In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien tells stories about the Vietnam War from the point of view of the character Tim O’Brien, who has friends, family, and stories completely separate from those of the author himself. Being a veteran of the Vietnam War, the character Tim O’Brien, unsurprisingly, tells these war stories from an exclusively male perspective. However, despite not being present on the front, women still feature rather prominently in the book and appear in almost every short story that O’Brien tells. In her essay “‘The Things Men Do,’” critic Lorrie Smith takes issue with the way these women are portrayed, saying that the book is aggressively gendered and that “O’Brien…seem[s] curiously unselfconscious about the book’s obsession with representations of masculinity and femininity.” This is true because, on the surface of The Things They Carried, O’Brien constructs a narrative in which women are, as Smith says, “objectified, excluded, and silenced” by soldiers and veterans of the Vietnam War. However, metafictious aspects of the text suggest that O’Brien is consciously using this exclusion to tell his account of the Vietnam War and to include female readers of today in this story.
Throughout the novel, a variety of surface-level symbols and images link women with innocence and wholesomeness. The very first page of the novel spotlights Lieutenant Jimmy Cross reflecting on a romantic interest named Martha, obsessing over her virginity and idealizing her life as a whole. Because Martha is only present through letters, Cross imagines her as anything that he wants, from “chatty” (1) to “lonely” (11) to “elusive” (16) and finally decides that she lives in a fantasy world. Like Martha, a similar emphasis on youth and innocence is applied to the “slim, hipless, young” Mama Burger waitress (145). These associations of women with innocence are an issue because in the course of the war the men come to respect experience and grit, not chattiness or youthful naiveté. Furthermore, O’Brien views the Vietnamese soldier in “The Man I Killed” with female characteristics, saying, “His eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman’s, and at school the boys sometimes teased him about how pretty he was, the arched eyebrows and long shapely fingers…” (121). He says this all with the assumption that it is the man’s first day in combat; war has not yet had time to “make him a man” so he is decidedly feminine. O’Brien seems to pity the man for his femininity, believing that his arched eyebrows and shapely fingers somehow discount him from having any chance at survival in combat. In his associations of women with innocence, O’Brien appears to be highlighting how distanced they are from Vietnam and from the soldiers’ reality.
This distance is further highlighted by the fact that some of the women seem to symbolize American patriotism. To remind them of home and life before Vietnam, soldiers of the Alpha Company become attached to photographs, pebbles, pantyhose, and anything else associated with the women they used to know. The result is that women themselves, even after the war, are heavily associated with America and life outside of the war. For example, Mary Anne Bell is introduced in the chapter “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” as a young, blond, American stereotype, complete with the red, white and blue of her “long white legs and blue eyes and complexion like strawberry ice cream” (89) Supposedly arriving with the daily resupply shipment, her entire existence initially seems to be aimed at improving morale. The theme of patriotism continues in “Speaking of Courage,” in which Sally Gustafson is described as wearing “a lacy red blouse and white shorts” outside of her blue house—an odd outfit choice, as she is supposedly mowing the lawn (133). These associations of women with innocence and home may seem benign at first. However, since women are associated so closely with home, it becomes easy for the men to believe that they could never understand a place and situation as remote as Vietnam. Associations of women with patriotism become even more of an issue as the soldiers grow to hate the American chauvinism that keeps them in Vietnam.
American women are not present in Vietnam to correct the men’s thoughts, they begin to have real implications in the way the soldiers treat and discuss women. After his obsession with Martha prevents him from protecting Ted Lavender from a bullet, Jimmy Cross blames Martha for his death. As a character, Martha is two-dimensional to Cross, and therefore easy to silence, to hate for her involvement in Lavender’s death even when she was thousands of miles away. Although Cross realizes his fallacy, he comes to a solution that promises her otherness: “Henceforth, when he thought about Martha, it would be only to think that she belonged elsewhere” (23). Thus, the first chapter ends with the Cross’ conclusion that women do not have a place in war. Later in the book, multiple soldiers make comments suggesting that in addition to not having a place in the war, women are unable to understand it. Mary Anne, for example, apparently visits a Vietnamese village like “a cheerleader visiting the opposing team’s locker room” (92). Even when not discussing or thinking about specific women, soldiers will periodically come up with remarks such as, ““Nobody listens. Nobody hears nothin’…Your girlfriend. My girlfriend. Everybody’s sweet little virgin girlfriend” (73).,The reader is never given any obvious evidence to contradict these conclusions since no stories are told from the female perspective.
After the war, the way that the veterans of Alpha Company view women continues to have problematic results. In “Speaking of Courage,” Norman Bowker imagines trying to tell Sally Kramer the story of the night in the “shit field,” but thinks that she would be too offended by his vocabulary to understand the facts of the story. Without even speaking to her, Norman decides, “Clearly…this was not a story for Sally Kramer” (139). Later on, similar assumptions about women’s perception of war are connected to the Mama Burger waitress. “Speaking of Courage” makes it clear that Norman is suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, and desperately needs someone to understand him. The Mama Burger waitress, not knowing this, treats him like any other customer: she’s slightly rude about his failure to use the intercom, but understandably asks no questions about his life or his evening (145). However, when her coarse manner is contrasted with Norman’s loneliness and isolation (which are quite obvious to the reader), she comes across ignorant and insensitive. Even Tim O’Brien’s character seems to agree with the idea that women don’t understand war. In “The Things They Carried,” he claims that the people who misunderstand his story of the baby buffalo are always female, and says of one such woman, “I’ll think, You dumb cooze. Because she wasn’t listening” (81). The character O’Brien explicitly expresses anger at women and suggests that, even worse than not having the ability to appreciate war stories, they have no desire to do so. In addition to women being objectified and silenced in the course of the war, they seem to be excluded from understanding the war in its aftermath.
Lorrie Smith believes that, by telling stories from an exclusively masculine perspective, in which women are “objectified, excluded, and silenced,” O’Brien is closing off his book from female readers. Her conclusion is an easy one to make: if soldiers of Vietnam, including Tim O’Brien himself, claim that women cannot fully understand or grasp a war story, what place do women have reading The Things They Carried at all? The issue with Smith’s easy conclusion is that the book itself is not so simple. Much of the meaning of the rest of The Things They Carried is revealed through complex metafiction, and the gender dynamics are no exception to this. A reading of the text that incorporates metafiction suggests that O’Brien is perfectly aware of these gender dynamics. Therefore, while the stories contain sexism, The Things They Carried itself is not sexist.
The first and most important metafictional element of the text is the fact that the author of the story, Tim O’Brien, is completely separate from his character of the same name. While Tim O’Brien the character may have slight sexist tendencies, Tim O’Brien the author does not necessarily. One notable example revolves around the use of “cooze” as a derogatory referent to a woman. Although the character Tim O’Brien copies Rat Kiley’s language, calling the woman who doesn’t understand the story of the baby buffalo a “dumb cooze,” there is a metafictious nod to Rat’s obscenity when O’Brien says, “He does not say bitch. He certainly does not say woman, or girl” (66). Here, the author of this line is fully conscious of both Rat and O’Brien’s problematic language. Although there is no way to know which Tim O’Brien this line is coming from (author or character), it seems reasonable that the author is the one speaking to the obscenity of Rat’s words, as the character goes on to use the word “cooze” without hesitation. This gap between the character’s views and the author’s views accounts for the various paradoxes in the treatment of women: while the character may blindly incorporate sexism into his behavior and worldview, the author clearly does not.
The contrast between author O’Brien and fictional character O’Brien is most clearly apparent in Mary Anne Bell’s story, which seems to epitomize nearly every paradox of the women that exist in the story world. At once, Mary Anne is portrayed as both strong and weak, quick-witted and naïve, smart and insane. It seems impossible for one man to hold so many different views on one woman, but if we again observe the extradiagetic level of the text, then there are really two Tim O’Brien’s speaking. In Rat’s story, Mary Anne actually defies the stereotype of innocence and patriotism pushed on her and the other women. Although a reader could interpret a small psychotic break due to the war, Mary Anne understands it and is arguably more successful in her navigation of the war than any of the men. When she is finally given her own voice and dialogue in the story, she uses it to tell Mark Fossie, “You just don’t know…You hid in this little fortress, behind wire and sandbags, and you don’t know…” (106). Mary Anne comes to enjoy the war and make it her own, while the men remain pawns in the political game that they hate so much. In the end, Mary Anne is one with the land of Vietnam, freely roaming while still in her pink sweater and culottes. Her clothing suggests she did not need to become masculine to understand Vietnam: war did not make her a man, but it did make her a woman.
Despite Rat’s insistences that the story is true, the fictional Tim O’Brien and the other soldiers seem to dismiss the idea that Mary Anne could possibly become a fighter. Instead, they hold onto Mary Anne’s “bubbly personality” and “terrific legs,” calling her the “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” even when it becomes clear that she is far removed from this title (90). Although the soldiers accept other absurd stories for their story-truth, they question and nearly dismiss this one. In response to this, Rat blatantly accuses the other members of the Alpha Company of sexism, saying, “What’s so impossible about that? She was a girl, that’s all…You’ve got these blinders on about women. How gentle and peaceful they are…You got to get rid of that sexist attitude” (102). The author’s attitude towards women, which seems to come through in Rat’s story of Mary Anne and his discussion of women, seems to contrast with the characters in other instances as well. For example, both Linda and the dancing village girl appear to have some secret knowledge that the men cannot understand, flipping the character’s stereotype that women are always the ones to misinterpret. The paradox between the author’s treatment of Mary Anne (through Rat) and other women, and the fictional Tim O’Brien’s treatment of her suggests that the author is trying to tell a story of women different from the story of their innocence and ignorance. The soldiers are simply so entrenched in stereotypes that they cover up this story.
The disparity between the author’s views and the character’s views is further revealed in the fact that Kathleen, the character who stands in for the “listener” in many stories, is female. The character O’Brien occasionally frames his stories as though he is speaking to Kathleen, saying, “Here I want to pretend she’s a grown-up. I want to tell her exactly what happened, or what I remember happening, and then I want to say to her that as a little girl she was absolutely right” (125). Kathleen is the character who accompanies her father on his post-war trip to Vietnam, and because certain details of this trip are so unbelievable (such as the fact that this trip is Kathleen’s birthday present), the author is more likely suggesting that Kathleen accompanies her father in his journey of remembering the war, just as the reader is doing. She also constantly asks the questions which many readers are likely wondering, such as “What did you want [in the war]?” (172) and “Did you ever kill anybody?” (175), which push the stories of fictional O’Brien further than they would have gone otherwise. Since Kathleen seems to be the character’s only child, the author O’Brien is the one with control over the gender of this listener. The fact that he chooses a female to stand in this important position is direct evidence that the author includes and invites women into the telling of his story, even though his character may not.
If the author wants to include women in his narrative, then creating a slightly sexist character seems contradictory to this goal. However, O’Brien is not simply trying to get across his opinions of war, he is attempting to tell a true story of the war, which includes its gender dynamics. These dynamics, historically, did include the objectification, silencing, and exclusion of many women. This does make the text uncomfortable to read at times, but O’Brien warns us that true war stories will be uncomfortable, saying, “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done” (65). The author has therefore created a slightly sexist character in order to more fully illustrate the discomfort of gender relations in the war, not because he applauds this sexist behavior or is unconscious of it.
Lorrie Smith ends her critique of The Things They Carried with the conclusion that the book “offers no challenge to a discourse of war in which apparently innocent men are tragically wounded and women are…excluded.” Likely, female readers do and will find the story uncomfortable at times with respect to the association of women with innocence, indifference, and insensitivity. However, one purpose of The Things They Carried may be to pose a challenge to this traditional discourse of war. Moving past the surface of the text, O’Brien’s self-awareness and metafictious techniques appear to highlight the treatment of women, helping the reader reflect on how war impacts gender dynamics—even women at home in America, who have not been drafted and never will be, are negatively impacted by the Vietnam War. Interestingly, this creates a paradox in itself: revealing female exclusion from the Vietnam war actually results in female readers being included in the story, simply because the author is addressing this gender gap as another evil of the Vietnam War. Telling this story, and contrasting it with experiences of women like Mary Anne and Kathleen, opens up the story to female readers and creates a space for our own opinions and interpretation.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1990. Print.
Smith, Lorrie. “‘The Things Men Do’: The Gendered Subtext in Tim O’Brien’s Esquire Stories.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 36, Issue 1 (1994). Web. 2 Dec. 2016.