Why is the act of listening so very important in The Things They Carried?

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mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Not listening" is a common motif in the novel because O'Brien subverts the rhetorical dynamics between author, text, and audience.  The problem is between author and audience, or between speaker and listener.  There are listening difficulties between men and women, between veterans and civilians, within a homogeneous group of soldiers, in the pre-war stories, the war stories, and the post-war stories.  So, the stories in The Things They Carried, as a whole, are a way to reconstruct the message so that a new, younger generation of listeners can make sense of a senseless war.

Most war stories are written by male authors for a male audience.  That presents a problem: it's preaching to the choir.  Instead, O'Brien styles his stories for the least ideal listeners of the novel, Lemon's sister and the "dumb cooze" at the reading, so that he can reach his intended ideal listeners, Linda and his daughter, young female audiences.  Make sense?  Like everything else in the novel: it's a paradox.

O'Brien admits that that "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth" (179).  He's aiming this at Lemon's sister and the dumb cooze at the reading who thought the war story was just a war story (and not a love story).  The dumb coozes are literalists who think that war stories cannot be love stories.  These are the current "reality show" fans of today who don't understand the art of storytelling: paradoxical language, metaphor, irony, etc...

The “dumb cooze” audience reads O'Brien's novel for realistic depictions of war and conventional storytelling.  Critic Pamela Smiley, in "The Role of the Ideal (Female) Reader in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: Why Should Real Women Play?" 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." Her centerpiece is Mary Anne:

Mary Anne, in Vietnam, not only fails to "civilize," but is herself seduced by the war. It is not to a company of men that O'Brien's characters perform, but rather to ideal readers in the form of Lemon's sister and the woman at the reading. And instead of an act of uncompromising masculinity signaling the boy is now a man, O'Brien's character appropriates the feminine, becoming an androgynous fusion of pre- adolescent Timmy and Linda.

Other examples: Jimmy and Martha don't really listen to each other's letters; the recon op thinks they hear banquet sounds in the bush; no one will listen to Bowker's story of medals in his hometown; soldiers can't distinguish between "friends" and "enemies"; Tim won't listen to himself and instead goes to war.

In the end, he hopes to reach his ideal audiences, Linda and his daughter.  He wants to resurrect the dead out of love.  He wants to be able to "lie" about killing to his daughter and not have to feel ashamed.  By in large, aren't young people better suited to hear the "truth" in the form of "lies," anyway?

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The Things They Carried

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