Martha’s Presence, and Absence: A Critical Analysis of the Role of Women in The Things They Carried

April 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

Although female characters play a small role in The Things They Carried, it is a significant one. Women such as Martha affect the men of the Alpha Company by providing them with emotional ties that anchor these soldiers to reality as they make their ways through the hellish state of war. The soldiers all idealize these women and use their presence (in letters, photographs, and even their imagination) as a comfort and source of solace that grounds them to humanity as a reminder that a world does exist outside the atrocities of Vietnam.Within the book The Things They Carried, the stories of the male soldiers and their dealings with the Vietnam War often delve into the stories of the women and how they affected the soldiers during the war such as with Lieutenant Cross and Martha. While the men dealt with the horrors of Vietnam, the women were right at their side in a spiritual sense or literal sense. These soldiers did not think of these women as people with thoughts, fears, and needs but instead view them as motivation to survive the war. The novel begins with with the things Lieutenant Cross carries with him during the war, the most important item(s) being letters from Martha. Martha’s introduction on the very first page of the novel marks her significance to Lieutenant Cross and to the novel itself. As the first woman introduced to us, readers are signaled to the importance of the connection between Martha and Lieutenant Cross, even though it is considered one-sided. From the novel we can gleam that Martha has only ever considered Cross as a friend and nothing more but despite that, she remains Cross’s love interest and anchor to the world outside of Vietnam. We see evidence of this in the pictures he carries of Martha and the memories he cherishes of their only date. He also carries with him the hope that she might one day reciprocate the love he feels for her so that he may also have that mutual love to hold on to during the war and even after. In the first chapter of the Things We Carried, O’Brien’s uses Cross’s seeming fragility and misguided nature to demonstrate the desperate need for an emotional tie that may ground these soldiers who were completely disconnected to humanity by the war. In “The Things They Carried,” Cross’s infatuation with Martha preoccupies his thoughts so much so that, when checking on Lee Strunk who is searching a tunnel, “suddenly, without willing it, he was thinking about Martha. . . . he tried to concentrate on Lee Strunk and the war, all the dangers, but his love was too much for him. (O’Brien 12).” In this scene, Cross’s thoughts are clouded with Martha so much that it overwhelms him and distracts him from everything else. This chapter, “The Things They Carried,” is a story about Lieutenant Cross’s longing for Martha’s love and someone whom he can hold on to that will hold him back, thus grounding him to the world.Martha was meant to be a comfort/safety mechanism that Cross could cherish when he was possibly faced with rejection and death all around him. His connection to her was so powerful that it got to the point where it was all he thought about up until Ted Lavender’s death. Lieutenant Cross blames himself for Ted Lavender’s death because he loves Martha so much that he’s been preoccupied with the contents of her latest letter that she sent him a week before Lavender’s death. In one particular letter she sends him a good-luck-pebble: “Martha wrote that she had found the pebble on the Jersey shoreline and carried it in her breast pocket for several days” (O’Brien 8). Cross reads the letter and spends hours wondering who she was at the beach with, if she was with a man, and if they were a couple. After his friend dies, Cross burns the letters and photos, and tries to release the fantasy. Trying to rid himself of the guilt he “burned Martha’s letters. The he burned the two photographs… He realized it was only a gesture… you couldn’t burn away the blame” (O’Brien 23). When the women sent letters home, it really helped keep the morale of the soldier’s high just as it did so with Cross. His hopes twine around the letters he possessed from his beloved, and it’s not only the letters, but also the fantasies of romance with a pure young woman who loves poetry, that help him escape briefly from the rigors of war raging around him. However, these thoughts of Martha distracted him when his team needed their leader the most, and this ultimately lead to Lavender’s death. Cross’s guilt is evident every time one of his men dies, but it is most acute in the case of Ted Lavender. “Love” is a story about longing as well. In this chapter, however, Cross longs for what could never have been, compared to his hopeful longings while he was in Vietnam fighting in the war, which helped him both to maintain his ability to face the discomforts and horrors of war and to question his competence because of his constant thoughts of Martha. After the war, Lieutenant Cross sees Martha who has become a nurse and is not interested in dating men. In offering more details about Martha — that she became a Lutheran missionary who never married, including her remark about how men do “those things,” O’Brien subtly suggests that Martha has been a victim of rape. This detail connects to Cross’s fixation on her virginity in the preceding chapter and undoes the “reality” of his fantasies by making his wish for her virginity an impossible desire and in turn beginning to undo the reader’s perception of what is truth versus fantasy. O’Brien displays the complicated relationship of the love/ infatuation Cross has for Marth in the final sentence of the chapter when “O’Brien,” the narrator, promises not to mention the burden Martha carries, the rape that is alluded to. Cross’s fixation with her complicates his emotions and feelings towards these innuendoes because Martha is supposed to be his anchor to peace and solace. That image is tarnished with the accusations of rape and these details complicates his idea of her as his guardian angel. These are but two examples of Cross’s fixation of Martha that stems from his need for something far away from war that may distract him from the state of terror he was constantly strung up in. In the moments before Lavender’s death, Cross allows himself to be deluded and distracted by the thoughts of his beloved friend Martha, who sends him photographs and writes flowery letters that never mention the war. His innocent reverie is interrupted by Lavender’s death, and Cross’s only deduction is that his feelings for this faraway girl far surpass the brotherly love for his comrades in arms. Lieutenant Cross’s later confession to O’Brien, after several years have passed, that he has never forgiven himself for Lavender’s death testifies to his feelings of guilt after the incident. When Cross finds out that his beloved Martha, who remains clearly uninterested in him, was possibly raped, he becomes unraveled at the thought that his “idyllic” Martha has been “tainted.” Nonetheless, his attachment to Martha remains strong all throughout the novel. In the The Things They Carried, O’Brien uses women such as Martha to punctuate what vital remembrance recompense of loved ones and their significance was to characters in the novel as well as soldiers in Vietnam. Regardless of whatever trials and trial tribulations these characters were faced with all throughout the novel, all of the soldiers, not just Cross, still hold on to the women they cherish who gave them the strength to survive the war.

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