Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425

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The story within a story within a story is a technique that removes the reader from the action, making the action less immediate and less verifiable. Emphasizing this effect, the story of Mary Anne is broken up at several points as Rat comments on the story. His comments point out some of the themes and also remind the reader that this is a story. The listeners tell Rat not to interrupt the story but to “tell it right.” Then, at the end of the story, the truth of the facts recedes even farther when Rat says that he did not see the end of Mary Anne himself but just heard tales about what might or might not be seen, heard, or felt by men going into the jungle. Mary Anne has left the world of fact and gone into the realm of myth.

Mary Anne’s transformation is pointed out by details of her appearance and manner. Pretty, friendly, and outgoing at first, the details of her appearance gradually change: She becomes careless of her looks and dress, cuts her hair, and begins wearing dark clothes—the fluffy pink sweater disappears, and she begins to wear army fatigues and a dark bandanna.

Communication is one hallmark of humanity. Mary Anne’s communication changes as the story progresses. Talkative and friendly at first, she goes so far as to learn some Vietnamese words and phrases. Then she gets less talkative, and even the pitch of her voice gets lower. The necklace of human tongues that she wears at the end is a final powerful symbol of the cutoff in communication between her and the civilized world. She tells her fiancé that there is no use talking. As a contrast in this final scene, she is once again wearing her pink sweater and white culottes, and at first appears like her old self—heightening the irony of how complete the transformation has really been.

The river, which appears in the title of the story, is a symbol of her change. At the point when she begins to change, she swims in the river, a kind of baptism. She emotionally crosses the river.

The story has elements of Magical Realism, the Latin American literary movement of the 1960’s that juxtaposed magical or fantastic elements into an otherwise realistic story. O’Brien has said that he admires the writers in this movement. Mary Anne herself is a figure of Magical Realism. Through Magical Realism, O’Brien emphasizes the essential mystery of life and the human inability to understand it.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 160

Bates, Milton J. The Wars We Took to Vietnam: Cultural Conflict and Storytelling. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Heberle, Mark A. A Trauma Artist: Tim O’Brien and the Fiction of Vietnam. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001.

Herzog, Tobey C. Tim O’Brien. New York: Twayne, 1997.

Kaplan, Steven. Understanding Tim O’Brien. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

O’Brien, Tim. “The Vietnam in Me.” New York Times Magazine, October 2, 1994, 48-57.

O’Brien, Tim. “You Can’t Talk with People You Demonize.” In Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, edited by Christian G. Appy. New York: Viking, 2003.

Schroeder, Eric James. Vietnam, We’ve All Been There: Interviews with American Writers. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Press, 1992.

Smith, Patrick. Tim O’Brien: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Taylor, Mark. “Tim O’Brien’s War.” Centennial Review 29 (Spring, 1995): 213-229.

Vernon, Alex. Soldiers Once and Still: Ernest Hemingway, James Salter, and Tim O’Brien. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004.

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