In the novel "The Things They Carried," what does Martha stand for or symbolize? 

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross was deeply in love with the image of a girl back home, Martha.  All through his tour, he thought of Martha.  He read her letters and carried them with him while on patrol.  As is common for soldiers far from home, and especially those serving in combat, Lieutenant Cross became almost obsessed with those images, with what he believed Martha was doing and, more importantly, with whom she was doing it.  The story of the pebble Martha sent Lieutenant Cross in the mail, for example, both touched and terrified him.  The pebble was a thoughtful gesture, but he became obsessed with the thought of who Martha was with when she found it:

"Martha was a poet, with the poets sensibilities, and her feet would be brown and bare, the toenails unpainted, the eyes chilly and somber like the ocean in March, and though it was painful, he wondered who had been with her that afternoon...It was phantom jealousy, he knew, but he couldn't help himself.  He loved her so much."

So immersed in thoughts of Martha was Lieutenant Cross, that his mind wandered when he should have been solely focused on the task at hand.  As a platoon leader, he was responsible for the lives of 30 men under his command.  Suddenly, Ted Lavender was dead, and Cross blames himself for losing focus.  O'Brien describes the scene as follows:

"He [Lieutenant Cross] felt shame.  He hated himself.  He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war."

In "The Things They Carried," Martha represented the kind of psychological baggage that can get men killed.  She was the psychological baggage carried by Lieutenant Cross, a distraction that interfered with his primary (unofficial) job of keeping his men alive.

teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As we ponder Lieutenant Cross's personal war experience, we are led to question his obsession with Martha. Even though Cross suspects that Martha's affection for him may well be illusory, he continues to think about her during the most inopportune moments.

After Ted Lavender's death, Lieutenant Cross burns Martha's letters and pictures. It's supposed to be a cathartic act, but it brings him little pleasure. Cross realizes that he both loves and hates Martha. He loves her because of his intrinsic longing for feminine affection. Yet, he hates her because he knows that his obsession with her virginity is pointless; it is nothing but a cynical attempt on his part to take his mind off the horrors of war. Lieutenant Cross's inability to process his feelings of disillusionment with soldiering is the real reason he has placed Martha on a pedestal.

Cross knows that his emotional connection to Martha is a mirage and that he can lay no claim to her love. However, he needs her; without his fixation, he is powerless against the barrage of horrific images that plague his vision. Thus, Martha represents a necessary distraction, a means of transcending the chaos, terror, and unrelenting violence of war. Unfortunately, while such a distraction is helpful on a psychological level, it also causes Cross to lose mental focus on the battlefield. The result, as is evidenced by the story, is deadly. 

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the novel, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is in love with a girl at home named Martha, and he carries photographs of her with him. When Ted Lavender dies, Cross blames himself for his death, believing that his love for Martha caused him to be negligent about watching out for his men. However, he knows that "she is not quite real" and that "she belonged to another world" (page 16). Martha symbolizes the way in which soldiers in Vietnam think of the world back home; it is desirable and peaceful but also unreal. Jimmy Cross constantly wonders if Martha is a virgin because he wants her to stand for something pure and innocent—the opposite of what he has been exposed to in the war. Though he realizes that she does not love him, he is obsessed with Martha because she symbolizes the innocence of life before the war. 

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The Things They Carried

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