What does Tim O'Brien say about heroism in his novel The Things They Carried?I wanted to know what teachers think about heroism in O'Brien's novel?

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karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The stories in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried seem to suggest that wars are fought by average men put into extraordinary situations. They are sometimes brave and admirable, of course, but much of the time the men are described as scared, tortured, or uninspired. In the title, for example, physical items are described along with emotions. Moreover, most of the emotions listed by O'Brien are not those we typically associate with the more romanticized version of war seen in earlier texts. Men are depicted as riddled by self-doubt and distracted by pleasant memories of home. They carry items that remind them of their lives at home, things that give them something to live for, but that can also distract them from their everyday scenarios. A great example of this is Jimmy Cross, a man who obsesses over his crush Martha. He tries to exist in memories of their brief times together by poring over her letters. Eventually, he blames himself for the random death of one of his men because he thinks he is not fully dedicated to his mission. He then rededicates himself to his troop, but O'Brien suggests that this comes at the cost of some of his humanity. 

Even when characters are seen as heroes by the world around them, they cannot convince themselves that what they have done is laudable. For example, in "Speaking of Courage," Norman cannot overcome his guilt for Kiowa's death. From the reader's perspective, it is not convincing that Norman is at fault, but he remains in a mental loop (and a physical one, as he drives around the same lake repeatedly throughout the story) of self-doubt and blame. On a superficial level, those around him in his hometown admire him for fighting in a war and surviving. However, Norman can only think about opportunities he missed to be heroic.

I think part of the point of O'Brien's short story collection is to call into question the automatic association of heroism and war. The physical brutality, and most of all, the psychological effects of war on the characters draws attention to the parts of war that those of us at home become skilled at tuning out. The story "How to Tell a True War Story" plays with the idea of realism that I think O'Brien is aiming for in the collection. He implies in that story, though, that it is impossible to tell a "true war story" because war is not an experience that can be accurately conveyed to someone who has not experienced it firsthand. At the same time, O'Brien's story seems to relay a more "truthful" perspective of what war actually entails, and heroism as we may think of it is a concept too simple for O'Brien's world. 

mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

O'Brien debunks male heroism in the novel.  In "On the Rainy River," he admits, "I was a coward, I went to war."  He feels extreme guilt in "The Man I Killed" and "In the Field" regarding Kiowa's death.

Instead, he idealizes the role of females as his ideal audience and, mythologically, as superior warriors (Mary Anne Bell) in the story "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong."

Tim O'Brien revisits the female warrior, albeit an American, in Mary Anne Bell, a seventeen year-old "blonde"..."kid"..."barely out of high school" who arrives in Vietnam wearing "white culottes and a sexy pink sweater" (O'Brien 90).  By the story's end, she becomes a phantom Green Beret assassin wearing a "necklace of human tongues," "dangerous" and "ready for the kill," a transformation that, according to the civilian reader seems overly-dynamic, but in the context of Vietnam war mythology seems plausible.

It is my contention that O'Brien intentionally writes Mary Anne's story so full of fantasy that her transformation cannot be rationalized by the (male) reader as much as intuited by the female (or at least androgynous male) one.  Intuition implies the spiritual, and Mary Anne's conversion is certainly a mystical one, as she becomes the prototypical warrior, an uncommunicative male who lives only for the hunt.


brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You can find heroes in any war, and they are usually the first ones to tell you that they don't consider themselves heroes.  In O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried, the author lets the reader decide what heroism was, and who best exemplified it.

If you take, for instance, the part of the story where they are drawing numbers to see which one of them gets to play "tunnel rat" for the day and crawl underground searching for Vietcong.  Are any of the men heroes?  Strunk draws the number which makes it his turn, and he does his duty, but was it because he was a hero?  Or just unlucky? He then emerges alive and unhurt, but does this make him brave, or just lucky?

The idea about heroism I walked away from the book with was that every soldier who showed up and went into the field in that story had the character of a hero.  Sometimes it was revealed, and sometimes not.  Some were more heroic on one day than the next.  And some were merely unlucky, killed by a sniper while returning from going to the bathroom.  Having involuntarily sacrificed his life in such an unremarkable manner, was Ted Lavender less a hero?  No way.  His name is on the Vietnam wall in DC just like the rest.  I think this is one of the things O'Brien was trying to tell us.

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The Things They Carried

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