What is a main idea on why the women were important in The Things They carried?I am writing an essay for class, and I have two main ideas on why the women were important in the book The Things They...

What is a main idea on why the women were important in The Things They carried?

I am writing an essay for class, and I have two main ideas on why the women were important in the book The Things They Carried.

Expert Answers
mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In The Things They Carried, women serve ironically as Tim O'Brien's main audience: he writes the stories so his daughter will understand.  Critic Pamela Smiley argues that O'Brien uses a series of female characters to de-gender war, appeal to the ideal (female) reader, and "re-define American masculinity."

In "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," O'Brien de-genders war by masculanizing Mary Anne.  When she arrives in-country, she is clearly female, a sexual other, a "novelty," who was "good for morale."  She is tied at the hip with Mark Fosse, effectively married, on course to "die in each other's arms."  O'Brien romanticizes her femininity, depicting her relationship with Mark Fosse as a Romeo and Juliet-like infatuation: "they were very much in love, full of dreams" and "they mooned over each other."  Soon she becomes domesticated, or as domesticated as a female can be in the bush, by "learning how to cook rice." Even though Mark Fosse is amazed that Mary Anne becomes "a different person," she is still within her role as female, but certainly on its periphery.

What begins to separate her from the male is what makes sustained jungle warfare problematic for the female: hygiene, or as O'Brien says, "the habits of the bush."  It is her physical environment (the country itself) which erodes her femininity and equalizes her gender.  Her baptism in the river is the catalyst for Mary Anne's adaptation from innocent female into war-like male.  Mary Anne survives swimming in the Song Tra Bong, whereas the innocent soldier, Kiowa, is swallowed by it.

After her swim, Mary Anne refuses to wear make-up, jewelry, or filed nails.  She cuts her hair short and wraps it in a green bandana.  After “hygiene became a matter of small consequence" she follows the "natural progression of learning how to use a weapon."  Her body too prepares for combat; her tall, big-boned frame and long legs "seemed foreign somehow"..."too stiff in places, too firm where the softness use to be."  In effect, Mary Anne becomes sick.  O’Brien’s purpose in creating the Mary Ann legend is to debunk the male warrior mythology that flourishes in the West (cowboys, Rambo, et al.) with the mysterious feminine warrior indigenous to Vietnam.  So says Smiley:

Mary Ann illustrates not just the release war brings, but also how women (and this is gender-specific) are "freed" when they travel outside of their culture and its definition of what it means to be a woman.  Think of Isak Denison and Beryl Markham and Alexandra David-Neel.  This is especially true in Asia, where Western women are accorded the status of honorary men.

Mary Anne in this sense has Eden all to herself.

As a piece of metafiction, even the story itself serves to parallel Mary Anne's primordial connection with the land, "Vietnam was full of strange stories."  I find "Sweetheart" very biblical, a creation story and a cautionary tale like the fall of man in Genesis.  Others might find it mythological, an homage to the epic heroines of Vietnam yore.  Smiley finds the story rooted in storytelling and gender.  For Rat Kiley, it is a means of heating up the truth.  For others still, it is escape.  It is O'Brien's mutli-faceted and paradoxical approach to character and story which allows "Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong" to flood its banks and envelop so many readers, despite its inherent unbelievability.


fmcmillan83 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Start by considering what these women represent. In times of war, women often serve as a distraction or a comforting presence. But based on your understanding of the novel, how do Linda, Martha, Mary Anne Bell, and Kathleen influence the male characters? Differences certainly exist amongst these women, but see if you can identify the traits that link them together.

Be careful to avoid making broad generalizations in your essay that you cannot support with strong textual evidence. I encourage you to go back to the book (sometimes you can use a summary of the text as a guide for finding information within a specific chapter) to examine these characters in greater detail.

Read the study guide:
The Things They Carried

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question