Tim O’Brien’s short story The Things They Carried portrays a group of army buddies in Vietnam. There system of camaraderie, their experiences with death, and destruction provide the reader with a point of view perspective that is both humane and devastating in light of the environment in which the story is told. The purpose of this paper will be to explore the group dynamic of these young men in O’Brien’s story and to examine the various depictions of women. In order to examine this concept fully two articles will be brought to the forefront of this argument: one pertaining to the psychosocial moratorium of the soldiers and how this ‘colors’ their views of women, and the dichotomized role of women to these protagonists.
The dichotomized role of women in O’Brien’s story reveals this: the women are as much a reminder of the solder’s former selves, that is to say the selves who existed back in the states, before the war changed them into the characters in O’Brien’s story, and the women also serve as a burden in which each man reveals his troubles with his wife, girlfriend or women in general. Thus, it would seem that in either role as O’Brien writes, the women of the story are seen in a negative light (Herzog 66).
Although the truth of the novel rests in the camaraderie of these young men, their sharing of memories of their women is a bonding issue. The women serve to remind the men of what they want, what they are fighting for: in essence the men are ultimately fighting to get back home, to do their tour of duty and to return to as much normalcy as their changed selves can have after the war. Despite this image of women however, the story is filled with the men’s vernacular as in the passage which reveals, “All that crap about how if we had a pussy for president there wouldn’t be no more wars. Pure garbage. You got to get rid of that sexist attitude.” (O’Brien). Thus, the word ‘pussy’ is used in reverence to a woman president, this connotation brings to light how the men behave around each other, and this kind of language albeit truthful to the story, is nonetheless revealing a sexist attitude toward women (Herzog 79). It is this sexist attitude that initiates the conversations about women in the Alpha group, and it is this same attitude which allows the reader to connate that these men are not really interested in the women in their lives, but more the representation of freedom that these women’s harbor for the men is what spell binds the Alpha troop into keeping their inanimate memorabilia of the women.
The group of men with which the story focuses does not entail all of them having the same attitude toward women as the above phrase connotes. These men have a varied aspect of the women or girlfriends in their lives. There is a clear distinction of feelings and subsequent attitudes and treatment toward women as each man either hates them or loves them. Although the main focus of the book is the camaraderie of the soldiers, and the importance of women is not highlighted as a determining issue in the book, the role of women nonetheless is important as it juxtaposes where the men are in relation to their former ‘pre-war’ selves (Herzog 67). Thus, the women are more akin to memories than physical beings, and the conversation among the troop serves to conjure up these women and their conversations about them keeps the war at a distance. The main fact that the men harbor in relation to these women is that the war and these women cannot be in the sphere of existence, therefore, talking about women means that there is no war, that is the women’s main importance in the story. Despite the sexists attitudes of these men, the women in their lives allows for the men to believe nothing has changed; their environment, themselves, nothing has changed, and talking about women helps in this escapism.
The women with which the story focuses can be broken down into three: Mary-Ann, Martha and Henry Dobbin’s girlfriend who is not even given a name. These women are represented in the story through physical items such as letters, rocks, and even pantyhose, each item of which recalls to the man who carries it, the person who he wants to return to once the Alpha company returns home.
It would seem then that the women represent a type of fantasy which each member of the Alpha company is trying to obtain. These women are not ‘real’; this is not in reference to their existence, the women do exist, but they are not real in the sense that their true identity has been distorted by distance, memory, and the environment in which the men are telling the story; thus, the women are by all means idealized (Herzog 71).
The women serve more as a way in which the Alpha company members can maintain their sanity because it is through the women’s gifted items that the men are able to realize there is a world outside of their current environment and actions. This idea of the idealized woman is seen mainly with Jimmy Cross’s character. Jimmy carries around photos of he and Martha’s only date together. He does this because he believes that she may one day fulfill his unrequited love with her own affections. Thus, Martha is a woman in the story in which a reason arises for Jimmy to look forward to coming home. She fulfills the fantasy of a happy homecoming which contrasts greatly to Jimmy’s current position in the Vietnam War. This is Jimmy’s escapism. He finds a means to escape the war in his memory of Martha as well as his fantasy of returning home to a woman who did not even confess her love for him.
With Henry Dobbins’ girlfriend (who remains unnamed) her symbolic representation is pantyhose. This is one of the more intimate objects with which a women in the story is represented. Dobbins uses these panty hose also as a means of escape from his reality just as Jimmy used his photo and hope of return. These two characters are similar in their objectification of their women but there feelings toward the women are quite different. The difference is that Jimmy puts promise and love in his return home while Dobbins feelings do not include love, but are of a more physical dispositions. Despite these two fundamental differences in these comrades, their escape or means of escape is the same; women, either memories of them, or the hopes of returning home to them after the war, thus the men can believe they remain unchanged.
Mark Fossie’s girlfriend Mary Anne is invited to Vietnam; thus, she is the only one who gets any real identification as a character in the story as well as a women in a real relationship with one of the main characters. The reason that she is invited over is that Fossie denotes a certain power to his girlfriend; he believes that with her present in Vietnam she will save him from dying. This is important because of the role of the woman in the story shifts at this juncture; It is Fossie’s placement of making his girlfriend human in a way that he in turn thinks making himself human through his connection with the past, with his girl, will somehow save him from death. This is brilliantly executed since death in the short story turns the men into faceless bodies, death tolls, numbers, no longer men. Thus, when Fossie invites Mary Ann over, he is identifying himself as human, and it is her humanity as a reflection of his humanity which he believes will keep him a person and not a death count percentage (Erikson paragraph 7) It would then seem like Mary Ann is the only ‘real’ woman in the story, but all three women mentioned are not ‘real’ by the standards of which the men see them since the women are merely a means by which they men wish to survive the war. It would seem that the role of women in O’Brien’s story are merely forms of good luck charms than actual human beings.
Throughout O’Brien’s story there is a certain revelation among the protagonists in which the term psychosocial moratorium applies. This is Erik Erikson’s concept in which is the period of life when an individual takes time to establish a more stable and enduring personality structure and sense of self; this is why the role of the woman in the story is of importance because it reflects that sense of self for the young soldiers (Erikson paragraph 1). Erikson’s behavioral model, proposed in 1968, has two phases. The first phase is called a latency stage, from ages seven through twelve. The next stage is the adolescent-maturity phase, lasting from age thirteen to maturity. Psychosocial moratorium is a stage between the morality learned as a child and the ethics developed as an adult. O’Brien’s story has a strong emotional impact, not only as the young men are describing their sweethearts but in the ways they fantasize about their women, which harbors only exaggerations of love and not anything truly substantial (Franklin paragraph 7).
This psychological concept applies to how Tim O’Brien and his combat unit handle traumatic death experiences. The way these characters deal with death is strikingly insightful, as it is the relationship with these three women who are not ‘real’ can make something so real as death kept at bay. The main characters of O’Brien’s story deal with death in a mocking type of way; in fact the entire war to these young men is dealt with in this way, and the portrayal of women is no different: The average age of the troops in Vietnam is twenty years old. This fact makes it very difficult for soldiers to deal healthily with combat (Erikson paragraph 5). Dead Vietcong nurses are “crispy critters,” while a Vietnamese baby was a “roasted peanut.” It is true that the traumas of war have serious impacts psychologically for combatants no matter what age they are, but the immaturity of these warriors complicated and increased the risks of psychological problems, which is why the women are continually being referred to in derogatory terms.
This time in the young soldier’s lives involves a psychosocial moratorium (Erikson paragraph 4). The role of the combatant versus the survivor, along with the various uncertainties associated with both roles back here in the states, make it exceedingly difficult for these young soldiers to adapt and to develop. The impact of death, and how they deal with it is just one way that the soldiers avoid developing a healthy, enduring structure for their lives. It’s a survival mechanism: “Just another crunchie munchie,” Rat Kiley says.
The women in O’Brien’s story are a means of escaping death.The painful realities are still present, however. The men can’t really hide. Near the end of his tour, O’Brien and some of the other men from his company are sent on the duty of removing enemy corpses that have been dead for over a day. The stench of death makes these young Americans’ face the harsh reality: “Death sucks,” says Mitchell Sanders. Thus, the women are not real, but merely images of what the men want to return to once the war is over. Women resemble a far-fetching peace, that death in the story eventually shatters.
Erikson, E. Identity Development. Online. Retrieved 8 December 2007.
Franklin, H.B. Plausibility of Denial. December 1994. Online. Retrieved 8
December 2007. http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~hbf/obrien.html
Herzog, T. Vietnam War Stories: Innocence Lost. Routledge. London. 1992.
O’Brien, T. The Things They Carried. Chelsea House Productions. New York. 2004.