The Rose of the World Why do we blame Helen’s beauty for the Trojan War or Eve’s curious nature for Adam’s choice to eat the apple, thus beginning the mortal human civilization? Throughout history men have found it convenient to hold women responsible for their own weaknesses and intolerance. The apathy of anti-feminist and conservative movements showcases the reality of the Stockholm syndrome and medieval serfdom. Men have been the captors and the masters of the women for time in antiquity, but we still see empathy in women.
Henry Kissinger could not have summarized it any better when he said, “Nobody will ever win the Battle of the Sexes. There is too much fraternizing with the enemy. ” Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is neither about the battle of sexes nor is it a feminist manifesto. The literary inferences, socio-political context, portrayal of various female characters, and their influence on the male characters truly depict changes in the social perception of gender roles, resulting conflict, and their outcome for American society.
Along with all the things the men of the Alpha Company carried, they also took on the burden of feelings of love for the women they had left behind. Women are a source of motivation, inspiration, and comfort. Lieutenant Cross finds comfort and getaway from the war in his daydreams about Martha; for Henry Dobbins his girlfriend’s pantyhose are a reminder of her love, which he believes is a life-saving talisman; Norman Bowker can gather courage to talk to Sally Gustafson; and Fossie is madly in love with Mary-Anne to the extent that he arranges to fly her down to Vietnam.
The interpretation of the word love has been romanticized to the extent that it never embodies the unwanted consequent feelings of anger, lust, objectification, jealousy, possessiveness, and insecurity. Jimmy Cross’ love metamorphosizes into lust and jealousy; he is obsessed with Martha’s virginity and begins to scrutinize every single detail, even the shadows, in the photograph. Even though Martha has never confessed about her feeling towards Jimmy Cross, his feelings of jealousy and lust transforms into anger at the death of Ted Lavender.
Fossie’s love transforms into jealousy, possessiveness, and insecurity when he senses that Mary-Anne is drifting away from him. He finds it emasculating that Mary-Anne now prefers to spend more time with the Green Berets than with him and his colleagues. He conquers her by imposing marriage on her, which is evident when Rat Kiley says, Over dinner she kept her eyes down, poking at her food, subdues to the point of silence […. ] Nervously, she’d look across the table at Fossie. She’d wait a moment, as if to receive some sort of clearance, then she’d bow her head and mumble out a vague word or two.
There were no real answers (O’Brien 103). Mary-Anne’s state and Fossie’s forceful proposition justify what Andrea Dworkin says about marriage: “Marriage as an institution developed from rape as a practice. Rape, originally defined as abduction, became marriage by capture. Marriage meant the taking was to extend in time, to be not only use of but also possession of, or ownership. ” One can sense a feeling of victory, sarcasm, and pride in Fossie’s tone when he says, “One thing for sure, though, there won’t be any more ambushes. No more late nights…I’ll put this way-we we’re officially engaged…Well hey, she’ll make a sweet bride […. Combat ready” (O’Brien 103). This further justifies Andrea Dworkin’s claims about marriage, conquest of women, and their subjugation by men. The idea of young soldiers going to war for their country, romanticizing about the love of their life, and
Shelley’s poem “One Word Is Too often Profaned,” deals with Shelley’s resolve not to use the word ‘love’ to express his feelings because it has been used so loosely that it has become too profane to express the feeling for love. One word is too often profaned For me to profane it; One feeling too falsely disdained For thee to disdain it; I can give not what men call love; But wilt thou accept not. The love stories of Jimmy Cross, Mark Fossie, and Henry Dobbins end in either rejection or despair. These stories are more about cathartic redemption and courage rather than failure and pain. Jimmy Cross is transformed into a utiful and responsible leader after detaching himself from Martha. The author assumes an introspective tone as he discloses Lieutenant Cross’ transformation in the following excerpt: There was the new hardness in his stomach. He loved her but he hated her…No more fantasies, he told himself. He would accept the blame for what had happened to Ted Lavender. He would be a man about it. He would look them in the eyes, keeping his chin level, and he would issue the new SOPs in a calm, impersonal tone of voice, a lieutenant’s voice, leaving no room for argument and discussion” (O’Brien 24-25).
Henry Dobbins unlike Fossie, is able to keep himself together after his girlfriend leaves him, and now those stockings around his neck symbolize his resolve to withstand the pain of desertion and turn it into the strength to fight and stay alive in the war. Dobbin’s commendable light-heartedness after reading his girlfriend’s break-up letter is evident when he says. “No sweat. The magic doesn’t go away,” as he wraps his neck with the stockings (O’Brien 118). Mark Fossie is in absolute misery after Mary-Anne rejects him, to the extent that he does not talk or eat for days and gives up on his own existence.
He is in a worse condition than Cross and Dobbins, as he feels responsible for the rebellious transformation of Mary-Anne, thus bringing rejection upon himself. From the male perspective, Fossie would label Mary-Anne’s transformation as rebellious, which he tries to quell down by the proposition of marriage and engagement. But from a female perspective her transformation would be labeled as liberating. The Green Berets symbolize the renaissance men and social charters of the ‘twenty first’ century who treat women as equals.
In contrast, Mary-Anne symbolizes and foreshadows the emergence of the assertive women who are impervious to gender bias, and are not afraid to leave the shelter of men for achieving their own goals. Finally, Mark Fossie symbolizes male chauvinism that is in decline, and this suggests that the institution of marriage cannot be used as an instrument to confine women for their convenience. The female characters in The Things They Carried can be classified into three theme-based groups. The first group consisting of Martha and Sally Gustafson characterizes the conventional love interests of the soldiers.
Martha is inspirational for Jimmy Cross, but she never knows that she serves such a purpose in Jimmy’s life. She writes him letters, and gives him pictures, and sends him a pebble for a good luck, but never intends to be Jimmy’s romantic interest or his girl waiting at home for him. By the time of Ted Lavender’s death Jimmy knows that none of her letters has a romantic idea to them and that the pebble is nothing more than a good luck charm. She never mentions about the war in her letters to Jimmy. In a way, Martha’s character shows lack of empathy towards Jimmy, who is amidst a war.
It is explained by the narrator’s reasoning of Cross’ feelings as he states, “In those burned letter Martha never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy take care of yourself. She wasn’t involved. She signed the letters Love, but it wasn’t love, and all the fine lies and technicalities did not matter” (O’Brien 24). Women like Martha feel sympathetic towards Jimmy, but they cannot understand what the soldiers are going through. This is could be attributed to the reason that conventionally women do not serve a major in wars except serving as medical nurses.
Norman Bowker assumes that Sally would not be interested in hearing stories about Vietnam given her dislike of profanity. The profanity, blood, and gore in Rat Kiley’s letter to Curt Lemon’s sister would have had the same effect. She could not have been able to empathize with Rat Kiley, and help him find solace by replying to his letter. The woman, who retorts to the story of the baby buffalo being tortured by Rat Kiley with disgust and shame, fails to understand the nature of war and its effect on people.
All these women conform to the conventional notions and reservations regarding the roles of women in society, especially that women cannot serve in combat. The second group of female characters consists of only Mary-Anne. She characterizes the liberated and confident pool of 21st century modern women. Mary-Anne’s appearance resembles the first group of female characters: “A tall, big-boned blonde. At best, Rat said, she was seventeen years old, fresh out of Cleveland Heights Senior High. She had long white legs and blue eyes and a complexion like strawberry ice cream. Very friendly, too. (O’Brien 93). However, she is transformed after coming Vietnam into a self-aware, confident, and independent woman and this gives a sense of competition to other men. This is well depicted when Fossie and Rat Kiley are left without words when they meet Mary-Anne after six days, as she tells them, You’re in a place […] where you don’t belong…. You just don’t know,[…] You hide in this little fortress, behind wire and sandbags, and you don’t know what it’s all about…I get scared sometimes—lots of times—but it’s not bad. You know? I feel close to myself. When I’m out there at night, I eel close to my own body, I can feel my blood moving, my skin and my fingernails, everything, it’s like I’m full of electricity and I’m glowing in the dark—I’m on fire almost—I’m burning away into nothing—but it doesn’t matter because I know exactly who I am. You can’t feel like that anywhere else (O’Brien 111). This passage captures the real essence of Mary-Anne’s transformation, distinguishes her from other female characters, and shows that she has more virility than even the men in the war. Hereby, O’Brien disapproves the notion that women are better suited for non-combat roles in war.
Mary-Anne unlike the female characters of Martha, Sally Gustafson, and Curt Lemon’s sister who are either unaware or turn a blind eye towards the war, finds it very self-satisfying. “Sometimes I want to eat this place. Vietnam. I want to swallow the whole country—the dirt, the death—I just want to eat it and have it there inside me. That’s how I feel. It’s like . . . this appetite,” O’Brien’s choice of words in this excerpt symbolizes that for Mary-Anne Vietnam has a stabilizing effect, and the way she wants to calm her inner chaos is by consuming (experiencing) everything that Vietnam has to offer.
A contrasting character to Mary-Anne in this aspect is Rat Kiley, as he shoots his own foot in order to escape combat in Vietnam. Even the Green Berets, who are considered the most virile and badass soldiers in Vietnam are humbled by Mary-Anne’s courage: “There were times, apparently, when she took crazy, seath-wish chances-things that even the Greenies balked at” (O’Brien 115). Mary-Anne reminds me of another woman from the books of history who shares the same courageous traits as her, and led the men and a whole nation to victory; that is Joan D’Arc.
Hereby, it is not surprising that liberty and the nationhood of France are personified as woman, the Statue of Liberty and Marianne, respectively. The third and the last group of women consist of Linda; she signifies how pure love can inspire and transform a person’s life. The relationship between Tim and Linda is the most optimistic one amongst all the relationships. Irrespective of his age at the time of his short-lived childhood romance with Linda, the relationship has a long lasting effect on him.
Even though they did not get to spend a great deal of time together O’Brien dreams imaginary meetings with Linda in his sleep that rekindle and keep his feelings alive. The real moments shared with Linda and her memories are kept alive by his subconscious mind as it creates the imaginative dreams about her, which alleviate the pain of her death and the fact that she is no more around him. This idea is well conveyed in the last chapter when O’Brien says, I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, still dreaming Linda alive in exactly the same way.
She’s not the embodied Linda; she’s mostly made up, with a new identity and a new name, like the man who never was. Her real name doesn’t matter. She was nine years old. I loved her and then she died. And yet right here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can still see her as if through ice, as if I’m gazing into some other world, a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all (O’Brien 245). Tim O’Brien writes about his experiences in Vietnam in order to keep those memories alive and preserve them in his stories.
He discovers that storytelling has a healing effect on him, when he mentions, “Yet when I received Norman Bowker’s letter, it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse” (O’Brien 158). He ends the book with an exemplifying statement about storytelling, by saying, “I realize it as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story” (O’Brien 246). The different and distinct roles of women in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried portray the conflict of expectations, individualism, and freedom between men and women.
It is difficult to label The Things They Carried as a work on Vietnam War or plainly a collection of love stories. But it is certain that the book captures the changes and conflicts in the nature of relationship between men and women in terms of boundaries, space, independence and individualism. I can relate to the male characters of The Things they Carried, as like them I too have experienced my feelings of love transform into jealousy, possessiveness, and insecurity, leading to similar changes and conflicts.
Being left desolate and in despair helped me to transform the failure into strength to carry on and become a better person. This strength has instilled in me empathy, which has enabled me to understand my female counterparts better and respect them even more. Work Cited O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried: a Work of Fiction. New York: Broadway, 1998. Print. Shelly, Percy B. One Word Is Too Often Profaned by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Literature Network: Online Classic Literature, Poems, and Quotes. Essays ; Summaries. Web. 13 May 2011. ;http://www. online-literature. com/shelley_percy/671/;.