What is the role of women and girls in The Things They Carried? Examine the various female characters in the novel and explain what each may represent.

The role of women and girls in The Things They Carried is that they are symbols of civilian life and the comfort of home, at least according to the men. The female characters complicate this portrait with their unpredictable motivations and personalities.

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Due to the military being made up of men, women are associated with civilian life and home. This is most obvious with Jimmy Cross's obsession with Martha, a college classmate he dated before being sent off to Vietnam. For Jimmy, Martha becomes more than just a potential romantic interest: she...

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Due to the military being made up of men, women are associated with civilian life and home. This is most obvious with Jimmy Cross's obsession with Martha, a college classmate he dated before being sent off to Vietnam. For Jimmy, Martha becomes more than just a potential romantic interest: she comes to symbolize the safety of home and the promise of a future freed of the horrors of the war. Henry Dobbins wears his girlfriend's pantyhose on his body for good luck, and Mark Fossie invites his girlfriend Mary Anne to Vietnam in order to be comforted in her presence.

While a good many war-related stories before The Things They Carried retain uncomplicated images of women as angels representing home, Tim O'Brien complicates this idea by pointing out how these young men forget that the women they idealize are also human beings. Despite his persistent wooing, Jimmy eventually realizes Martha will never return his love and that hanging on to that false hope even puts his fellow soldiers in danger. She remains cordial but cold. Letting her go allows Jimmy to concentrate on surviving the war and helping his fellow soldiers to do the same.

While Martha is always safe at home, Mary Anne is transformed by her time in Vietnam: rather than remaining an untouched image of American femininity, she cuts her hair, foregoes fashion, and disappears into the jungle. Firstly, this subverts the expectation the young men have that civilian life will be the same as it was before the war. Secondly, it once again shows that women are individuals, just as drawn to violence and danger as the men.

Lastly, Henry Dobbins's girlfriend, while she never appears, is nonetheless significant to Henry. Even after they have broken up, he still keeps her pantyhose around his neck for luck, showing he is driven by superstition and desires any small shred of feminine comfort. This is a delusion much like the one that governs Jimmy Cross for much of "Love," only Henry never sees beyond it.

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