American and Vietnamese, shows that going into battle was the manly and courageous thing to do despite it going against the natures of both men. The characterization of the dead soldier also points out how weakness is associated with feminine qualities. The dead soldier was not meant to be a fighter, but felt that it was the manly thing to do to serve his country. O’Brien is noted to have felt the same way by use of repetition and how he reacts with such profound guilt to the death of the man.
Kiowa is referenced multiple times in the story and he serves as a persistent and understanding presence. He’s a reminder to O’Brien that killing a man in war does not equate to murder. Each time Kiowa returns, he’s showing how unsettled by the death he is as well, especially when he recognizes how long O’Brien stares at the body. “Tim, it’s a war”. By emphasizing how they’re fighting in a war, Kiowa is trying to show that murder isn’t as cold-blooded when you’re fighting for your country. Kiowa is patient with O’Brien, but as time passes, his patience grows thin. By trying to persuade O’Brien to realize that killing in war isn’t something to tear yourself up about, he’s failing to help O’Brien sort out his emotions. The theme of guilt resonates in Kiowa’s words each time he tries to talk to O’Brien. “I’m serious. Nothing anybody could do. Come on, stop staring” Kiowa doesn’t appear guilty, but it’s obvious that he recognizes how guilty O’Brien feels. Another member of O’Brien’s company serves as a more cold, guiltless presence. “Oh, man, you fuckin’ trashed the fucker” Azar is unaware to how guilty O’Brien feels. He makes another round of snide remarks before Kiowa tells him to leave. Azar serves as a contrast in character between O’Brien, the dead soldier, and Azar himself. Azar is more ready and willing to end a life because he views his victims as weapons rather than human beings. O’Brien and the dead soldier are opposites to Azar, which is proven when O’Brien creates an entire life surrounding his victim. By using strong forms of imagery and repetition, creating a life for the fallen soldier, and describing how O’Brien’s company tries to console him, O’Brien establishes the theme of guilt and how he struggles with it throughout the story.
By pondering the complexity of the human life and the importance of taking one’s own morality into consideration, O’Brien is working through his emotions by creating a life for his victim in relation to his own. Tim O’Brien balances the descriptions between the life of the victim and the aftermath of his death because it serves as a reminder that the beauty of human life should never be overshadowed by the gruesomeness of death.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’brien: Novel Review
Importance of Title The title of the book we chose is They Things They Carried. The title is significant because the book does not only list the physical burdens each soldier must carry, but also the psychological ones after the war. Each soldier carries different items, depending on their rank and job. Lieutenant Cross carried items such as maps, binoculars, and a .45 caliber pistol. Medics such as Rat Kiley carried morphine, plasma, and malaria tablets. Not only did each soldier carry weapons and supplies, but also carried items of sentimental value. Lt. Cross carried a photo of the girl he loved and a pebble she had sent him. Kiowa carried an illustrated New Testament Bible. Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose and would wrap it around his neck as a comforter.
During the war, the soldiers also carry mental burdens. Lt. Cross carries the burden of knowing that he is in charge of an entire team’s life and the guilt if someone dies. Kiowa is a devout Baptist, so by participating in the war he is breaking several of the Ten Commandments and must shoulder that guilt. After the war each soldier has his own form of PTSD and must learn how to function in civilian life once again. Two Passages The first passage I will be analyzing is Mary Anne’s transformation during the Vietnam War. After tossing the idea around with his friends, Mark Fossie decided to ship she girlfriend over to where he was stationed. Six weeks later, Mary Anne arrives with “long white legs and blue eyes and complexion like strawberry ice cream,” (pg 93). Although she was young and straight out of high school, Mary Anne was eager to learn about the war and was not afraid to ask questions. By the end of the second week, Mary Anne was helping the medics clip arteries and pumping up plastic splints. Mary Anne was slowly losing the innocence she arrived with.She began to go on missions with the Greenies, a Special Forces squad who used the compound as a base for operations.
After she returned for a mission, Fossie put his foot down and told Mary Anne to start acting like a proper lady again. At first, she obeyed his orders and would spend all of their time together, even if it seemed forced. She soon becomes restless and leaves with the Greenies once again. Three weeks later she returns not as the all American, but as an animal who wears their trophies with pride. Mary Anne ripped out her innocence when he sliced out the men’s tongues and wore them as a necklace. Mary Anne was a wolf in sheep’s clothing by the time her boyfriend told her to start acting like a proper woman again. Mary Anne was gone and in her place was a monster with a bloodlust, wearing her trophies with pride. Her eyes were no longer sparkling with curiosity, but instead were “utterly flat and indifferent” (pg 110).
Mary Anne now has an appetite for the wildlife that has consumed her. She feels so at peace and right with herself that she concludes that what she is doing cannot possibly be bad. Unlike the soldiers who wanted out of the war, Mary Anne couldn’t get enough of it, which lead to her downfall. She let the horrors of Vietnam consume her and instead of fitting it The next passage I will be analyzing is when Rat Kiley tortures a water buffalo calf. After the death of his best friend Curt Lemon, Rat Kiley shoots a water buffalo calf, but “it wasn’t to kill; it was to hurt,” (78-9). Not knowing how to deal with his emotions, he displaces his anger and frustration on something weaker than himself. Instead of seeing the calf as a harmless creature who should be left alone, Rat Kiley sees it as an opportunity to let out the frustration he felt towards the situation. Just like Lemon, Kiley was young, innocent, and didn’t ask to be a part of the Vietnam War. If it weren’t for the draft, Lemon would have been alive. If it weren’t for the war, Lemon would still be breathing and going to school with Kiley. Neither of these boys had a choice when it came to joining the war. It is the Vietnam War’s fault that Kiley lost his best friend. Not knowing how to deal with the loss, Kiley mutilated an innocent baby water buffalo. At first, Kiley takes careful aim, planning where he will shoot next. After shooting the animal in the right knee, ear, hindquarters, tail, and below the ribs, Kiley switches to automatic. He begins to shoot without a care, “quick little spurts in the belly and butt,” (79). By the end of it, the creature is still alive, it’s eyes were “shiny black and dumb” (79), juxtaposing with Lemon’s “sharp gray eyes” (71).
After being forced into the war because of the draft and the untimely and preventable death of his best friend, Rat Kiley needs to feel like he has some control again. He not only wants, but needs to inflict the same amount of pain the war has inflicted onto to him. Themes The friendship shared between the soldiers is the strongest form of love throughout the book. Girlfriends and crushes betray the soldiers by breaking up with them (Henry Dobbin’s unnamed girlfriend), never loving them back(Martha), or disappearing into the jungle(Mary Anne). Parents expect too much of them. The soldiers learn to rely on and trust each other. When you’re fighting in a war, you can’t afford to have enemies on the inside. Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk are perfect examples of this. Jensen and Strunk get into a fistfight over a missing jackknife. Jensen breaks Strunk’s nose. In any other scenario, it would have ended right then and there but it was Vietnam and everyone carried guns. Jensen becomes paranoid and begins to watch his back, feeling “like fighting two different wars…no safe ground; enemies everywhere,” (63). Jensen knew that he couldn’t live like this and needed Strunk to be on his side. They learn to trust each other and even make a pact. Friendships, such as that between Curt Lemon and Rat Kiley, can help the soldiers forget about the war and remember what it’s like to be a kid again. After the war, they still keep in touch and visit each other. Jimmy Cross and Tim O’Brien and recount their days in Vietnam and catch up on their current lives. They talk about everything from love to death and everything in between. One evident theme in The Things They Carried is weakness. The first time we seem weakness is when Cross views himself as weak when Ted Lavender dies on his watch because he was daydreaming.
Lieutenant Cross is in charge of Alpha Team and he is in love with this girl he met in college before he got drafted. He doesn’t know if she loves him back, but he’s constantly thinking about her, even when he should be focusing on his team. He becomes distracted yet again and he thinks about the girl and because of it one of his soldiers gets shot. He was so consumed by this girl that he didn’t pay attention to their surroundings and Ted Lavender had to pay the price for it. He felt ashamed of his actions and knew this guilt “was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war,” (16). During the war, soldier are told to leave their emotions at the door as they enter the dense Vietnam jungle.
Although most of the time they are composed, there are times when the paranoia kicks in and they fire at nothing. When they realized what they had done “they would touch their bodies, feeling shame, then quickly hide it,” (19) trying to regain their dignity and begin to become soldiers again. Tim O’Brien felt this weakness when he wanted to run away to Canada after he received his draft notice. He has already formulated a plan and knew that he was not going to Vietnam. What kept him from running away was the shame and guilt he felt from that moment of weakness when he considered not serving his country and the feeling that everyone was watching, “all those eyes on him- the town, the whole universe- and [O’Brien] couldn’t risk the embarrassment,” (59). Another central theme in The Things They Carried is respect and reputation. The soldiers must keep up the tough, almost emotionless facade that comes with being an American soldier. Irrational fears must be faced in order to maintain the respect of your fellow soldiers and protect your reputation.
An example of this is Curt Lemon’s fear of dentists. After several previous encounters with dentists, Lemon developed a fear of them. While Lemon waited, he tensed up,and played with his dog tags. When he finally was called in, Lemon fainted. When he woke up, the shame came soon after. It was too much for Lemon and the “embarrassment must’ve turned a screw in his head” (88) because after he was done beating himself, he woke up the dentist and complained about an imaginary toothache until the dentist pulled out a perfectly good tooth. His need to maintain his fellow soldier’s respect and protect his reputation drives him to do something impulsive and unnecessary. Since they rely on each other so much and fear weakness, protecting your reputation is a survival skill. Another example of reputation is Mark Fossie and his girlfriend, Mary Anne. After she started going on missions with the Greenies, Fossie feels as if he needs to put Mary Anne in her place in order to protect his reputation. He jeopardizes his relationship with the girl he plans on spending the rest of his life with in order to prove that he’s a man and is the one in charge of the relationship. Social Issue The social issues I will be focusing on is the raise of PTSD in soldiers and veterans.
In The Things They Carried, the soldiers of Alpha Team are subjected to various scenes of combat including but not limited to: being shot at, seeing a friend get shot, having to shoot at people, seeing your friend slowly pulled down underneath a pile of human waste, and seeing your friend get blown up. All of these horrific scenes can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Vietnam War was the first war to uncover PTSD, which lead to investigating the mental disorder and making its first appearance in the DSM-I, being eliminated from DSM-II, then later being recognized once again in DSM-III.
Formerly known as “shell shock”, PTSD has three levels; reliving the event, seclusion, and erratic and violent behavior. Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the past 40 years have been filled with medical advances. This would make one think that the diagnosis rates would go down and/or treatment rates would increase. Unfortunately, neither of these are true and the statistics for the Vietnam War and Afghanistan and Iraq are shockingly similar despite the time gap. Currently, PTSD diagnoses is at an all time high, 50% are seeking treatment, and only 25% of those suffering from PTSD are receiving minimal treatment. This social issue is obviously evident not only in Vietnam War era, but also in today’s society.
Fiction Works and Conceiving of Creative Writing in Literature
Fiction is the most malleable, diverse and infinite form of writing. Namely, because of the limitless nature of the imagination, and our inherent love of stories. Mark Twain once penned, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” Though jesting, Twain touches upon a point that is at the heart of fiction writing. In a world that is ever changing and difficult to understand, fiction is often used by writers to critique, adore and revel in reality, and oblige their readers to do the same. Since literature’s inception, readers, authors, critics and philosophers have contemplated the implications reality has on fiction. But in the post-modern age there has been a growing popularity of a self reflexive form of storytelling that focuses more on how fiction affects itself: metafiction. This makes the true value of metafiction its ability to elicit appreciation of the work from both the author and the reader, as a new level of understanding and recognition is reached by the work demonstrating its own unfolding.
Going After Cacciato is a complex work by Tim O’Brien that mixes reality with fantasy, and memory with imagination. It tells the story of Paul Berlin and his experience of the war in Vietnam. The book is told through three lines of fragmented perspective: Berlin’s horrific memories of battle, the fantastical journey of chasing AWOL platoon member, Cacciato, and brief periods of escape from these two conflicting but equally exhausting narratives in the form of Berlin’s reflections at the Observation post, where we experience his present state and perception. Though Berlin’s descriptions of his wonderous and exotic chase of the rogue Cacciato are often dismissed as his attempts to cope with the horrors of war through fantasy, the post modern interpretation of these portions of the novel is that they serve as a means for O’Brien to question the story as he tells it. Berlin’s thoughts shared at the Observation post bear striking similarities to the thought process of a writer attempting to deliberate elements of a story.
Berlin is the one to annouce Cacciato’s departure, and even at the start O’Brien makes no effort to hide Berlin’s insight into the rest of the plot. When asked where Cacciato is headed by Lieutenant Carson, Berlin replies “Cacciato says he’s going through Laos, then into Burma and then India and Iran and Turkey, and into Greece. he had it all doped out” (O’Brien 5). However, it is Berlin who has things “all doped out.” However, Doc Peret, the medic, tells Cacciato that it is impossible to get to Paris the way Cacciato is going. So, Berlin and O’Brien recognize these constraints and say to the reader, “Where is it going? Where would it end?” (O’Brien 14).
In the beginning of the journey, O’Brien continues to attempt to plan the remainder of the story, using Berlin as a device to intimate this deliberation to the reader. He shares with Berlin an image of Cacciato, murdered. This frightens Berlin because he can not help but see it as an inevitability. Berlin/O’Brien “hopes for a miracle” to rationalize the “crazy idea” (O’Brien 15). “Or was there a chance that it might truly be done? He considered this, figuring the odds, how in the end they might reach Paris. He smiled. It was something to think about” (O’Brien 16). Both the author and Berlin continue to try and decide a “proper ending” (O’Brien 23), but it evades them. Berlin thinks about this employing literary language, deliberating on a “climax” to the fighting.
These sorts of allusions to the craft of fiction, and specifically to the writing of Going After Cacciato, appear throughout the fantasy portion of the novel, the “Cacciato-chase-sections,” but the majority of the allusions to writing appear in the segments that take place at the Observation Post, the more grounded third of the novel. Berlin even designates symbols for the story, articulating that “Cacciato’s round face became the moon” (O’Brien 26), and that he was satisfied with this symbol, that it suited CAcciato well. Berlin ponders the bounds and limits of his own imagination, and expresses a wish to explore and to push them. O’Brien confessed to the Journal of Contemporary Literature in an interview that his character’s feelings on this subject alluded directly to his own during the process of composing Going After Cacciato: “What Berlin is doing is what I do with a typewriter” (Contemporary Literature 11).
When viewed this way, when heard from the “author’s mouth,” it is impossible to refute the validity of the role of Berlin’s reflections in O’Brien’s writing. When Cacciato is first spotted, both O’Brien and Berlin question where the story stands, and where to go from there..“Had it ended in tragedy? Had it ever ended?” (O’Brien 27). Berlin finds his necessary “writer’s confidant,” his “backboard for ideas” in Doc Peret. Peret questions him, beckons him to answer which parts are “fact” and which parts are “an extension of fact” (O’Brien 27). Doc tells Berlin to “look for motives, search out the place where fact ended and imagination took over” (O’Brien 28). Doc also serves as a way for O’Brien to dictate the purpose of his writing through beautiful, insightful, thought provoking quotes that lend themselves to the conveyance of O’Brien’s message. “No it was not daydreaming, it was a way of asking questions” (O’Brien 28).
This statement by Doc Peret speaks also to the larger responsibility and role of fiction in our reality. As mentioned earlier, fiction is more than a story, it is a critique of the world we inherit and the world we build.
An important element in the writing of fiction is that it is the author’s independent decision to go on and to finish and share the story. After the reflection in the Observation Post chapters, the next segment of the Cacciato chase reflects the choices made by Berlin/O’Brien in the section that it follows. In one of the Observation Post chapters, Berlin and O’Brien decide that the tale is not too ludicrous to continue, that it serves a purpose. And, this is paralleled when the choice to continue the pursuit of Cacciato is left in a vote that comes to Berlin. He chooses to go on, validating himself and O’Brien, and demonstrating his faith that it is “more than daydreaming.”
In the second scene at the Observation Post, a conversation begins concerning how the pieces fit together, how the chaos and the fantasy compliment each other, how the optimism and horror synergize. And this is all illuminated in the seventh chapter, when Berlin shares with us words that his father shared with him in his youth. “You’ll see some terrible stuff I guess. That’s how it goes. But try to look for the good things, too. They’ll be there if you look. So watch out for them” (O’Brien 63). The illuminations in the chapters spent at the Observation Post and the flashbacks and storytellings continue to weave together in the following chapters. As he watches two of his fellow soldiers die, Berlin concentrates not on the horror or the chaos, but instead on the efforts of Doc Peret to console the dying men with M&Ms. Through the redirection of Berlin’s attentions, O’Brien allows himself to control the attention of the reader, obliging them to also “look for the good things,” and speaking to the values of optimism which transcend the bleakness or severity of a situation. The reader is encouraged to focus on the kindness and spirit of the Doc instead of the turmoil and suffering. “Doc found a fresh pack of M&Ms. Very, carefully, like a pharmacist he shook out three green candies and began feeding them to Bernie Lynn. The men understood this” (O’Brien 70). Death is used in this instance to highlight these men’s ability to care for other who the barely know and are only familiar with them by their position in the platoon that they, by order, share. But though sorrowful, this event in Going After Cacciato serves as a reminder to the goodness of humankind.
As Berlin’s reflections at the Observation Post continue, there remains an omnipresence of metafiction coloring the text. As the men fall in–and somehow out–of tunnels, Berlin begins to build a curiosity of how his story would be critiqued as a war novel. “Oh, there would be skeptics. What about money, visas, passports, clothing and immunization cards?” (O’Brien 125). But central is the lack of these things to the proper telling of the story of Going After Cacciato.They are inconsequential, their absence is more significant than their presence could ever be. It allows it to be a story not of particulars and practicality, but instead of men: men who demonstrate human qualities that are more central to their journey and the telling of O’Brien’s message and the journey of these men than the assorted paraphernalia needed to take that journey in any world other than the mind of Berlin. Berlin decides that what is important is “Cacciato, the feel of the journey, what was seen along the way, what was learned, colors and motion and people and finally Paris” (O’Brien 125). Berlin’s assumed criticism of the work could be seen as O’Brien defending his message before sharing it, like a measure of precaution. And then, content with the story where it stands, he allows it to do the rest of the work. For the next fifty five pages, we hear nothing from the Observation Post.
At a point in the novel, there is a shift in perspective. O’Brien details to us Berlin’s past. This point is perhaps the most blatant instance of metafiction. Even though we are still reading in third person, we are no more beside or behind Berlin, but he is more a character in the distance. Perhaps O’Brien has removed himself from his character in order to gain perspective or share his message in a more forthright manner. Regardless, it is what is told to us in the this manner that is significant. Berlin’s history itself is not what is significant, but rather the fact that it is shared at all. Previously, the mayor says that Berlin’s past is insignificant, so this could be seen as the author sticking up for his protagonist, the vessel for his message, and his novel as a whole, saying that it is “worth sharing.”
Metafiction is more than an author’s involvement in his story, more than him addressing his readers, it is the craft of self conscious fiction: fiction that is aware of itself being fiction…ficception. Unlike standard metafiction, Tim O’Brien does not directly address his readers. Instead, through Berlin he shares his opinions, passions and insecurities, all which contribute to the deliverance of his message and the purpose of his novel, all of this making Going After Cacciato a shining example of metafiction.
Tim O’brien’s the Things They Carried: Storytelling that Keeps Good Memories Alive
In The Things They Carried, just like in real life, storytelling was used to keep the memories of the deceased alive. The author of The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien, was using this method himself by writing his war novel. He told of war comrades that had passed away, and his stories made it feel as though they were still living and thriving as they had been. In Love That Dog, Jack also uses his poems as a way to keep his dog Sky’s memory alive, and also as a way to face the pain of losing his dog. Finally, in personal experiences from my life, deceased family members continue to appear at gatherings in the form of stories telling of the good memories.
Tim O’Brien was both the author and the narrator of The Things They Carried. However, the stories told in the novel all have some measure of truth to them. Whether or not they reflected actual memories or fictional events varies from story to story, but they are presented as real experiences and discuss people who died in O’Brien’s life as if they are still living. For example, O’Brien tells stories of Kiowa and Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon as if they are just happening, even though all three men died in Vietnam. In this way, O’Brien keeps the memories of these men alive by presenting his memories, both good and bad, of them as if they are happening in real time.
Jack was the narrator of Love That Dog, and this novel was composed only of poems written by him. His poetry subjects vary, but the main topic seemed to be of his dog, Sky, who was hit by a car and killed. It takes Jack a while to reveal the fate of his dog, as well as the importance of the aforementioned car which caused the death, but it is shocking when it all comes together. Jack’s poetry keeps Sky alive by describing the fun and memorable times they had together, such as the poem describing when he adopted Sky from a shelter, and about how Sky and Jack would play with all the neighborhood kids in the street. By recalling the good times with Sky and dealing with his feelings about Sky’s death, Jack keeps Sky alive in his memory.
In my own life, I have experienced the death of two grandfathers and a great aunt. All these family members were on different sides of the family. My Papa was on my father’s side, my grandfather Julian was on my mother’s birth side, and my great aunt Gail was on my mother’s adopted side. However, all of these deaths affected my family and me greatly, and even though sometimes it is painful, we still tell fond stories about them at family parties and gatherings. By telling these stories, my family and I keep our loved ones alive by recalling the good times and pondering the effect these loved ones had on our lives.
In all three scenarios, the survivors’ lives are affected greatly by both the lives and deaths of the deceased, and telling their stories helps them to analyze the ways their lives were changed by knowing these people. Without remembering them, the deceased would be gone both physically and spiritually. By remembering them, the impact they had on our lives will remain and continue to grow.