What exactly is the theme of Tim O'Brien's "Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?"

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This story that is set in the Vietnam War, a war in which for the first time, American soldiers could not clearly identify their enemy because not all of the enemy wore uniforms and they looked alike, the central theme is that of Existential Fear. In contrast to the other wars which Americans fought, Vietnam was one which many of American people opposed, and it was a civil war between the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese. Consequently, the side which the U.S. soldiers were defending against the attack of the Communism from the North Vietnamese, the Southern Vietnamese, looked the same since they were the same nationality. Added to this, women and children were known to have grenades and be guerrilla fighters. In such an environment of the unknown, fear waxed even more greatly than in previous theaters of war. This sabotage of the soldiers with the existence of guerrilla warfare increased fear even more. 

It is this all-encompassing fear of death that is thematic. Paul Berlin cannot overcome his fear no matter what methods he employs to push it to the back of his mind. After having seen poor Billy Boy Watkins have a heart attack because of his fear of death when his foot was blown off by a land mine, Paul cannot push the image from his mind. In fact, Billy's death haunts him so much that he becomes terrified for his own life. He tries to think of other things; he contemplates what he will tell his mother and his father after he returns to Des Moines, Iowa. 

But he would not tell how frightened he had been. 

Once they reached the sea, things would be better. They would have their rear guarded by three thousand miles of ocean, and they would swim and dive into the breakers and hunt cray-fish and smell the salt, and they would be safe. 

Repeatedly, Paul reminds himself that he will get to the sea and not be frightened any more. But, the image of Billy haunts him until he becomes hysterical in his fear, giggling uncontrollably.

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missjgoodwin's profile pic

missjgoodwin | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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I'd be focusing on the theme of war. The text suggests how underprepared the men were psychologically and highlights the fear that men experienced, despite being reluctant to admit as much. The protagonist spends all his time stumbling, searching for that elusive safety that he will never really achieve again. He tries many different things to manage his fear, like counting or making plans to clean his rifle, but there was nothing in his education that really prepared him for the experience of the Vietnam war. The importance of camaraderie or mateship in war is indicated through the character of Toby, who does his best to share his survival strategies. He also uses black humour to try to lighten the horror of their situation, but it almost backfires, highlighting how different people manage situations in different ways. The protagonist's uncontrollable giggling provides an insight into the depth of psychological damage he has sustained during war, even in such a short time. 

amirafergani's profile pic

amirafergani | Student, Kindergarten | eNotes Newbie

Posted on

  1. Fear – the major theme of this short story was to show how scary war was. Paul Berlin experienced his fears in through out the entire story. “Though he was afraid, he now knew that fear came in many degrees and types and peculiar categories…” and “I don’t wanna scare you. You’ll get used to it soon enough…” are quotes that express Paul’s fears.
  2. Courage – Paul Berlin learned that he would have to have to have courage if he wanted to overcome his fear of the war. Although he did not complete his goal of overcoming his fear in the story he learned how to overcome it and is closer to overcoming his fear. 
  3. Determination - Paul had to have determination to stay strong in the war. When he could have dropped out of the terrifying war, he decides to fight through it and not give up.

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