Women serve several important roles in Tim O’Brien’s classic of the Vietnam War, ‘The Things They Carried’, but they primarily function as metaphor for the innocence and youthful grace that the soldiers have to release to survive the horrors of war.
Woman as Escapist Fantasy
First Lieutenant Jimmie Cross carries love letters from Martha, an English major back in the States. He’s almost sure she’s a virgin, and he daydreams about romantic camping trips. His hopes twine around the letters in his hands, 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. He thinks about kissing her, touching her knee.
After his friend dies, Jimmie burns the letters and photos, and tries to release the fantasy. He carries a pebble; his friend, Henry Dobbins, wears his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck like a comforting muffler. After the war, Jimmie sees Martha. She’s a nurse, and not interested in dating men.When Henry’s girlfriend dumps him, he still wears her pantyhose like a good-luck charm. That back-home charm protects something inside him, in his own heart and soul. They do not protect his body, and they no longer represent her love.
Instead, they simply protect the part of him that can love.Tim’s daughter, Kathleen, age three, makes a cameo appearance to tell him to write about a little girl who wins a million dollars and spends it on a Shetland pony. Later, when Kathleen has reached age nine, O’Brien says he pretends he wants to tell her war stories when she’s a grown woman, but he doesn’t want her to know. He doesn’t want to bruise her innocence, not even when she grows up.
She says he’s weird.Bob ‘Rat’ Kiley writes a long, caring letter to the sister of a man who dies, but she never responds. He calls women ‘cooze.’ When O’Brien tells one of his stories, kindly older women often approach him, but they don’t understand what he means, even as they ooze appreciation. He thinks, ”You dumb cooze.” Sisters never write back, and these women never listen, he asserts.
Woman as Innocence
In ”Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” Rat Kiley tells about a girl who traipses into the war wearing a sweater and culottes.
Mark Fossie’s girlfriend, blonde and seventeen years old, has a bubbly personality and terrific legs. Her name is Mary Anne Bell. Eddie Diamond describes her as ”D-cup guts, trainer bra brains.
”She got tough. She went on an ambush. She represented the innocence the men had at the beginning, the innocence they lost in Vietnam. Mark tries to stop her, but she becomes a war-toughened soldier. ”She cradled her gun,” O’Brien writes, but she no longer has the bubbly sweetness that might have led to her cradling Mark’s babies. She gets cold, and she acquires a necklace of human tongues. The end of her innocence represents what happened to the soldiers and their innocence.
Norman Bowker, a soldier, thinks about Sally Kramer, a girlfriend who married someone else. He thinks about telling her what he’s seen in war. He realizes she will have no understanding, no context. Back home, the girls stay sweet.
One car hop is described as having eyes ”as fluffy and fairy light as cotton candy.”
Woman as Metaphor for Men’s Changes
Rat Kiley says Mary Anne Bell reminded him of girls back home – clean, innocent people who never could understand. He says it’s like trying to describe the taste of chocolate, and his pal Mitchell Sanders says it’s like trying to describe what excrement tastes like.
When she walks off and leaves, she becomes a metaphor for the way war has changed the softest, gentlest parts of the men who fight it.”She was dangerous,” O’Brien writes. ”She was ready for the kill.”A soldier named Kiowa dies when he looks at a photo of another soldier’s girlfriend and notices that she’s cute. A moment spent reminiscing, a moment spent in gentleness, can mean death in Vietnam.
Woman as Something Worth Protecting
Women also become a metaphor for the part of the men’s hearts and souls that survive what they have witnessed in war. A fourteen-year-old girl dances in a house where all her family has died. She dances without music. When one man mocks her, another threatens to kill him unless he dances with respect.
Women in The Things They Carry represent innocence, naivete, and life back home. Women also become a metaphor for the lost innocence of the young men. O’Brien writes, ”You learn, finally, that you’ll die, and so you try to hang on to your own life, that gentle, na;ve kid you used to be, but then after a while the sentiment takes over, and the sadness, because you know for a fact that you can’t ever bring any of it back again.
” Women become a metaphor for all the men have lost and can’t explain, the emptiness that replaces their boyish wonder, the flat ferocity essential for survival.Twice, thinking about girls back home results in men letting down their guard, and someone dies. Romantic fantasies offer brief respite from ugly realities, and the men strive to keep that little spark of goodness alive in themselves, despite all they experience. Even so, protecting that spark can’t be constant or conscious. Just as the photo of a girlfriend must be tucked into a pocket, so must the sweetness in a soldier’s character hide for him to survive the horrors of war.