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In "The Things They Carried," women play a supporting role, not seen, but very much on the mind of the men. Lieutenant Cross, although he is in charge of his men's safety, he is also distracted thinking a girl, Martha, who writes letters to him. They are just friends, but Cross imagines that there could be more between them and these thoughts transport him from the battlefield to the sandy beaches of New Jersey, in his mind.
"As hard as he tries to concentrate on Strunk and the tunnel, Cross can think only of Martha, imagining the two of them together "under the white sand at the Jersey shore.’’ Strunk finally emerges, ‘‘filthy but alive,’’ but ‘‘right then Ted Lavender is shot in the head on his way back from peeing.’’
As a result of his daydreaming, Lieutenant Cross feels responsible for the death of one of his men, Ted Lavender.
Another important note about the role of women is that they are viewed as releases or escapes or sex objects. Women keep the minds of the men off of what they're doing, which is horrifyingly difficult and trying. Lt. Cross uses Martha as an escape from the horrors he sees, among other things. She also prevents him from being the kind of leader he needs to be for his men. Luckily, he realizes this later on in the book, but not until Ted Lavender is killed.
Another woman character that we see briefly in this story is O’Brien’s daughter Kathleen, although touched on very briefly. She is brought up at the end of Chapter 2; Love. O'Brien recalls Kathleen asking her father why he doesn't write stories about love and belonging; a kind of happy story with a happy ending. O’Brien uses this to show that not all stories do and will have happy endings, and you sometimes just have to accept the cruelties of humans and human nature. He is referencing the earlier part of this chapter when talking about Lieutenant Cross and his relationship, or lack thereof, with Martha.
There are definately different roles of women in the things they carried, but i think the only main role that those who answered before me didn't mention, was that women represented the part of life that soldiers were losing by being soldiers.
All the soldiers were young, before marrying age, and instead of being home, and being able to meet and marry the women and become part of the average suburban family with 2.5 kids, they were in Viet Nam, often times regressing to deal with their problems. The women they knew had lives that the soldiers couldn't, with men who weren't soldiers. They were moving on while the soldiers had to deal with moving forward. For instance, Sally, is completely one dimensional, and all that's really spoken about her is the fact that she is married. Because she only serves the purpose of being unattainable and representing the lives the soldiers should be working toward.
No one yet has mentioned Mary Ann, who "came over clean and got dirty." Rat Kiley tells the story of Fossie who brings over his sweet seventeen year old girlfriend and loses her to the mystery and the horror or Viet Nam. She becomes fascinated by the land and the people and she says she wants to "eat it," even as she herself is consumed by it. She represents the girls at home who couldn't possibly understand what the men go through as they continue on with their lives back in America. The men feel these women could not understand unless they'd "been through it," so O'Brien brings one over and we watch her experience Viet Nam. Sure enough she changes so radically she is lost to Fossie and the other men forever, becoming an almost mythical creature who is sometimes glimpsed in the jungle gliding through the trees. She represents that "clean" part of themselves the men feel they lose forever in Viet Nam, their innocence and goodness.
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